Giants injured wide receiver Sterling Shepard on the field before...

Giants injured wide receiver Sterling Shepard on the field before a game against the Eagles at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Dec. 11, 2022. Credit: Brad Penner

They called it a season-ending injury. Sterling Shepard wasn’t listening.

Oh, sure, when he tore his ACL in late September in the third game on the schedule, he understood he would not be able to return to the field to catch passes for the Giants for some time. Given his age, injury history and a contract that expires at the end of this season, he also knew he might never be able to do that again.

But the wide receiver also knew he had more to give to the team than just running routes and scoring touchdowns.

His season may have been over as an active player, but the Giants’ season was just beginning.

So he stuck around.

He could have rehabbed from his surgery anywhere, but he decided to do it at the team’s facility. It allowed him to attend meetings, be a resource for younger players and even spend time on the practice fields during the daily workouts. It also allowed him to travel to road games with his guys and be on the sideline for just about every contest they played.

For a while, he was the only link to success on the team, the only player in the building who had been part of the team’s most recent playoff appearance in 2016, when he was a rookie. That’s since changed with the return of Landon Collins, but Shepard remains the only one who has witnessed with his own eyes this franchise coming full circle, from a playoff team to the worst combined record in the NFL over the next five seasons to a playoff team.

It’s what he envisioned when he made up his mind to remain a part of this team as an amalgam of coach, mentor, captain, cheerleader, motivator, brother. He wanted to be with them when his teammates got to taste that postseason umami he’d only nibbled on when he first came to New York as “Young Shep” playing with names from the now distant past: Eli Manning, Victor Cruz, Odell Beckham Jr.

And now that they are here — both he and the Giants — is it everything he thought it would be?

“Oh, yeah,” Shepard told Newsday this past week. “And more.”

It is, he said, a little like the evolution of Christmas morning in his life. As a kid waking up, it meant presents and toys and overwhelming excitement. Now, as a parent, it brings an entirely new sensation and appreciation, a different but no less fulfilling joy.

“You get to live it through them,” he said. “That’s pretty cool, too.”

So is being part of this playoff-bound team.

“My whole goal was to get everybody back to this point,” he said. “Everybody in their career should be able to experience the playoffs. This franchise has been through a lot of ups and downs, it’s been a hole, but now we’re back at it and it just warms my heart. I’m happy to see everybody happy around here.”

Those who know Shepard best are not surprised that he has been such a mainstay among them.

“That’s who he is,” fellow wide receiver Darius Slayton said. “He loves ball. I know it tears him up that he can’t play, but the closest he can get to playing is being around us and being energized by us, so we appreciate it.”

Said quarterback Daniel Jones: “A lot of guys in that situation wouldn’t do the same thing, would be checked out or come in from time to time and leave, but I think it says a lot about his belief in the power of his leadership, how real that is and how influential that is with so many guys. Him being around and being engaged, being here every day and energizing guys and being a spark, I think it says a lot about him as a person and as a leader.”

It’s hard to find a picture or a video clip of an on-field celebration from this season that doesn’t have Shepard right in the middle of it. He’d be the Where’s Waldo in the team’s photo album if he didn’t stick out so easily with his lack of a helmet and uniform.

“He’s the one slinging the towels around on the sideline,” Slayton said. “As a player, he was probably a little more tired, so maybe he didn’t have quite as much energy to do that, but he always played with passion.”

It’s difficult to think of a practice, even in the days right after his injury, when he wasn’t on the field tossing a ball in the air, whispering tips to receivers, taking a turn in some of the quarterback drills.

“He’s a got a lot to work on,” Jones scoffed at Shepard’s passing techniques, “but just stuff like that, staying involved, keeping guys loose and engaged, he’s done a really good job with that.”

As much as he does all of that for the team, though, he is doing it for himself, too. He saw the isolation that his buddies Beckham and Saquon Barkley went through when they were recovering from their ACL surgeries in recent years, and he had a little snippet of that himself when he tore his Achilles late in 2021. He wanted no part of that, certainly not this late in his career.

“Every ex-player, everyone who has played in the league, what they say they miss the most is being around the guys, so I want to cherish the opportunity I have to be around them and around the game,” Shepard said. “This is what I love to do. It’s not going to stop just because I’m injured. Obviously, I would rather be practicing. That’s what I love the most. But it’s fun out there. I still get to talk a little [trash], still get to interact with the guys, just be around the game.”

He’ll continue to be just as long as this season that for him technically ended in September goes on.

After that? He still plans on playing again and would love to be back with the Giants, following in his old quarterback’s “only a Giant” mantra.

“I want to go out on my own terms, man,” he said.

His rehab from the knee injury is going well. The time away from the rigors of playing also has allowed the Achilles to heal more fully.

“I’m getting stronger for sure,” he said. “It’s looking good.”

He hasn’t had any conversations with the Giants about his future, though, and the reality is this may be his last impact on the organization.

If it is, it will be a lasting one.

“I can still have an impact and not be on the field,” he said. “Guys come up to me with questions all the time just seeking advice on what to do on certain things, and that makes me a part of it, and that’s the reason why I love being here and being around the guys.

“It’s a bummer that I can’t go out there and be a part of it with them on the field physically, but I can mentally, and help in that way.

“I still have a job to do.”

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