Ole Miss CB Tee Shepard can finally hear a whistle
Tee Shepard’s journey to a starting spot on Ole Miss’ Landshark defense was far from normal.
He enrolled early at Notre Dame in January of 2012, but left the program one week before the beginning of spring practice that year with little justification for his sudden decision.
He spent two seasons starring at the junior college level and was regarded as the top JUCO cornerback in the 2014 recruiting class when he made his return to the FBS by signing with Ole Miss.
He then suffered a toe injury last summer that sidelined him for the entire 2014 season.
Three schools at two levels of college ball and a year of recovery from a toe injury; these are the kinds of obstacles that would deter most collegiate athletes.
But not Shepard. For the Fresno, Calif., native, these kinds of hurdles have become the standard on his path to football success.
You see, Shepard is almost entirely deaf, and it’s not hard to imagine the kinds of challenges that posed as he was growing up playing the game he’s always loved. He was ejected from a number of youth football games — he estimated more than 10 in an interview with the Clarion-Ledger — because he never heard a whistle signifying the end of a play, resulting in a slew of unintended late hits on unassuming kids.
Receiving coaching was always a challenge as well. If teammates and coaches were not in front of Shepard when they spoke to him, standing close enough that he could read their lips, it was virtually impossible for Shepard to even recognize he was being spoken to. He tried wearing hearing aids, but they were too big and bulky for the football field, and they often fell out of his ears when he made a tackle or even began running at full speed.
So he played his entire pre-college career without the ability to hear. He still couldn’t recognize when a whistle had blown; he still couldn’t communicate with teammates on the field or receive changes to a play at the line of scrimmage in an efficient manner; he still had to form shorthand with each new coach he played for just to be able to receive coaching without close, face-to-face interactions every few minutes.
He was supremely talented, but there was no arguing he was supremely limited as well. Which actually makes Shepard look even more talented, considering Brian Kelly and Notre Dame wanted his services out of high school and Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss still wanted him two years later as a junior college standout.
Now at Ole Miss, with a year to watch and learn while sidelined with his toe injury, Shepard was able to learn the ins-and-outs and the subtleties that make Dave Wommack’s Landshark defense so frightening and so effective. He and fellow junior college standout Tony Bridges are set to assume the starting cornerback jobs this fall, and both looked impressive throughout the spring and in last weekend’s Grove Bowl.
But now Shepard has an advantage that most take for granted but that should raise his level of play by a noticeable margin. For the first time since he began playing the game as a child, Shepard can hear on the football field.
He’s been given a much smaller and more effective set of hearing aids that he can wear while on the field and while donning a helmet. His insurance growing up wouldn’t have covered this caliber of hearing aid, but Ole Miss’ athletics insurance has come to the rescue for its star cornerback.
According to his chat with the Clarion-Ledger, low tones — like his coaches yelling from the sidelines or his teammates chattering at the line or as a play is unfolding — are still difficult to hear even with the new aids. But high-pitched noises, namely the squeal of a whistle, register much more clearly than ever before.
Shepard said he heard his first whistle last fall during a preseason practice that took place before he suffered his toe injury. Here’s how he remembered that day:
“Coach Freeze blew a whistle, and I was tripping out,” Shepard told the Clarion-Ledger. “I was like, ‘What is that noise? We have a bird in here?’ It was pretty crazy. He blew it again. And he said, ‘Tee, can you hear my whistle?'”
Shepard could indeed hear the whistle. For the first time, he had the benefit of sound enhancing his play. And considering his level of play before noise was ever a factor, Shepard can seemingly unlock a new level of upside that most never considered a possibility due to his condition.
Of course, there are downsides. Shepard will learn about those when Ole Miss travels for its first road game in SEC play, which should be his first experience with that level of hostile crowd noise.
But the good still outweighs the bad as far as Shepard’s hearing is concerned. He’s a gifted player who has just been granted another tool the rest of us often take for granted.
It’s not just a nice story; it could be the beginning of something special in the Ole Miss secondary this fall.