From Windsor Hockey Rinks To
The Seattle Seahawks Grid Iron
Story by Matthew St. Amand
Photography by Rob Mar
In his 1952 science fiction story, “A Sound of Thunder,” Ray Bradbury wrote about a character who used a time machine to travel back to the deep past. While in the prehistoric world, he accidentally stepped on a butterfly. Upon returning to present day, the central character found a startlingly different world. In the case of Windsor native, Dakoda Shepley, an errant on-ice punch during a hockey game when he was 15 changed the path of his life.
From a young age, there was no question sports would be in Dakoda’s future.
“When I was eight years old, I stood five-nine and weighed 185 pounds,” Dakoda says. I ask him to repeat that. Dakoda laughs. “That’s the size of some of the receivers on my team.”
T-ball was the first sport he played, but it didn’t hold his interest. Dakoda switched to hockey because a cousin had just begun to play. For the next seven years, hockey was Dakoda’s sport.
Upon entering Holy Names high school in ninth grade, every coach in the building sat up and took notice. Dakoda dabbled in football, but his focus remained on playing hockey for the Knights. The first person to encourage him to play football was business teacher, Rocky Leraci.
“I remember him walking me on the field while a football practice going on. He said: ‘Here, when you get a good hit on someone, you get a pat on the helmet instead of two minutes in the box.’ I liked that. It drew me toward the game.”
Dakoda continues: “I played football while playing hockey, but I never fully committed.”
Then, in grade 10, an on-ice tussle changed everything. Dakoda fractured his hand in a fight. The injury spilled over to football season, causing him to miss practices and games.
“The junior football coach passed me in the hallway and said: ‘What’s going on with your hand?’” Dakoda recalls. “And I said: ‘It’s broke. I can’t do anything… Do I even need to come to practice?’ And he was like: ‘Just give me your jersey.’”
Dakoda had his football jersey in his backpack and handed it over. That exchange shifted something in the matrix.
“Kicking me off the team in tenth grade because my commitment wasn’t 100 percent,” Dakoda says, “made me realize what I was losing. That shifted my commitment to 100 percent for eleventh grade football season.”
Dakoda played football for three years at Holy Names, and then received a scholarship to play at the University of British Columbia (UBC). There, he started in 31 of his 32 career collegiate games. In 2015, he was part of the team that won the 2015 Vanier Cup. In 2017, Dakoda played in the U Sports East-West Bowl, an annual postseason all star game that showcases the top U Sports football prospects eligible for the following year’s CFL Draft. The same year, he was named 2017 Canada West All-Star.
Following UBC: “I signed with the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent after attending Eastern Michigan’s pro-day, at the request of two NFL clubs.”
To an outside observer, it seemed that Dakoda had arrived at the Promised Land. New York, however, was a humbling experience.
“I realized I had a lot to learn,” Dakoda says. “They told me I was too raw to be on the team.”
His agent arranged for Dakoda to workout with a half dozen other NFL teams.
“All of December, I was flying every other weekend,” he says, “going to different teams. They all said the same thing: ‘Raw… Has the tools, but not using them to the fullest.’ After the last one, I thought: ‘This is the last straw. I need to be developed.’”
By that time, the CFL draft took place and Dakoda was selected fifth, overall, by the Saskatchewan Roughriders. That wasn’t enough for Dakoda. He needed to improve his game. There was only one person who could help him achieve his dream: offensive line guru, Duke Manyweather, in Dallas, who is recognized throughout the NFL as one of the best private offensive line coaches.
“Duke accepted me,” Dakoda says. “I am the only Canadian he’s worked with. Every year, he has 40 or 50 prominent NFL offensive linemen down there, and that was big for me to just learn from them. I’ve been going to Duke for three and a half years.”
With the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020, the once-in-a-century pandemic opened a window of opportunity for Dakoda that would not have existed, otherwise. After being nominated by the Roughriders as Rookie of the Year, the cancellation of the CFL season made it possible for Dakoda to play elsewhere. That’s when the San Francisco 49ers called.
“I was on the practice squad in 2020,” Dakoda says, “and I was active for two games.”
Making the transition to the legendary NFL team was a surreal experience.
“It was pretty sweet,” Dakoda says. “You know all the big name guys, like Jimmy
Garoppolo and George Kittle. Having a GM like John Lynch who is a Hall-of-Famer
is absolutely insane. The year I arrived, they were the reigning NFC champs, and I realized: ‘I’m on the team to beat!’”
If circumstances were not surreal enough, Dakoda says: “My first game was with
Dallas, which was kind of like full-circle for me… where I came to train with Duke and commit to getting back to the NFL.”
During that game, Dakoda found himself blocking Dallas Cowboy and fellow Windsor native, Tyrone Crawford, on a field goal kick.
So, having played high level collegiate football at UBC, training with NFL pros from across the league, how does Dakoda Shepley rate Windsor as a sports town?
“When people ask where I’m from, I say: ‘Windsor…the Factory’,” Dakoda says. “They laugh and scoff. Then I name the athletes and entertainers who come from Windsor: Jacob Robson in baseball, NFL players Luke Willson and Tyrone Crawford, countless hockey players. One of the coolest facts is that Shania Twain was born in Windsor.”
Football is not the only arena where Dakoda has drawn notice. He has been in a handful of movies, most notably Deadpool 2. “That was a weird string of events,” Dakoda says. “A production crew was taking pictures in my lockerroom at UBC and I asked if they were filming a movie. They said: ‘Yeah. You wanna be in it?’ I said: ‘Yeah.’” That movie was for the Hallmark Channel.
“Once you do that your info goes into a database where casting directors find people,” Dakoda explains. “I did a few other movies. Then, Deadpool 2 came along. At first, I was just an extra in the background, but then my role was upgraded to a featured person in the movie: Omega Red Prisoner. When I got the makeup done, other extras on set who were comic book fans were saying: ‘I can’t believe you’re Omega Red! You’re so lucky!’ I’m the only guy who ever played him.”
Still years away from his 30th birthday, Dakoda’s wild ride continues. He credits his perseverance and success to his family’s unwavering support.
“My parents are artists,” he says. “I grew up surrounded by music and creativity. Whether I was playing baseball, hockey, or football, my parents were all-in. I’m very grateful for that.”
The moving parts of the NFL never stop. Dakoda was acquired by the Seattle Seahawks and is practicing as Center for this season. One might wonder if there is a crushed butterfly on the bottom of his cleats.