By Michael Sheppard
Photos special to Bison Illustrated
In my lifetime, I have had many different homes. Being a military baby, we went from one Air Force Base to another, starting in Dayton, OH, to Trenton, NJ, to Troy, IL, to California City, CA and to Milwaukee, WI. With each move, there were new friends, different cultures and memories to make. Some moves were hard and despite having many homes, I still would get “homesick” every time.
This was no different when I made the most impactful move of my life to Fargo to study Electrical Engineering and play football for the North Dakota State Bison. I had bought in but was still homesick. I was excited for a new chapter but nervous of if I would truly fit in.
My recruiting process was quite unique. My senior year in high school, we hired a new head coach and staff. After the season, I went into my head coach’s office and said that I really wanted to play college football. “You are too small to play linebacker and too slow to play defensive back,” he said. At 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, maybe he had a point, but after an awkward pause, he had more to say. “If you really want it, make a highlight film and send it to UW Whitewater and maybe a few Division 2 schools in Minnesota,” he said. I asked him for a list of any other schools he would suggest. He included Bemidji State (where he came from) and he threw out Northern Michigan and North Dakota State out of nowhere, saying “they’re pretty good though.” For perspective, this meeting took place the first week of December in 1998, and national signing day was in February 1999.
Despite being drastically late in the recruiting process, but fueled by the passion to play football at the next level, I hooked up two VCRs together and made my highlight film that same night. The next day, I researched and mailed my film to all the schools he mentioned and then some more. I also applied to each school academically that same day. One week later, I received calls from every single school with the top three interested being Northern Iowa, Northern Michigan and NDSU. A week after these calls, there was a coach in our house talking with my sister (my guardian) and I. This blossomed into three recruiting trips booked in January. I was also accepted into each school prior to my recruiting trips. For the first time in my life, my new home would be my choice.
Something ironic occurred. My first recruiting trip was to Northern Iowa. When I arrived at the airport, I ran into Keontay Jackson, who was my roommate at the Ohio State Football camp the summer before. We connected well at camp, but in the absence of social media and cell phones, we had not spoken or seen each other since. It just so happened that he was on the same recruiting trip as I was. Then, as we talked more about our options, we found out that our next trip was to NDSU and finally to Northern Michigan.
Our trip to NDSU was nothing short of epic. At the time, the coaches could work you out so we got a chance to perform a series of drills. The energy and connection during those drills were on another level. The way you were greeted and taken care of, the flow of the facility tour, the interaction between the coaches, the interest of the players was all so pure and genuine. Best of all, the commitment and respect of the tradition set NDSU apart from all options. Hearing the coach’s commitment to developing players into to becoming champions, this felt like home.
Key and I decided we were a package deal. “We are a package deal and we are going to NDSU,” Key said. At that moment, my new home was selected. Now, I define this home differently. While with every move I got homesick for the prior location, as a Bison, I will be homesick for NDSU no matter where I go. NDSU is where I met my lifetime friends and where I had the opportunity to play, coach and learn how to enter the world as an adult with confidence. As a former player, the great feeling you get when you see the Bison dominating the competition and receiving well-deserved recognition is hard to describe. I am so proud of OUR home. The players, coaches, staff and marketing team have not only carried the tradition forward but set a new standard. I feel fortunate to have become a part of the Bison family and call this place my home.
Sheppard played at NDSU from 1999 until 2003 as a defensive back. In his freshman season in 2000 (redshirt in 1999), he had 15 total tackles for a 12-2 Bison team. In 2001 and 2002, Sheppard recorded 90 total tackles, nine of them for loss and a fumble return touchdown. His final campaign in 2003 saw him lead the team with 83 tackles, 11 of them for losses and another fumble return for a touchdown. Under first-year head coach Craig Bohl, the Bison went 8-3 before moving to Division I the following season. Sheppard went on to sign with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He now lives, works and coaches in Mequon, Wisconsin.
Be sure to look for the print edition of our special Alumni issue on magazine stands or in your mailbox later this month.