Six-year-old Sterling Shepard had just one question.
“Mom,” he asked through the tears, “can you fight?”
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It was the day of his father’s funeral and the young boy sat in his mother’s lap sobbing. He was worrying about so many things, confused by everything else. His developing mind was trying to grasp the finality of what had happened to his dad, his hero, the man who had seemed immortal to him, who he had looked up to more than anyone else. But most of all, he sensed the vulnerability his family was now burdened with.
He wanted to know that his mother, Cheri, would be able to protect him and his two sisters Ashleigh and Shelby if a burglar broke into their home. It was a job he always knew his father, the former NFL player Derrick Shepard, would fill. Now, after his fatal heart attack at the age of 35, there was a sudden vacancy.
Cheri had an alarm system installed at home to help ease those six-year-old concerns.
“That calmed him down,” she recalled.
As for the answer to his question, though, it would take another few years for Sterling to get his answer. It would come over time. Could his mother fight? As he begins his own NFL career with the Giants, a second-round draft pick as a wide receiver, Sterling now knows the answer to that question. She might not have had to throw any punches, but when it came to her family, she could brawl with the toughest of them. With help from the University of Oklahoma football program, which became a de facto day care service for Sterling, Cheri fought. And won.
“Facing that tragedy as a little kid, it’s a lot on a six-year-old, but having a mom that is as strong as my mom is, it made it a lot easier on not only me but my sisters too,” Sterling Shepard told Newsday this week. “She’s the strongest person I know. She took care of three kids on her own and managed to go to work and take care of us at the same time. I can’t thank her enough for it.”
PLAYING BOTH ROLES
Sterling Shepard is so often connected with his father. He attended the same college as his dad, the University of Oklahoma, and even wore the same number he did for the school: 3. Now in the NFL, he’s wearing 87 for the Giants, the same number Derrick wore for the Cowboys.
“It’s what they gave me and I guess it was a coincidence that my dad also wore it as well,” Sterling said. “I kind of wanted a number in the teens, but I’ll just rock with number 87.”
But it’s his mother, he says, who helped shape him into the man he has become.
“She played both roles for me,” he said of Cheri being both a mother and father figure.
Always, though, there was Derrick’s memory.
“Not having his dad, he had certain thoughts and ideas about what his dad would want him to do or be,” Cheri told Newsday from her home in Oklahoma City. “That’s why he worked so hard at football, because he knows that he can be close to him that way. I think he puts that pressure on himself to live up to his father’s ideals, even with his father not being here.”
He even wears one of his father’s gold chains around his neck whenever he plays football. A chain made of links, connecting Sterling to both his father and his mother. Cheri had been holding onto it while Sterling grew up, along with other items Derrick left behind.
“I told him he could have it when he was older and responsible, but he wanted to wear it,” Cheri said. “When he was 21 I gave him the chain and I thought, you know, he’s going to lose it in the locker room or something. But he’s been responsible with it, he’s held onto it. He wears it in games under his jersey. It’s just another father connection.”
Not that she needs to see Sterling wearing the jewelry to know the bond exists. While many scouts have compared Sterling to a young Victor Cruz, and there are similarities in his stature and the way he catches the ball, Cheri has her own scouting comparison.
“He does, he runs like him a little bit,” she said of Sterling and his father. “I can see him run, they run the same. And he certainly has his father’s competitive spirit. That’s what is most obvious to me.”
‘I’M GONNA MISS MY BABY!’
Derrick Shepard might have given Sterling his last name, but it is Cheri who has turned it into a verb and guided the young man through life. Not that he needed much of the staff. Sterling was always self motivated.
When he was in ninth grade and started two-a-day practices in high school, Sterling needed to wake up at 6 a.m. to be at the workouts on time. Waking a teenager at that hour can be an ordeal, but at 5 a.m. Sterling was already up and nudging Cheri out of bed. “I have to be on time,” he would tell her.
“He always worked really hard at whatever he does,” Cheri said. “If it’s school, if it’s football, he gives it his all.”
He graduated from Oklahoma after just three and a half years in December with a degree in political science. As a graduation gift, Cheri gave Sterling Derrick’s 1985 national championship ring.
“Any father would be proud to see their son set goals and go out and achieve them at this level,” Cheri said.
The hard work of raising Sterling is just about over, although for a mother that job never truly ends. These days, the toughest obstacle is being so far apart. Sterling will be at rookie minicamp on Mother’s Day, not with Cheri and the girls in Oklahoma.
“I’m getting used to the idea that he’s a little further away than Norman, Oklahoma,” Cheri said. “In my heart I think ‘Oh, I’m gonna miss my baby!’ But when I see him, pictures of him in his jersey, I just get chills all over. It’s so exciting that it’s overwhelming to me.”
She’s also trying to figure out a way to get to Giants games on Sundays and still be back at work in Oklahoma City on Mondays where she is a human resources director for Ascent Resources.
She and her daughters missed just one Oklahoma game during Sterling’s career, a freshman year contest in West Virginia. Other than that they were always in their seats early because Sterling would break away from pregame warmups and find them in the stands. He would point to them and they would blow him kisses.
It’s a tradition they will try to continue in the NFL. The opening game of Sterling’s career will be easy, it’s in Dallas. “That’s a no-brainer,” Cheri said.
Making it to the others? It’ll be a fight, but Cheri will do her best.
Just as she has done all of Sterling’s life.