Photos by J. Alan Paul Photography and Tim Sanger/NDSU Athletics
Bison senior receiver Darrius Shepherd succeeds in the face of personal adversity.
From the casual football fan to even the biggest FCS expert, there is a common opinion of Darrius Shepherd. He can make all the plays. The senior from Blue Springs, Missouri, has emerged as one of the top weapons for NDSU through the air and on special teams in 2018. Because of this success, many have pegged him as sure-fire All-American as the season winds down. He was already named to the All-Missouri Valley First Team as both a receiver and return specialist.
Despite Shepherd’s success on the field, he has seen tremendous personal adversity over the course of his senior season. His father, Louis Shepherd, passed away from cancer in the summer, shortly before fall camp began for the Bison. For Shepherd or anyone who has lost a loved one, the events were devastating. Never the less, Shepherd has been surrounded by a team that has shown unwavering support for the senior. Thanks to this, Darrius Shepherd suits up every Saturday to honor his father on the football field. The result so far has been remarkable.
“It’s been unbelievable support from the coaches and players and just people who are a part of Bison Nation that have played in the past,” Shepherd said. “I’m getting unbelievable messages and texts and my teammates are unbelievable. I love those guys and they’ve been there for me whenever I’ve needed them. It’s really cool, they came down to my house and that was just a real big moment to get me and my family’s minds off of what was going on and just be around good people.”
Part of that journey to Blue Springs for several Bison players and coaches included being in attendance at Louis Shepherd’s celebration of life service. For Darrius and his family, there was no greater comfort than to have his Bison family alongside him. “For myself, it was really comforting to have my good friends there with me. For my family, I think it opened up their eyes as to how special this place is,” he said of his teammates and coaches coming to Blue Springs. “I already knew the support I had here but I think it shows my family and people back home how special this place is. That is something we talk about, but it’s a real thing when you got people coming down and making those trips to be there and support people.”
For Shepherd’s teammates, the decision was easy. Their fellow Bison needed support and they knew they needed to jump into action. Knowing that Shepherd would jump at the chance to reciprocate that comfort and support for his fellow Bison. “He’s just a special person and everybody in that locker room would attest to it,” said Bison quarterback Easton Stick. “The way he works and how much he cares about the guys in that room, anybody would do anything for him because he consistently shows that he’ll do anything for anybody.”
“Everybody on the team has been really supportive.”
Head coach Chris Klieman shares the sentiments of Shepherd’s teammates and how his support system is ironclad. In the wake of tragedy, a support system of this kind is almost required. “He’s surrounded by an unbelievable support system here. He’s got a great family back home in Blue Springs and obviously a great Bison family here,” Klieman said following a 126-yard performance against Illinois State on October 20. “I know that he’s doing it for pops and it’s cool to see because not only is he an unbelievable talent and player, he’s one of the best young men you’re ever going to run across. That’s why I am so thrilled for him because he deserves everything he gets.”
It’s that kind of support that makes Darrius Shepherd confident in his decision to come to NDSU in 2014. “NDSU is just a really special place. It has a special place in my heart, obviously, but it makes me believe that I made the right choice in coming here,” he said. “I really do believe in the coaches and the players that are on this team. We’re all great people and it’s just a really good place to be at.”
Stick and Shepherd have been at NDSU together since the beginning. They both came into the program in 2014 and have been cultivating a relationship on and off the field. The result on the football field has created one of the most dangerous duos in all of FCS football. Off the field, Stick has been Shepherd’s go-to if he needs to talk or discuss things. Shepherd has also relied on another Bison, former running back Chase Morlock. Morlock lost his father to cancer mid-season in 2016.
“Everybody on the team has been really supportive and told me that they’re there for me,” Shepherd said. “Two of the main people have been Easton Stick and Chase Morlock. It’s been unreal having Chase in my corner, it’s someone I can talk to and relate with, so I got mad respect and love for that guy.”
Having the support is one thing. The other aspect is to use that support to create a positive outlook on terrible events. For Shepherd, his mindset and psyche heading into the season were crucial. Given the circumstances, it would be easy for anyone to crack and crumble under the weight of tragedy. Darrius Shepherd only has his dad in mind on Saturdays. “Just trying to think about what my dad wanted for me. Just trying to be there for my family and be strong for my family this year,” he said. “I think my mindset this year on the football field is trying to do everything for my dad. That’s been my big focus.”
