NORMAN — Sterling Shepard was 18 years old and already a high school football superstar the day he committed to Bob Stoops.
Sterling Shepard was 6 and entering his first flag football season the day Bob Stoops committed to him.
Stoops had yet to coach his first OU football game when a former Sooner receiver and graduate assistant coach suffered a fatal heart attack at age 35. Derrick Shepard died Aug. 4, 1999, leaving behind a wife, Cheri, and three young children, Ashleigh, Shelby and Sterling.
A few weeks later, Stoops and some of his assistants showed up at one of Sterling's first flag football practices.
“They were all rooting him on and coaching him from the sideline,” said Cheri Shepard.
“We were sitting on the bleachers, and coach Stoops said, ‘Cheri, I couldn't imagine what my life would've been like without my dad. ... Anytime Sterling wants to come to practice or check out games, he's welcome.' ”
Sterling became a fixture — on the Sooners' sideline, at practice and in the locker room after games — until NCAA rules prohibited him from doing so.
“None of us had any idea we'd be recruiting him someday,” Stoops said.
Thirteen years later, Sterling is a freshman receiver for the Sooners, who play their home opener Saturday at 6 p.m. against Florida A&M. He'll wear jersey No. 3, just like his dad once did
“I was always aware of having my arm around him whenever I could,” Stoops said. “I wanted him to know this was a special place for his dad, and for him to feel like he was part of it.”
A FAMILY MAN
Derrick Shepard was a standout OU receiver in the 1980s and, after his NFL career, became a graduate assistant under John Blake.
When Stoops was hired in December 1998, Derrick stayed on until he landed a full-time gig at Wyoming the next summer. Within a few weeks he was dead.
Stoops knew the man little more than six months when he spoke at his funeral, telling mourners at St. John Missionary Baptist Church why Shepard so frequently was late to work.
The Shepard family lived on the east side of Norman, but each morning, Derrick would drive Sterling to school on the west side before coming back to OU.
“He was concerned that would give the wrong impression,” Cheri Shepard said. “But (Stoops) said, ‘It didn't make us upset. We admired him for being a family man and being a good father.'”
When Stoops returned to his office, he put his handwritten remarks in the top drawer of his desk. There they stayed for more than 12 years.
“Thinking so much of Derrick, I couldn't get rid of it,” Stoops said.
‘OH MY GOODNESS; HE'S REALLY SPECIAL'
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.”