A field pass dangling from her right wrist, Shanda Hayden offered an apology as she posed for a photo with JaCorey Shepherd on the sidelines at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m going to be taking a lot of pictures.”
Hayden wrapped her arms around the San Francisco 49ers cornerback and beamed as her husband captured the moment on a cell phone. As an academic adviser for Kansas’ football team, Hayden had been a mentor to Shepherd during his days as a Jayhawk from 2011-14.
Now, two years later — during the most challenging time of Hayden’s life — the roles were reversed.
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Shepherd was coming through for her.
Shanda’s 7-year-old son, Cole, died 22 days earlier, on Dec. 10. Cole had battled sarcoma, a rare childhood cancer, for months, going through countless rounds of painful chemotherapy as his diagnosis worsened. Still, as much as she and her husband, Steve, braced themselves, the pain of their son’s death jarred them to a level they never could’ve prepared.
Functioning at home became difficult with reminders of Cole scattered throughout the house. Friends offered support but, really … what could they say?
Even a hastily planned getaway to Jamaica wasn’t beneficial, as the hours spent in solitude on the beach gave them too much time to think and reflect.
“We didn’t enjoy ourselves,” Hayden said.
Their spirits raised almost as soon as they touched down in California the next week.
Shepherd made sure of it.
“It was the first time,” Hayden said, “that we genuinely smiled since Dec. 10.”
Kansas City Chiefs players stopped by to visit, while former KU star Ben Heeney sent gloves from one of his games with the Oakland Raiders. Ex-Jayhawks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris — both with the Denver Broncos — sent a video of their own.
From the day Cole was admitted to the hospital back in May, football players went out of their way to show support.
Cole’s parents were amazed by the effort.
Bringing particular joy was a message from the Seattle Seahawks’ Tyler Lockett, who had been one of Cole’s favorite players since the receiver’s standout career at Kansas State — Steve’s alma mater.
Moments after a practice in late November, Lockett filmed a video where he discussed that afternoon’s workout before telling Cole to keep fighting.
Because of his treatments, Cole was unable to speak when his parents showed him the video. That didn’t stop him from giving a thumbs up, letting everyone know how excited he was that the inspiration for his own No. 16 Seattle jersey had spoken directly to him.
KU coach David Beaty dedicated the team’s season opener to Cole, and two months later, a group of Jayhawks football players — including captain Joe Dineen — gathered on the field after practice to shave each others’ heads as a sign of support.
Through it all, no one has shown more kindness than Shepherd.
Ever since meeting Shanda in June of his freshman year in 2011, Shepherd felt a connection. He was a good student — Shanda joked that he “didn’t require a lot of work” in that aspect — but he still stopped by her office to chat each day, whether it was about family, football or even his dating life.
“We just started getting closer,” Shepherd said. “I felt comfortable opening up to her.”
Shepherd didn’t abandon the friendship after his first two seasons in the NFL. He called Shanda on her birthday two days after Cole’s death, inviting her and Steve out for the 49ers’ final game on Jan. 1. He insisted on covering all of the expenses for the trip.
Though hesitant at first, Shanda decided it was something she needed to move forward. KU football sports information director Katy Lonergan set up an itinerary, and when Beaty learned of the upcoming outing, he provided additional money.
More surprises awaited the Haydens when they arrived in Santa Clara. One evening they drove 40 miles to Alameda to visit Heeney. Sitting in his home, Heeney told them about a pair of cleats he’d made earlier that season in honor of Cole.
The design included phrases like “#TeamCole” and “Cure Sarcoma” and also featured a gold ribbon for childhood cancer awareness.
Heeney, who had worn the shoes in a game, presented them to Shanda and Steve.
Shepherd coordinated the rest.
He invited the Haydens to 49ers practice on Saturday and introduced them to then-coach Chip Kelly, who said he’d heard a lot about them.
Shepherd also took Steve and Shanda to the NFL Team Shop to buy personalized No. 38 jerseys so they could match him on game day before joining them on a tour of the 49ers hall of fame — a place even he hadn’t been.
The following day, Shepherd presented the family with one final memento.
He’d previously done offseason training in Texas with Seattle quarterback Trevone Boykin, and earlier in the week, he’d contacted Boykin about Steve and Shanda’s situation — and about their upcoming visit.
After Boykin took the final snap in Seattle’s 25-23 victory, he found Shepherd on the field and asked where his friends were sitting. Though Shanda and Steve had already left their seats, Shepherd completed the delivery when he rejoined the couple a few hours later after the game: Boykin, it turned out, wanted them to have the Seattle game ball.
The Haydens went back to Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Ottawa last week, a tough step considering the anger and sadness that remain.
Cole received first communion in the hospital. He attended Catholic school, and one day he turned to Steve during a conversation on the ride home.
“I want to give my life to Jesus, just like Father Bill,” he said.
The story brought Priest Bill Fisher to tears as he retold it during Cole’s memorial service last month.
Shanda and Steve made Cole part of their 49ers trip as well. While on the sidelines, they unfurled their son’s Lockett jersey, holding it up for a photo they believed was important.
Shanda later posted the image on her Twitter account.
“We know you’re here with us sweet angel,” she wrote.
A week later, Shanda described the trip as “great therapy” for her and her husband.
“It helped us kick off the new year thinking about things differently now, what our new path looks like,” Shanda said. “It was nice to spend time with (JaCorey and Ben) and laugh and smile a little bit and know that it’s OK to do that.”
Though Shanda has previously been careful with what she’s shared on social media — knowing many athletes wouldn’t want their generosity publicized — she has started to see things differently in the past few weeks.
While many people only see the athlete side of their favorite players, Shanda has experienced the human side.
And, when it comes to people like Shepherd, she says the latter is most impressive.
“Sometimes you don’t expect boys to do those sort of things,” Shanda said. “They really are family. That’s what it really feels like.”