Sterling Shepard: The Tattered Path to Stardom

Sterling Shepard, the New York Giants' rising star, had a very troubled path to stardom. Steven Plaisance recounts Shepard's tale of tragedy and triumph.

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August 4, 1999. When you woke up that morning, as you sipped your scalding hot coffee and prepared to begin your day, you had no idea. You had absolutely no clue how important this day would be. August 4, 1999, was no ordinary day. Perhaps the most noteworthy event of that fateful date was the loss of a life. Not just any life, though. On August 4, 1999, the world lost a husband, a father. It lost a Sooner great.  The world lost Derrick Shepard that day.

The Shepard Legacy

Shepard walked on to Oklahoma in 1983. He came out of Odessa High School as a quarterback but converted to wide receiver when he got to Oklahoma. Under head coach Barry Switzer, Shepard started at WR for three years. In 1985, he helped lead Oklahoma to a national championship. Shepard graduated from Oklahoma in 1987 and signed with the Washington Redskins as an undrafted free agent. He played for the Redskins for two years. With the Redskins, he won Super Bowl XXII in 1988. Shepard lingered in the league for a little longer, but his NFL career fizzled out quickly.

In 1999, Shepard, now a father of three, accepted a job as an assistant coach at the University of Wyoming. Shortly after, he suffered a heart attack while playing racquetball. On August 4, 1999, Derrick Shepard passed away. His three children were, at the time, just children. Nobody knew then that little Sterling Shepard, just six years old, would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a superstar.

Sterling Shepard began playing flag football just a few months after his father’s passing. Derrick never got to see Sterling play football, the sport they each love so much. Sterling continued playing football, but his elementary school teammates weren’t the only players he shared the field with.

Oklahoma Football Head Coach Bob Stoops never coached Derrick, but he knew him as a friend. When Derrick passed away, Stoops knew exactly what he could do to help the Shepard family. He invited six-year-old Sterling Shepard to participate in team activities. Sterling got to know the players and talked to Coach Stoops often. He got to go out on the field before games. When Sterling was most in need of a family, Stoops gave him one.

High School Phenom

Sterling attended Heritage Hall High School in Oklahoma City, OK. There, he began to truly shine. Shepard, a wide receiver just like his Dad, dominated in high school. He was listed as a 4-star recruit by 247sports. When it came to a college decision, it was no contest for Shepard. On February 1st, 2012, Sterling Shepard officially joined his second family. For the first time since 1987, a Shepard was going to play WR at Oklahoma.

Born a Sooner

From the very beginning of his Oklahoma career, Shepard made his presence known. When he arrived as a Sooner, he began to learn under established receivers Kenny Stills and Trey Metoyer. In only his second game of his freshman season, Shepard hauled in 3 catches for 48 yards. Expectations of this young receiver began to rise. Needless to say, Shepard turned plenty of heads during his freshman season. He recorded a total of 45 catches for 621 yards that season. these are very impressive numbers for a freshman, but many expected a steep increase in production.

Sophomore Slump, Sorta

Before the season, Shepard’s sophomore season seemed like somewhat of a perfect storm. Stills jumped ship for the draft, leaving the #1 WR spot wide open and calling Shep’s name. The talking heads pegged Shepard for a huge season. Instead, Shepard fell back in the production due to a logjam of young receiver talent. Throughout the season, Shep was overshadowed by transfer Jalen Saunders. Oklahoma capped the season off with a 45-31 upset of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Oklahoma and Shepard both finished the season on a very high note. Shep tallied 51 total catches for 603 yards on the season, a slight dip from last season. It’s not really accurate to call this a sophomore slump: Shep still finished as the second-leading receiver. However, given the expectations, Shepard underwhelmed in 2013. That would be the last time Shep failed to meet, or even exceed, expectations.