With that mindset, Shepherd has been able to overcome adversity. It is a common thread seen in sports, how one overcomes roadblocks, personally or otherwise. Some athletes do it seamlessly, others do not. Darrius Shepherd has been able to overcome and perform at a high-level week in and week out. “You’re going to face a lot of ups and downs in life and I think the biggest thing is just knowing that you got to stay consistent through them and know that you’re going to have better days,” he said. “Just trying to fight through the bad ones.”
Shepherd’s family also relies heavily on NDSU football every Saturday. His mother Amy, brother Xavier and sister Cheyenne have been able to attend all but one of NDSU’s football games. Shepherd believes this gives his family comfort and an outlet to take their minds away from personal woes. “It’s been really cool to see their faces after the game and how excited they are for me to come out here and compete on Saturday,” he said. “My mom loves watching me play, she’s been at all my games since I was a little kid so it’s really cool to have her here in the stands and seeing how special it is for her.”
For the Shepherd family, one of the most important and lasting memories they have is last year’s national championship game. Shepherd caught the first touchdown of the game against James Madison. More importantly, it was the last game Louis Shepherd got to watch his son play. It ended in a 17 to 13 Bison victory.
“That’s one of the most special moments. My whole family was there, it was the last game my dad saw me play, so it was really special,” Shepherd said. “To win that national championship at that stage, it’s an incredible feeling. I try not to dwell too much on championships, but I’ll always keep that one in my head just because of the moment.”
It’s evident that Louis Shepherd had a tremendous impact on his son’s life, both as a football player and a man. Darrius still recalls his father’s advice to this day, he references the phone calls they had before each game. “As far as football, we would always talk before the game. That was the biggest thing, but he would always tell me to go out there and do my thing and be relaxed,” he said. “In life, just never give up. I wear a bracelet that says ‘Never Give Up, Never Quit’ and we would just talk about how no matter what happens, you face it and you’ll get through it.”
Regardless of what he does on the field, there is so much time outside of the 60 minutes Darrius Shepherd is on the football field. It is in this “down time” that people find themselves in times of reflection after someone passes on. It is also a time where they face their most difficult thoughts and emotions. It is no different for Shepherd. “It’s been really tough,” he said. “I miss my dad every single day and it’s a weird thing because you’ll be thinking ‘hey, I want to tell him this’ and all of the sudden, you can’t call him. Just trying to find my way and be a support for my brother, sister and my mom.
It is also in this time of pondering and reflection where memories come flooding in. Darrius Shepherd has no shortage of memories with his father. So much so, that he takes a pause to think about his favorite memories between he and his father. “I would just say the simple things of playing outside or playing catch or playing basketball in the driveway,” he said. “Back in the day, we used to play basketball, football outside and we’d get in some fun competitions. That father/son thing, watching sports too, those were the best times we had.”
From what Shepherd said, it is clear that Louis Shepherd loved his children. Not only that, he was there for his children whenever they needed advice or mentorship in sports or life. The portrayal Shepherd had of his father makes you feel as though you knew Louis Shepherd intimately. To the outsider who had never met Louis, you can tell he had a tremendous impact on everyone he came into contact with.
As for how Darrius was impacted by his father, he had a simple answer. “To appreciate every single day that you have and just be the best person that you can be,” he said. “We only get so much time on this Earth and we just need to make the most of it. Every day, if I have something I need to figure out, just try to think back to what would he do. That helps me.”
The ever-present spirit of Louis Shepherd is what has carried Darrius Shepherd to success on and off the field. That is not to say that Shepherd does not miss his father. Again, Shepherd paused and began to think about what he missed the most. It’s an impossible question to answer. When someone passes away, you miss them, and that’s it. To ask Darrius Shepherd to pick something he misses the most is unfair. However, he answered and painted a pristine portrait of Louis Shepherd to those who did and did not know him.
“Just seeing his struggles helped me become a better man.”
“He was just a really cool guy with a big heart and I think that he always had the answer, whenever I needed it,” he said. “He always had it figured out and would help me and guide me. His job was to prepare me to be a man and I think now I just learn from him and what he went through. Just seeing his struggles helped me to become a better man.” What Darrius Shepherd does after his senior season is yet to be seen. He could continue to play football or he could join the workforce. Either way, there will be a day where Darrius Shepherd will not be playing football. With the lessons instilled in him by his late father Louis, he is poised to become an even more exemplary man, human and, in the future, father. Shepherd is already a phenomenal young man, but with his father’s memory and lessons in mind, he will succeed in anything he pursues, football or otherwise.