Ever since he turned 21, New York Giants rookie receiver Sterling Shepard, the team's 2016 second-round pick out of Oklahoma, has made a gold chain a part of his game-day attire.
That might not seem like a big deal considering many athletes do the same. However, for the Oklahoma City native, Shepard's chain is more than just a fashion statement.
The chain, given to him by his mother, Cheri, belonged to his father, former NFL receiver Derrick Shepard, who died from a sudden heart attack at the age of 35.
The elder Shepard's sudden death, which occurred when Sterling was just six years old, meant that instead of enjoying a carefree childhood free from worry, the young boy would have to comprehend a curveball that many people much older than him sometimes never quite come to terms with.
A World Turned Upside Down
The only son in a household that, besides his mother, included sisters Ashleigh and Shelby, Shepard recalls marveling at his mother's strength.
"You obviously want to have a father figure throughout your childhood to look up to, especially when you're a boy, you want to have that father figure, that role model," he said.
"I didn't have that as a little kid, but my mom did a great job of playing both roles and made it a lot easier. Without her, I don't know where I'd be."
In addition to his mother, Shepard had his grandfather serve as the male role model in his life. He also looked to coaches, teachers and other male relatives, taking a little bit from each to become the man he is today.
While the hole in his heart that resulted from his father's death never left him, the support and example set by his mother and grandfather helped him develop the internal strength that many people don't grasp at such a young age.
"I think that tragedy in my life made me stronger just in the sense that I had to grow up faster because I had to be the man of the house at a young age," he said.
Besides his internal support group, Shepard found an external source that would help shape his upbringing as well: Oklahoma Sooners head coach Bob Stoops, who provided Shepard with the opportunity to build a lifelong bond with his father through a common love for football.
Son of a Sooner
Long before Shepard committed to the same college where his dad—a walk-on as a freshman who converted from quarterback to wide receiver—had excelled, the Sooners embraced Sterling.
According to Jason Kersey of the Oklahoman, Stoops and some of his assistant coaches would attend some of Sterling's youth flag football games to cheer him on.
Stoops also extended an open invitation to the young boy to come to watch practices and games whenever he wanted, and he honored Derrick Shepard by founding the "Derrick Shepard Most Inspirational Walk-On Player of the Year" award.
Shepard's exposure to the Sooners program not only helped him in deciding to follow the path to the NFL that his father had taken, it also gave him an up-close look at what it took to become a professional.
"It meant a lot to me," Shepard said of Stoops' support. "When my father passed, I didn't know if I would be able to do any of the things that coaches' sons/players' sons got to do. It was a blessing. I had fun with it as a little kid, and I thank Coach Stoops all the time for letting me be around the facility and football."
When Shepard made it to the Sooners as one of Stoops' players, the young man honored his father by donning his jersey No. 3.
That tradition of honoring his dad is going to continue with the Giants, at least for the time being. According to the Giants' Instagram account, Shepard has been assigned No. 87, which, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Derrick Shepard wore in 1990 as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
"I've been fortunate to be able to play at each level, high school and then college and wear my dad's jersey number, and now go on to the NFL," Shepard said. "It's truly been a blessing."
Like Father, Like Son
Although Sterling Shepard never got a chance to really get to know his father, he knew that his dad was a competitor.
Whether it was coaching youth sports, playing racquetball or playing a simple board game, Derrick Shepard—who spent his six-year NFL career as a receiver for three different teams, including two with Washington, one with New Orleans and three with Dallas—was determined to be the best.
"I used to go to every practice he would coach, and I used to go to every sports event that he had," Sterling remembered. "I kind of saw that competitive nature he had with just playing racquetball and softball games, and the way he coached—I could just sense that as a little kid. That stuck with me."
Not surprisingly, Shepard inherited that trait from his dad. The youngster participated in a variety of sports as a youth before honing in on football.
There was only one problem. Instead of blossoming into a prototypical receiver blessed with height over six feet, Shepard's physical growth maxed out at 5'10", the same height as his dad.
While some guys might be reluctant to engage in a contact sport where bigger players are flying around at full force, Shepard, as he had done throughout his life, made the most out of a less than ideal situation by displaying a dedication and determination to turn a perceived weakness into a strength.
"I've been told that I can't do stuff because of my height, and that just gave me a little bit more motivation," Shepard said.
As he always has done, Shepard sized up his situation and came up with a plan to ensure that he'd be a top performer.
"Just knowing the game and knowing how physical it is, you have to know what to do to succeed," he said.
"For me, strength is a big one—getting off of press coverage is one of the main things receivers struggle with, and that's something I didn't want to struggle with, so I put my focus in the weight room, and it's helped me out a lot.”
He's also not afraid to go over the middle where he risks being flattened by a much bigger linebacker or safety, nor is he afraid to match his vertical leaping ability against cornerbacks who can have as much as five inches of a height advantage against him to snare a pass at its high point.
With the ball in his hands, Shepard is a beast. According to College Football Focus, in his last two seasons for the Sooners, Shepard broke 16 tackles, including 12 in 2015.
Want another thing to like about Shepard? He rarely drops passes, including those that are nowhere near close to being on target, and he does a nice job of putting the ball away so that defenders can't strip it from his grasp.
Per College Football Focus, he finished with an 82.5 percent catch rate from the slot, the best of the draft-eligible receivers who played in at least 60 percent of their team's snaps.
"The toughness part of it, I think it really just comes natural," Shepard said. "I just watch some of my favorite receivers in the league, and everyone's tough—you can see that. So that's where I get that mentality from."
A New Beginning
This week, Sterling Shepard begins a new chapter when he arrives in East Rutherford, New Jersey, to become a part of one of the NFL's oldest and most storied franchises.
In many ways, Shepard would like to start a new chapter, one in which he lets his football prowess that got him to the NFL help make him a known commodity through the league and not merely a carbon copy of an existing receiver.
He believes that with time, he'll be able to accomplish that.
"I don't really pay too much attention (to comparisons to other receivers)," Shepard said.
"You just have to take it with a grain of salt and build your own brand, become your own person, and all that other stuff will wash away."
So just what kind of "brand" might Big Blue Nation expect from Shepard?
"I'm not very big or tall, but I play that way," he said. "That was the main thing for me, not letting size determine how I played the game. I get in the weight room a lot to make sure my strength is OK."
He also takes pride in coming up with the catch even if the ball is off target. Per College Football Focus, Shepard has just five dropped passes in the last two seasons out of 200 pass targets.
"I don't let too many of them hit the ground," Shepard said. "Everyone has slip-ups, but I try not to let too many hit the ground."
"I always just tell people that I find a way to make plays. Things can get hard sometimes, but I'm going to try to find a way," he said.
When he takes the field for his first NFL game, Shepard, whose touchdown "celebrations" consist of him pointing to the sky toward his father, said he has a simple way to honor the name—his father's name—on the back of his jersey.
"I just want to play the way I've been playing and the way I know how to play to the best of my ability," he said. "That's how I’m going to honor my family name, by playing hard and giving it my all every week."
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced. Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.