Michael Sheppard
Football

‘Shep… we will play on ESPN someday’

We went from “we will be in ESPN someday…” to making the opening trailer of College GameDay. – Read more in this column by Michael Sheppard.

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“Shep…we will play on ESPN someday,” those were the prophetic words Coach Bohl said to me while we picked up trash on the sidelines of Dacotah Field. Spring cleaning in 2003. Coach Bohl was in his first few months on the job and this was the first of many visionary conversations we had together. Both of us were admittedly frustrated to be poking stray pieces of paper and not watching film or discussing defensive strategy, but unprompted he paused, looked me in the eyes, and in one sentence clearly articulated that our program would set its sights on becoming one of THE biggest stories in college football.

As Bison student-athletes, we are spoiled with great leadership. Gene Taylor made what had to be one of the toughest decisions of his life in choosing Coach Bohl over Coach Bradley. I can’t image how tough it was on Coach Bradley, remaining as defensive coordinator after pursuing the head job. And here I was in the middle as a part of the hiring process, being very close to both Gene and Gus. To put it in perspective, I viewed Gus as the best father figure I had in my life. When my sister (guardian) went to war, Gus was on the paperwork to watch after me. Since the day Gene was hired, we spoke almost daily through good and bad, and he selected me as president of SAAC. He was also an extremely important mentor in my life and I try to emulate his leadership today.

And there we were, with all the minutiae and whirlwind of emotions that come from a 2-8 season that included many season-ending injuries to All-American team leaders. Some of the best minds in football had to find a way to compartmentalize their pride, set aside their differences and find synergy to usher the tradition of the program into FCS football. Not once was the stress of this coaching transition put on the players. Most programs would have their rebuilding years having their prior coaches go on to successful careers in the NFL. Not the Bison. From the recruiting trip to your first play on the field, you are indoctrinated with championship habits, work ethic and mindset. When adversity presents itself, as it always does, the Bison rise up.

Great leaders see the forest through the trees. At the time the forest was dense, but the vision was clear. Be the program fans want to see, players want to join and opponents fear. While this was always the goal, it was relative to the beholder. Now I think big, but at the time, big to me was more regional TV games (with cameras clear enough to tell an eight from a six on film) and I was excited we had one against Montana.

The funny thing is I still remember when our whole team got in front of a TV and waited for the NDSU name to scroll across the bottom of the ESPN screen showing the score of the Northwest Missouri State game in 2000. We all cheered with pride. I was a freshman, thinking I made it because I was on ESPN for 1.3 seconds in the form of a scrolling score. That season, we were a game away from a real ESPN feature for the championship game. It was a formative season for how to compete at a high level.

Now, what was Coach Bohl’s big vision? College Game Day? Three straight National Championships? I wouldn’t put it past him that he thought the program would one day do this and more and I’ll tell you why.

It’s a cold Saturday morning in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I wake up excited to watch NDSU compete in their first FCS championship game. It was bittersweet as most of my friends and former teammates traveled down but I was unable to. After breakfast, the kids wander off to watch cartoons and I wander off to GoBison.com. There’s a link to the team’s activities on Friday. The media team did a great job of creating engaging videos of the bowling, charitable work and other activities that the team went through. This link took me to the final walkthrough practice.

As I saw the current players address the former players, the emotions of that symbolism, the power of that message, the thoughtfulness of the homage paid, it brought me to tears. It just seemed like everything was done in deja vu format. As if the dream of this historic run had already been lived. At every turn, the momentum was captured and nurtured. The standard raised. The expectations met. The tradition carried along.

We went from “we will be in ESPN someday…” to making the opening trailer of College GameDay. Excited to witness where we go from here.

Michael was a Bison team captain and the first black football player to be Student-Athlete Activities Council (SAAC) President.

NDSU Records

At Careers End

Single Season

  • Tied for 1st All-Time unassisted tackles (53. Record previously held for 34 years)
  • Tied for 3rd All-Time in blocked kicks (2)

Career

  • 1st All-Time unassisted tackles (111)
  • 2nd All-Time blocked kicks (4)
  • 1st All-Time fumble return TDs (2)
  • Tied for 3rd punt return touchdowns (2, on blocked punts, Sheppard was never a returner. The only non-returner in the top 5)
  • 2nd longest fumble return for touchdown ever (69 yards)

Currently

Single Season

  • Tied for 4th blocked kicks (2)
  • Tied for 5th unassisted tackles (53)

Career

  • Tied for 2nd blocked kicks (4)
  • 16th All-Time unassisted tackles (111)
  • Tied for 1st All-Time fumble return touchdowns (2)
  • Tied for 4th punt return touchdowns (2)
  • 2nd longest fumble return for touchdown ever (69 yards)
‘Shep… we will play on ESPN someday’
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