The Sterling Shepard Show

In many ways, Shepard’s first two seasons were like an appetizer. He tantalized our taste buds at every turn, teasing the main course. Like the previews for the movie, showing some great moments but saving the best for the real show. Fleeting flashes of brilliance were overcrowded by mistakes and moments of mediocrity. Every so often, Shepard would do something truly incredible, forcing supporters and critics alike to rethink and re-imagine the boundaries of his potential.  And like clockwork, Shepard would follow up with a boneheaded play or a foolish error, reminding everyone that he’s still just a kid. Well, that kid grew up. The previews ended, and the main course arrived. For Sterling Shepard, it was show-time.

It might be an understatement to call 2014 a lost year for Oklahoma. Ranked 4th in the nation to begin the season, the Sooners fell way short of expectations, finishing 8-5. QB Trevor Knight went from Heisman hopeful to bench-rider in 8 weeks. Perhaps the worst season of Bob Stoops’ career, 2014 had only a few bright spots. By far the greatest of these was Shepard, the kid who not only reached his potential but blew the expectations out of the water.

One play, in particular, illustrates Shep’s fantastic season near-perfectly. In early November, a downtrodden Oklahoma team traveled to Ames, Iowa for an early-morning matchup with the Iowa State Cyclones. On Oklahoma’s first offensive play of the game, Knight tossed a deep ball into double-coverage, looking for Shepard. Shepard leaped into the air, beating out two defenders and defying logic in the process, and hauled in a 47-yard gain. When he sprung up with the ball, Shep limped around momentarily before falling back down. He had suffered a groin injury. In the midst of a lost season, in the beginning of a game that really didn’t matter, trying to catch a ball that he shouldn’t be able to catch, Shepard put his health on the line for the sake of his team. This is truly symbolic of how Shepard played. He always gave his 100%, no matter the circumstances.

Shepard finished the injury-shortened season with 51 grabs for 970 yards and 5 touchdowns, in just 11 games. He recorded the same number of receptions as the previous year but tallied over 360 more yards. Shep stepped up his production in a big way, and just in time for his senior year, everything was coming up Sterling.

For Shepard’s victory lap around Own Field, the stars seemed to align. Shepard got fully healthy and avoided injury problems throughout the entire season. A new sheriff rode into town, in the form of transfer QB Baker Mayfield. Oklahoma’s defense effectively retooled and was ready for a big season. So, the table was set for Shepard to have that monster season which everybody was anticipating. Did he disappoint? Of course not. After all, he’s Sterling Shepard.

Shepard’s final season was like one giant work of art. A masterpiece, a magnum opus, if you will. Whether he was leaping over defenders or hauling in beautiful bombs, Shepard was making monumental plays at every corner, stroking his paintbrush around the canvas like Van Gogh. He finished his dominant season with 86 catches for 1288 yards and 11 touchdowns. The world finally saw what Shepard can do. On the biggest stage, Shep shined brightest. And when all was said and done, the world took a step back and started in awe at that beautiful work of art.

New York Football Giant

What better place for a star to shine than New York City? When it came time for Shepard to move on to the next level, the Big Apple called his name, literally. The New York Giants selected Shepard with the 40th pick of the draft. He was the 4th receiver to come off the board, and he got a pretty great new home. Lining up alongside young supernova Odell Beckham Jr. and seasoned veteran Victor Cruz bodes well for Shepard’s early years. And his quarterback is no slouch either: two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning accompanies Shep in the Meadowlands.

The beginning of Shepard’s NFL career has been impressively efficient, but nothing incredible. He’s been clutch and consistent, but we’re still waiting for a true breakout game from the young sensation. Sounds like the early stages of his college career, huh? If we’ve learned anything from Shepard, it’s that his work ethic and commitment are matched by no one. He’s not a superstar yet, but don’t be surprised when he becomes one. Shep’s intangibles are capable of turning this bona fide OROTY candidate into an MVP candidate in the blink of an eye. Through his father’s legacy and his natural talents, through his hard work and determination, Sterling Shepard is a star. He’s only beginning to really shine.

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