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January 25, 2013

Cheri Shepard watched as Sterling's path led to OU

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Cheri Shepard didn't plan this.

She didn't plan to become a single mom. She didn't plan to raise her 3-, 6-, and 9-year-old without their father, Derrick Shepard.

"When their father passed, I wanted to ball up and cover my head and get in bed and sleep," Cheri said.

She could have done just that. Cheri could've let herself become engulfed with grief and wandered through a widow's fog until she found her way. But Cheri didn't. Cheri wouldn't.

SCOOPHD: STERLING SHEPARD PLAYS FOR FATHER AND MOTHER

No one would have blamed her if she retreated into herself in the summer of 1999. No one would've recused such an action. Not then. Not now. No one except her children, Ashleigh Shepard, Shelby Shepard and Sterling Shepard.

So Cheri took them on trips. The four of them traveled as much as possible, and she made sure her kids knew their family and grew up in her hometown, Oklahoma City.

"I thought I just have to put on a happy face, and basically keep going," Cheri. "I told them that. I said it's really sad that we lost your dad, but he would want us to be happy and have a lot of fun."

And they did. Cheri remembers the games she played with her kids at home. Like the time Cheri heard her children playing in the house with the family video camera. One of Cheri's daughters played director while filming Sterling running plays and reliving the 2000 BCS national title game.

"I'm Torrance Marshall," Sterling says.

"You guys cut it out," Cheri says.

"Cut," Sterling says, making a throat slashing motion toward the camera.

Sterling needed to be admonished many times about playing football in the house. Oh, he played other sports. He played basketball with friends James and Jordan Woodard in middle school, mostly. But football was always going to be Sterling's sport.

"I'm not a big football person in terms of understanding the game," Cheri said. "So I never pressured him, but before my husband passed away he would always say Sterling was naturally athletic. He would say look at how he throws the ball."

Cheri knew her son loved the game from the first time Derrick noticed Sterling with a football in his hands, but it wasn't until he began playing flag football that she knew he was going to be good. Really good.

"He had one Little League season down in Norman, and I think he had 1,300 yards, and he was playing running back," Cheri said. "That left a pretty good impression on me."

'WHEN I'M OUT HERE, I DO IT FOR HIM'

Sterling's most memorable moment with his father isn't tossing a football with him, though. It doesn't involve playing catch on a baseball diamond, and it doesn't involve shooting hoops in the driveway.

It involves a racquet.

"Around the time when he left to go to Wyoming, I remember playing racquetball with him and stuff like that," Sterling said. "He was into racquetball, and he'd bring me along just to watch."

Sterling might have predicted he'd be wearing his father's jersey years ago while staring up at the video board at Cowboys Stadium as a young child. He might have predicted he'd be a Sooner and playing for mentor Bob Stoops in the Cotton Bowl.

But he wouldn't have predicted these circumstances. Who would dream such a nightmare?

Derrick walked-on to the Sooner football team and performed well enough to eventually earn a scholarship. He was a part of the 1985 national championship team.

"Seeing some of the high-lights of him on the (video) board bring back a lot of memories," Sterling said. "We resemble so much alike playing."

Derrick played five seasons in the NFL, including three with the Dallas Cowboys, before accepting a graduate assistantship under then-OU coach John Blake.

Stoops was hired to replace Blake in December 1998, and Derrick remained in Norman until he earned a job as assistant coach at the University of Wyoming in June 1999. Derrick had only been on staff at Laramie, Wyo., for just over a month when he suffered a heart attack that would prove fatal Aug. 4, 1999.

"When I'm out here, I do it for him," Sterling said. "I wear his number as a symbol for him."

Stoops knew Derrick for just six months but found himself speaking at Derrick's funeral service and later established the Derrick Shepard Most Inspirational Walk-on Player Award in 1999.

23 walk-on players have distinguished themselves enough to earn that award.

Sterling has attended the annual Sooner football banquet since he was 6 years old to see his father's award given.

2012's winner was Aaron Ripkowski. Ripkowski was awarded a scholarship this season after three years of hard work. That same year Sterling was awarded a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma to play football.

"As a young child, I remember giving away my dad's award and looking at the high-lights and stuff," Sterling said. "It was great giving it to Rip this year. He deserved it."

Before establishing the award, Stoops reached out to Cheri. He didn't want her son to miss the benefits of having a father figure, a football dad.

"When Derrick passed away, he reached out to Sterling and he attended his Little League games and at that time he told me I know what it's like to have a football dad, and I want him to still have that experience," Cheri said.

Stoops told Cheri to bring Sterling to the stadium, to the field, to practice and to the locker room whenever she could. He didn't set a day or a time that was convenient. He simply wanted Sterling to grow up around the program.

With that relationship established, Cheri made sure Sterling attended as many home games as possible. He was encouraged to interact with the players and live the dream of many young OU fans.

"He kind of just took it for granted, but other people would say I don't think he realizes what a big deal this is that this is like an everyday occurrence because he would go to the games every Saturday," Cheri said.

Whether he took it for granted then or now is of little consequence. He was happy, and that's what all parents want for their children.

That's Cheri's goal for Sterling at OU. She wants him to play his heart out, to make memories, to make life grand. If Sterling does that, his mother will be content.

"I just always wanted him to be pleased with his performance and be happy with what he's done," Cheri said. "So whatever that is, that's my wish for him now."

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