“He felt like he didn't have a protector,” Cheri said.
Derrick, after all, had always been there for his son. When Sterling played flag football, Derrick would be on the field. When Sterling played basketball, Derrick would sit him down after a game to watch other kids, pointing out what they did right and what he could do to improve.
Sterling wasn't even in kindergarten yet.
“He's 4 years old,” Cheri would say to Derrick. “This isn't the NBA.”
But the way his dad pushed him is one of the things that pushes Sterling Shepard today. He knows his dad would want him to do the early morning conditioning and the after-school film sessions and the extra work.
That was the sort of thing Derrick did.
He wasn't recruited to play football at OU. Not big enough to play big-time football. Not good enough either. But he wanted to follow in his brothers' footsteps as Sooners — Darrell had played quarterback, Woodie halfback — so Derrick walked on as a quarterback in 1983.
A year later, he'd changed to receiver and earned a scholarship.
Four years later, he left Norman with a national championship ring and a spot in the Sooner record books. He was the second-leading receiver in school history with 70 career catches, a mark that's since been left in the dust but was a huge number in the early '80s.
Sterling Shepard has watched film of his dad. Last week at the OU football banquet — the team has a Derrick Shepard Award, given annually to the team's best walk-on — the son saw some highlights of the father that he'd never seen.
He marveled at the images.
“I kind of resemble him, I guess, in some ways,” Sterling said.
His dad had a knack for breaking tackles, for getting out of tight spots.
Like father, like son.
Shepard became a do-anything for Heritage Hall. Last season, with an injury to sidekick Barry J. Sanders, he played receiver, tailback and quarterback in leading the Chargers to the state championship. This season, he stuck mostly to receiver, catching 73 passes for 1,243 yards and 17 touchdowns, but he scored another 12 touchdowns either on the ground, on defense or on special teams. He even had 80 tackles and five interceptions.
Every step of the way, he thought of his dad.
He memorialized him on his wrist tape before each game, writing RIP on one and DSHEP on the other.
“Still like a missing piece,” Shepard admitted.
He will never know what advice his dad would give him. He will never know what it would be like to talk after a big game or watch video together or go in the backyard and practice techniques.
He will never know either exactly what his dad would say about all that he's done, but he likes to think he would have his dad smile a time or two.
“I'm sure he'd be proud of stuff I've accomplished,” Shepard said. “Just my work ethic, too. I'm always working hard. I'm sure he'd be proud of that.”