Youthful connection binds Paden, Shanks
Not often does a football player get the chance to reunite with a fellow athlete from his youth and once again play on the same team, especially when the two played in California and are now in Arizona. For NAU receivers Khalil Paden and Austin Shanks, their journeys have led them to the Lumberjacks and the bond still remains intact.
Paden, a junior transfer who started his collegiate career at San Jose State before making the jump to Flagstaff, and Shanks, a senior who has been with the program all four years, share a connection extending back to their childhood playing Pop Warner football in Chatsworth, Calif. At 11 years old, the duo played for the Chatsworth Chiefs. Shanks raved of Paden’s football abilities even at that age and was there to look after his friend on the field.
“He [Paden] was like the head person on the team,” Shanks said. “Touchdowns, punt returns, he played quarterback. It was him pretty much doing everything. I played corner early and blocked — mainly for him.”
Like many childhood friendships, the two began to drift apart as they started new chapters in their lives, continuing their careers at different high schools in the Los Angeles area. But the two always kept in touch throughout the years.
“We weren’t as close as we went our separate ways, but I used to talk to him [Shanks] every once in a while,” Paden said. “I’d check in on him, see how he’s doing. I knew what high school he went to and I’d check on his stats.”
After not receiving the experience he envisioned at San Jose State, Paden decided to change his scenery and switch to NAU, but not before contacting his old friend.
“I transferred here in spring 2010 and I talked to [Shanks],” Paden said. “I knew Austin went here, and I knew if I transferred down I wouldn’t have to sit out a year. I told him to tell the coaches about me, let them know I was interested in transferring. He looked out for me and they offered me a full scholarship. I pretty much got here because of him.”
When Shanks was alerted of his old friend’s planned transfer, he knew that he needed to make it possible for Paden to wind up in Flagstaff.
“He already knew I’d look out for him,” Shanks said. “I’ve known him for too long to just brush him off. If he needs me, I’ve got him and vice versa.”
When Paden and Shanks hooked back up, they instantly rekindled their friendship and in the process, strengthened the connection.
“It’s crazy that I ended up coming here and now I’m best friends with Austin Shanks,” Paden said. “We were kids together and we went our separate ways, and somehow we ended up being best friends again. It was just a crazy experience.”
This season, Paden has so far been a major contributor, catching touchdowns in two games, including the only score of the season opener against Arizona. He has also piled up the receiving yards, becoming a reliable target in NAU’s passing attack.
“Him and Ify [Umodu] are making up the slack for while I’m out,” Shanks said. “It will be less pressure when I come back because they [opposing defenses] have to not just worry about me, but him and Ify. Looking good at receiver.”
Shanks has been sidelined with a hamstring injury and has yet to play in the Jacks’ four games. He is questionable for Saturday’s contest against Eastern Washington, but when he makes his return, his counterpart knows what to expect.
“I already know how much of an explosive player he is,” Paden said. “I can’t wait for it to happen because we’ve been talking about us lining up on the field together, [it] is going to be fun. During spring ball, we would always be like ‘this is tight’ when we were lining up.”
Their relationship also does not escape the coaching staff, particularly receivers coach Francis St. Paul, who has been with the program since 2007.
“You can tell they’ve known each other for a long time by the way they act,” St. Paul said. “We’ll have a play and they’ll mention something from back in Pop Warner. It’s good to see those guys work hard together and push each other. They both want to be the best, and they kind of compete with each other, and that’s good to see.”
As far as their talents on the field go, St. Paul definitely recognizes the different skill sets that Paden and Shanks possess.
“When Austin came in, he was a running back and actually played running back his first year because of some injuries,” the coach said. “But Austin kept working hard and became one of our best receivers. He’s a very good slot player and likes to have the ball in his hands to make plays. With Khalil, he’s more of a natural receiver. He’s more of a route-runner and understands receiver play a little bit better, probably because he’s been doing it a lot longer.”
No matter where their relationship goes, it is a pretty safe bet that either Paden or Shanks will be there to catch the other one.