It wasn’t always easy for Tee Shepard while growing up in Fresno, often teased because of a hearing loss, then again when he wore aids to correct the impairment.
Little did he know that acceptance and redemption waited some 2,000 miles away, on the campus of the University of Mississippi and in the community of Oxford.
Shepard, after a journey that took him from Washington to Central high schools, back to Washington and through flirtations with a handful of other universities and junior colleges, is a junior defensive back for a Rebels team that hosts Fresno State on Saturday.
He has risen to No. 2 on the depth chart at the Southeastern Conference school ranked No. 17 in the nation by The Associated Press. All the more impressive, considering his odyssey since graduating midyear from Washington in 2011-12 and enrolling that spring at Notre Dame, only to flame out there before aborted attempts to play for College of the Sequoias and Oklahoma.
Shepard not only appears to have his football career back on track, but he also is well on his way to fulfilling what he says is a goal: to become a “role model for people with a disability.”
Finally fitted with hearing aids he can use on the field, he also took time in the leadup to fall camp this season to speak at a school for the deaf in Tennessee.
He’s come a long way since he was the 8-year-old at Fresno’s Carver Elementary, where he ditched the hearing aids he received as a youth in order to fit in.
“I thought (they) looked cool,” he recalls. “Big and lime green, because that’s my favorite color.
“When I put on my hearing aids, they were teasing and making fun of me. I was down and didn’t want to tell my parents. What I started doing in order for them to stop teasing me, I tried to be normal by taking them out of my ear, knowing I can’t hear anything without my hearing aids.”
Shepard would learn to adapt, as he had before the hearing loss was diagnosed, and go on to an All-America high school career. But that communication gap would nag at him throughout his young life.
Playing through the whistle
It was at age 8, while playing middle linebacker for the Washington Union Pee Wee team, that his coaches noticed something was wrong.
“We were having hitting drills, and we were going live; and the coaches said when they blow the whistle the play is over with,” Shepard said. “The coaches blew the whistle, I was (still) hitting people up front and the coaches asked me, ‘Could you hear the whistle?’ And I was like, ‘What whistle are you talking about?’ The coaches were like, ‘You need to get your hearing checked out.’”
‘Could you hear the whistle?’ And I was like, ‘What whistle are you talking about?’
Tee Shepard on a conversation with youth football coaches before his hearing issue was diagnosed
Ray Shepard took his son to Hearing Dynamics in Clovis.
“Doctor told me I had a hearing loss,” Shepard said. “I was like, ‘Dang.’”
Dad also was stunned, a typical reaction for a parent who, physically, sees an otherwise “normal” child.
“I was like, ‘Oh, wow!’” Ray Shepard said. “It was difficult knowing your kid had a hearing loss. Can’t hear at all.”
The good news: With aids, the hearing deficiency could be corrected.
But then came the problems at Carver.
“Kids that young picked up on that stuff,” said Tony Perry, a mentor whom Shepard has known since the third grade and remembers what young Tee went through. “They tend to tease you. He dealt with that for a while.”
Shepard felt the easy solution was to leave the hearing aids tucked away.
“When I take them out, they don’t talk about me,” he said. “They later asked what happened to those ‘radio things’ in your ear? I told them I forgot them. When they started talking about me, I stopped wearing them. I went a long time in school without my hearing aids.”
A prep superstar
Whatever deficits he should have had being a deaf student and player in a fully hearing world, Shepard seemed to shrug them off.
“I learned how to read people’s lips, and it became so natural,” he says. “I could even take out my hearing aids and have a full-blown conversation with someone.”
Other obstacles, too, seemed as easy to swat away as the opposition’s pass attempts.
He attended Washington for his freshman and part of his sophomore year before transferring to Central. A third of his 2010 season was lost to a shoulder injury, and he didn’t even make his all-conference team, but there was enough film to tell the tale. He committed as a cornerback to Notre Dame in March 2011 and signed with the Fighting Irish even after being declared ineligible following his transfer back to Washington for his senior season.
Transcript issues prevented him from joining the Irish, and he later was at Sequoias for all of one practice. A report in December 2012 had him set to join the program at Oklahoma.
Shepard at last regrouped and on Perry’s recommendation finally got his career restarted in 2013 at Holmes Community College in Goodman, Miss., where he became a four-star recruit, ranked among the top one or two at his position among all JC prospects. He signed with the Rebels in 2014.
It also was in Mississippi where the now-22-year-old finally said enough is enough when it came to his hearing issue.
‘Working through it’
Coaches helped prod Shepard into action, including co-defensive coordinator/cornerbacks coach Jason Jones, who urged Shepard to be more open with the team.
“I told him you have to communicate with me and help me out because at practice you’re running around and most of the guys are talking and you’re turning your back on them,” Jones said. “I told him if I’m out there and running around and if you can’t hear me or if I turn my back to you, don’t think of me being disrespectful.
“I told him you have to help me so you know what’s going on, and he said, ‘OK coach, I got you.’ We learned to work through it.”
The staff went a step further, sending Shepard to a doctor for testing. He was able to get a much smaller set of aids than the ones he had as a child, and he began wearing them during 2014 fall camp. For the first time, he was able to hear the whistle.
“It’s so tiny you have to ask him if he has them in because you can’t see them,” Jones said.
Shepard spoke in July at the annual Donuts for Dads Celebration at the Memphis Oral School for the Deaf, sharing his story about reaching his dream of playing college football and of the hearing loss he has dealt with since birth.
“I had to do something,” Shepard said. “People are wearing glasses, so there are a lot of people with some type of disability. When I see people coming to school with glasses on I was like, ‘Hey, I play football and I’m very talented so why not put my hearing aids and play with them?’
“It can be done. I’m not the only one with some type of disability who’s playing football. As I got older, I wanted to be a role model for people with a disability.”
In the Rebels’ season opener, he finally played while being able to hear the sounds of the game. He was credited with one assisted tackle in a 76-3 win over Tennessee-Martin.
“I’m excited,” Shepard said, “because I can hear everything now.”
Ole Miss down a nose – Mississippi nose tackle Issac Gross will miss the rest of the season because of a neck injury. Coach Hugh Freeze said Gross, a preseason All-SEC pick, has been “battling this for a year and a half, and it has progressively gotten worse.” The school says Gross eventually will have surgery.
’Dogs head South
FRESNO STATE (1-0) at NO. 17 MISSISSIPPI (1-0)
- Saturday: 12:30 p.m. in Oxford
- TV/radio: ESPN2/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)