Making Them Proud

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One of my favorite memories as a kid is when my dad took me to the racquetball courts with him. While he played, I would sit on the other side of the glass wall and try to follow the little blue rubber ball as my dad blasted it around the court. My dad wasn’t a big guy — he was only 5-foot-10 — but to me, he was a giant.

He was my dad.

He was my hero.

He was so athletic, and a workout maniac. Those racquetball games would usually be his third workout of the day. And when he was done playing, he’d let me come in and hit the ball around a little. I didn’t understand any of the rules. I just went in there and smashed the ball as hard as I could to see how fast I could get it to bounce off the wall — to see if I could do it like my dad.

Afterwards, we would grab a bite to eat. When we got home, he would always say the same thing to my mom.

“The kid’s got some good form.”

He was always saying things like that. Whether I was throwing a baseball, dribbling a basketball, catching a football or swinging a racquet, he always said that I was naturally athletic. As a result, he was always coaching, always teaching. When we would watch football on TV, he wouldn’t let me just watch as a fan. He’d tell me to focus on certain players, like it was film study or something.

I was six.

My dad, Derrick Shepard, played five years in the NFL. By 1999, he had been out of the league for a few years and he was a graduate assistant at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops, who had just taken over as head coach. Years earlier, my dad had been a walk-on wide receiver at Oklahoma, where he won a national championship. His two older brothers also played for the Sooners. So even though my dad played for three different teams during his NFL career, when it came to college football for the Shepard family, it was all Boomer Sooner.

Then he got his first coaching break — an offer to be the wide receivers coach at Wyoming. In the summer before that 1999 season, my dad left Norman for Laramie while my mom stayed behind to prepare me and my two sisters for the move. We were planning to meet him after the season.

My parents had met in school at Oklahoma. My mom tells the story about how when she was a freshman and my dad was a senior, he’d always ask her out. But she’d never talk to him because — well, my dad’s from West Texas, so he was a country boy. It was the ’80s, so he had a Jheri curl, too. And whenever he’d go up to my mom, she’d say, “I’m not talking to you till you cut that Jheri curl off.”

So he did! He cut it off, took another shot at my mom, and she finally went out on a date with him.

The rest is history. My mom says he asked her over the phone to marry him. He called her up and said, “You wanna get hitched?” And she said, “Yeah, sure.” Or something like that … my mom tells it better.

But there was a secret my dad kept from my mom.

My dad had an enlarged heart. He had known about it for a few years, and his doctors had told him not to do anything too strenuous or anything sports related. But he’d been an athlete his entire life. Like I said, he was a workout maniac. Always had been. So when the doctors gave him heart medication, I guess he used it to keep his condition in check as best he could and went about his normal life, workouts and all.

Derrick & Sterling posed

About a month after he got to Wyoming, while the rest of us were still back in Norman, he was playing racquetball one night — most likely his third workout of the day — when he had a heart attack and died. He was 35 years old.

I know it goes without saying, but it’s tough losing a parent, especially when you’re young. It’s even tougher when you’re a young boy and you lose your father, and suddenly you’re the man of the house. I wondered, Who’s gonna take care of my mom? Who’s gonna protect my sisters?

Most of all, I wondered what my new, fatherless life was going to be like.

Suddenly a single mother of three, my mom moved the family 30 minutes up the road to Oklahoma City so we could be closer to my grandparents. Even though my grandparents were there to help out, she basically raised us three kids by herself. She worked her tail off every day, and she never complained. She was a rock.

She was my rock.

But there was somebody else who stepped in to fill the void left by the death of my father — someone who went out of his way to look after me, and in doing so, became a huge part of my life.

Coach Bob Stoops.

My dad never really got to see me play football. I started my first season of flag football a few weeks after he died, and I remember Coach Stoops and some of his assistants showed up at one of my practices. He hadn’t known my dad for very long before he passed. It was only a few months between the time Coach Stoops took over at Oklahoma and when my dad left for Wyoming. He thought enough of my dad to speak at his funeral, which I thought said a lot about the impression my dad had made on him in such a short time.

Coach Stoops comes from a football family. His three brothers are also coaches and they had all been coached by their dad in high school, so he knows what it’s like to grow up with a football dad and around a football program — the way I had been on track to grow up before my dad passed.

Coach Stoops wanted to make sure that I didn’t miss out on that experience just because my dad was gone.

When he came to my flag football practice that day, he told my mom that I was welcome anytime at Sooners practices or games — that the football part of my life didn’t have to die along with my father. It was an unbelievably gracious gesture.

And I took advantage.

On Field

I was just a kid, so I didn’t realize how special it was to get to stand on the sidelines and spend time in the locker room with the team. I just loved it. I went every chance I got. If you went to a Sooners practice or game, you probably saw me running around on the sideline wearing a number 3 Oklahoma jersey — my dad’s number — just having a blast.

Because of Coach Stoops, I got to experience football as a kid in a way that, after my dad passed, I never thought I would.

Coach Stoops also taught me about my dad — you know, the coach, the man he was after he dropped me and my sisters off at school every morning. He talked about what a hard worker my dad was. How he did everything with a purpose. How he treated everybody well and made everybody feel important, but that nobody was ever more important to him than his family.

