Sterling Shepard receives affirmation from all sorts of sources.
He hears cheers from Heritage Hall football fans. He sees four-star rankings from recruiting services. He listens to can't-live-without-you recruiting pitches from college recruiters.
We are now adding our voices to the chorus, naming the senior receiver as The Oklahoman's Little All-City Offensive Play of the Year.
But there is still one man who Shepard wonders what he would think about what he's become.
Derrick Shepard, the former Oklahoma receiver, died when his only son was just 6 years old. It ripped a hole in Sterling's life. It created a void that will never be filled.
“Seeing other players with their dads and stuff, it's kind of hard,” Shepard said. “You can't help but sit there and think sometimes ... ‘What would he tell me?'”
The son, after all, plays the same position as the father and wears the same jersey number, No. 3. He even picked the same place to play college football.
He is proud to carry on his dad's legacy.
“He embraces it,” his mom, Cheri, said.
Derrick Shepard not only left OU as one of the Sooners' leading pass catchers of all time but also spent five seasons in the NFL, his last in 1991.
Soon after, he started climbing the rungs on the coaching ladder. Head coach at Webster Junior High in Oklahoma City. Strength coach at U.S. Grant High School. Graduate assistant at OU.
Then the summer before the 1999 season, he got his big break — a full-time assistant coaching job at Wyoming.
Because Cheri had a great job and two of the three kids were already in school, the Shepards decided that Derrick would go to Wyoming and the rest of the family would stay in Oklahoma.
A little over a month after he'd left, Cheri and the kids were at grandma's house for a cousin's birthday. The phone rang, and oddly, it was for Cheri. She listened to the voice on the other end for a few moments, then broke down.
“My older sister immediately knew,” Sterling said of sister Ashleigh, who is three years older. “It was weird. She said, ‘I think something's wrong with dad.'”
Derrick had been playing racquetball, something that he loved to do. He regularly took the kids with him for his regular Sunday morning games.
But as he played that day hundreds of miles from home, he collapsed and died of a heart attack.
He was only 35.
The news rocked the entire Shepard family, but no one took it any harder than Sterling. He wailed and cried for his dad, even at the funeral.
“I would have to rock him and rock him,” his mom remembered. “I could tell he felt like there was a void immediately.”
He asked Cheri all sorts of practical yet heartbreaking questions.
“What if someone breaks in our house?” he said to her. “Do you know how to fight?”
She reassured him that they'd get a burglar alarm, that everything would be fine, that his dad wouldn't want him to worry.
It didn't always soothe him.
“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.”