It’s the dream of many kids who grow up in Oklahoma to one day be a member of the Oklahoma Sooners. To wear the crimson and cream and run out that tunnel.
For senior wide receiver Sterling Shepard, though, it has always felt a little bit different than the rest of the pack.
His story has been well-documented by now about how the program, namely head coach Bob Stoops, became a father-like figure for Shepard following the unexpected death of his father, Derrick Shepard, in 1999.
A young boy without a father, but he always had a home in Norman. It wouldn’t last forever. It couldn’t. As nice as the story had been through his early school years, eventually Shepard was going to grow up and start carving out his own legacy.
Funny thing is it just happened to occur at OU. The final Shepard to go with his father and two uncles who were also Sooners, and arguably the best one of them all.
Sterling Shepard would always attend OU home games growing up. The Sooners were never going to abandon him. But there had to come a time in high school when it had to get real.
Shepard could no longer be the feel-good story of the Sooners but had to turn into a legitimate future OU player for the story to continue.
Stoops knew that, too.
“Yeah, once I started watching his tape, paying attention to him as not just, ‘Hey, let’s watch how Sterling’s doing,’ it’s, ‘Let’s watch Sterling the recruit,’” said Stoops earlier this season. “I felt it before everybody, of course, and maybe I’ve got better judgment than everybody but I wanted my coaches to come to the same conclusion that this is a guy we’ve got to have.
“Oddly, initially, the defensive coaches wanted him first. Then finally I got the offensive guys to realize how good he was, and they came around and realized it too.”
Perhaps it was that offensive-defensive fight that delayed the offer. His mother, Cheri Shepard, said she never doubted for a second her son was going to follow in her husband’s footsteps. She couldn’t envision any other scenario for his football career.
However, as Shepard entered his junior season at Oklahoma City Heritage Hall, he was still a borderline OU recruit.
An exceptional performance in the 2010 Class 3A state title game put Shepard on the map. He rushed for 197 yards and scored all four touchdowns in the second half of a 28-21 win against Kingfisher.
The state recognized, just not the school everybody thought.
“Oklahoma State was my first one,” Sterling Shepard said. “And then they started rolling in. I didn’t know if it (OU offer) was coming. They had their reasons. I guess they wanted to check on the film. They told me after that they were sorry they waited.”
Better late than never, though, right? Shepard didn’t hesitate to commit to the Sooners, and he’s lived up to the hype and then some in his four seasons at OU.
His name is plastered all over the OU record books. At 226 receptions, he’s second to Ryan Broyles for most in a career at OU. His 3,395 yards also rank second, only trailing Broyles. He’s third all-time with 26 receiving touchdowns.
The list could go on. Twelve 100-yard receiving games and one 200-yard game in his career. All that’s missing is a national championship. Shepard and the Sooners’ quest for that one continues Thursday against top-ranked Clemson in the Capital One Orange Bowl.
Or should it be said all that’s missing is one national championship of his own. As a graduation present earlier this month, Cheri Shepard surprised her son with his father’s 1985 national championship ring.
She had always promised him the ring. It was just about waiting for that right moment. Mother and son agree this was the perfect time.
“It’s funny you ask that question,” Cheri Shepard said. “It was just a few days before, and I was thinking what gift could I give to him. He’s not a high maintenance kid. He didn’t really want anything for Christmas.
“But I was thinking. He’s going to be on his own. This is like his threshold into manhood. His father can’t be here, but it’s a reminder of his dad. They’re in the final four. It’s 30 years later. It was perfect.”
Cheri said Sterling had to turn away upon getting the ring to compose himself and his emotions before looking at his mother again.
OU fans have felt like they’ve seen Shepard grow up before their eyes. People in recruiting remember the sophomore who suffered two concussions and had no idea if he would have a future at the next level.
Remember how it almost felt like he went from serviceable player one day into a superstar the next – doing all the little things to become the best he could be. Remember his incredible competitive fire and ability to make big-time plays in big-time moments.
Even as a freshman at OU, he fit in. And the last three years it’s hard to fully illustrate what he’s meant to the program and to OU’s passing game.
“That’s my brother,” receiver Dede Westbrook said. “That’s my bro. His mom, Cheri, that’s my momma. That’s the sort of relationship we’ve developed. At first he was a friend. Now since we’ve gotten to know each other and each other’s background and story, he’s like a brother to me.”
Cheri believes there’s an easy reason to pinpoint why Sterling has developed such serious friendships with teammates.
She said Sterling grew up without his father. Even though Sterling thinks of Derrick every day and honors him in any way he can on and off the field, that physical presence is not there.
He grew up in a female household even if Cheri had the strength to play both the mother and father role. And he has two sisters, one older and one younger. Getting to college and connecting with teammates is something he had been waiting for.
No friendship is a better example than the one forged between Shepard and fellow 2012 class member wide receiver Durron Neal.
“We both never had that brother-like figure in our lives,” Neal said. “That guy who does the same stuff as you, likes the same stuff as you. It’s just a special connection.”
One that started in the recruiting process and has carried over in four seasons in Norman and will most likely continue the rest of their lives. They’ve been roommates since day one and never got sick of each other. Their bond has only grown through the years.
Struggles on the field, off the field, they always knew they could count on each other.
Senior night would eventually come as OU outlasted TCU 30-29 on that evening. All Cheri could think about was how proud Derrick would have been of their son.
“He would have really loved that moment,” Cheri said. “Even though he never got to see him play one down of football, we know he’s watching.”
Older OU fans might always remember Shepard as Derrick’s son, but the younger generation is now going to be dreaming of being No. 3 and being like Sterling.
Shepard had one heck of a path to follow, trail to blaze, but he did it. Representing his family 100 percent of the way, he added to the Shepard legacy, while starting one of his own.
“More than anything, I think my proudest moment is that he accomplished what he wanted to do,” Cheri Shepard said. “He made his own mark. He’s leaving his own legacy. I’m proud of him getting his degree in three-and-a-half years instead of four. All the hard work he has put in. It’s all paid off.”