I have some great memories of my dad from when I was a kid — like those nights at the racquetball courts, or throwing the ball around with him in the yard, or how sometimes he would randomly stop on the way to school in the morning and take me and my sisters out for doughnuts. But between my mom and Coach Stoops’s stories, even though my dad was gone, I was always learning new things about him.

That always made him feel alive to me.

***

I had to stop hanging around the Oklahoma football team once I got to high school because of NCAA rules. I had become a recruit, so I was only allowed to be around the program for official recruiting business. And even though I let the recruiting process play out and weighed all my options, when Coach Stoops eventually offered me a scholarship, it was a no-brainer that I was going to be a Sooner. I wanted to carry on the Shepard legacy.

I wanted to repay Coach Stoops for his kindness to me and my family over the years.

I felt really close to my dad during my time at Oklahoma — wearing his number 3 jersey, playing on the same fields he played on and in the same rivalry games he played in. I had an incredible four years at Oklahoma. It was everything I dreamed it would be as a kid, and more.

My only two regrets are that I wasn’t able to help bring the Sooners a national championship, like my dad did …

And that my dad wasn’t there to watch me follow in his footsteps.GettyImages-454400438

I put a lot of pressure on myself to build on my family’s legacy at Oklahoma, and I like to think I did the Shepard men proud. But getting taken by the Giants in the second round of the draft this year gave me a chance to take it to another level.

My uncles never played in the NFL, but my dad did, and I want to surpass what he did in the pros. I also feel pressure to represent Oklahoma well in the NFL. That’s very important to me.

There’s also the fact that I’m truly away from home for the first time in my life. I literally grew up on the sidelines at Oklahoma games. Putting on that OU helmet and stepping on campus in Norman was as natural of a transition to college as I could have imagined.

Now I’m in New York …

Well, New Jersey. But either way, it’s a loooong way from Oklahoma.

I remember one of the first times we all went into the city together, all of us Giants rookies.

You remember David Tyree? Of course you do. We call him DT. He’s the guy who made the “helmet catch” in Super Bowl XLII, when the Giants beat the Patriots.

Yeah. That guy.

Now he’s the Giants’ director of player development — basically, he’s a mentor. And he took all us rookies out to dinner one night at Mastro’s Steakhouse in New York City, right near Times Square.

I’ve never seen a traffic jam like that. It was like 6 or 7 p.m., and there were just so many people. The city was so big — but also so small … It’s hard to describe. I had just never sat for so long in a car that wasn’t moving. I was thinking, Man, how can it take us so long to go such a short distance?

New York.

That’s how.

***

One of the first things I did after I got drafted was look at the Giants roster. I knew I was not only coming into a situation where I’d be playing alongside Odell Beckham Jr., one of the best receivers in the game, but also that the Giants have a great coaching staff. So I knew I was going to be getting a great football education. But I wanted to see who the vets were — the guys who could teach me the off-the-field, how-to-survive-in-the-league stuff. Coming in, I thought I was going to have to go it alone.

I had always had somebody there for me, even after my dad passed. My mom was there to take care of me and my sisters. My grandparents were there to help her. I could call one of my uncles if I needed football advice. Coach Stoops and his staff were always there for me, no matter what I needed.

Now, I thought, I’m on my own.

That’s where DT comes in.

Every day after practice, all the rookies meet with DT. It’s like a daily orientation. We also have one-on-one time with him. He made one of the most iconic plays in NFL history, but he’s also a guy who survived in the league for six years. He played special teams — he did whatever he had to do, so he talks to us rookies about that side of the business, about doing everything we can on the field.

He has also turned out to be that veteran voice I was looking for when it comes to the off-the-field stuff. He played in New York, so he’s able to draw from his personal experiences and from things he saw firsthand to educate us on how not to get caught up in the whole New York City thing. He teaches us how to be pros in practice and on game day, as well as when we’re not at the facility.

The NFL used to have a rookie symposium that all the rookies who got drafted would attend. It was like a big seminar. Ex-players would come in and tell stories, teach guys how to manage their money, how to conduct themselves off the field — all that stuff.

This year, it was different. Instead of one big seminar for all the rookies, the league had a Rookie Transition Program, where each team held its own little rookie symposium. DT was one of the leaders of ours — we combined ours with the Jets rookies, since we’re all here in New Jersey — so me and the other guys were comfortable with the whole thing. I think the fact that we were all together helped us a lot. Between the meetings after practice with DT, rookie outings like the one to Mastro’s and all of us being together for the transition program, I’m going into my rookie season feeling like I’m already part of a family, surrounded by my brothers and guys like DT to help me out on the field and off.

Guys who can help look out for the Oklahoma boy who’s on his own for the first time in the big city.

I can’t imagine being in a better situation as a rookie.

DT always reminds us rookies that in the end, our time in the NFL will be such a short part of our lives, so we shouldn’t take it for granted.

I don’t.

I know from losing my dad at a young age that all of this could end tomorrow — football, everything — just like that. So, with a little help, I’m going to do everything in my power to make the most of every day and every opportunity, and to make everybody from my mom and Coach Stoops, to the University of Oklahoma, to Giants fans and my new Giants family — and especially my dad — proud.

shep

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