Over the next several years, Stoops sent one of his assistants to find Sterling and bring him into the locker room after every game.
During a 2000 pregame ceremony honoring the 1985 national championship team, Sterling stood — wearing a No. 3 “Shepard” OU jersey — in place of his dad at midfield, receiving an ovation louder than any other honoree.
He watched countless OU games from the sidelines and became a regular at practices and in the locker room.
“I'd just be running around here like it was my house,” Shepard said this week, standing inside the Barry Switzer Center after practice.
All of that had to stop once Sterling hit high school.
“He couldn't be in the locker room, other than with other recruits, and we couldn't do some of the special things we had done before,” Stoops said.
“But by his sophomore and junior year, we're watching tape and thinking, ‘Oh my goodness. He's really special.'”
The visits and gameday perks became about recruiting, not about the relationship he had with Stoops and his staff.
“It was a weird transition, but I liked that,” Shepard said. “I wanted to be able to play football in college, and I wanted to be taken seriously.”
Stoops offered him a scholarship after Sterling's junior season.
“I remember telling him when we offered him that I didn't want to put pressure on him because of the relationship we have,” Stoops said. “He's got to want to come for all the right reasons.”
Intent on giving other schools a fair shot, Sterling waited about a month before committing to the coach who committed to him all those years ago.
‘WHAT I'VE ALWAYS WANTED'
Last winter, a couple weeks after national signing day, Stoops reached into his desk drawer and pulled out his notes from Derrick Shepard's funeral.
Stoops drove to the Shepards' home and presented them to Sterling.
“I didn't want to give it to him before he'd signed,” Stoops said. “I didn't want it to be any more pressure.”
Sterling Shepard didn't need to be pressured into playing at Oklahoma. Because of Stoops' 1999 commitment, Sterling experienced Oklahoma football in ways most little boys only dream of.
After all that, the only thing remaining that Sterling hasn't done at the stadium is play in a game. That comes Saturday.
“As a little kid, I always pictured myself running out of the tunnel in that number 3,” Sterling said. “I'm excited to get to this point because it's what I've always wanted, but now I want to make something happen.”