If you want to learn about Kansas cornerback JaCorey Shepherd, you must first know a few things about a kid named Tank. He is in the eighth grade at West Middle School in Lawrence. Lives for football and basketball. Says math is his favorite subject.
Shepherd will tell you all this before he tells you much about himself, so it’s best to keep asking about Tank. On Mondays, for instance, the KU football program’s only day off, Shepherd will usually hop into his car and head to hang out with Tank.
“Man,” Shepherd says. “he’s like a little me.”
On a mid-August afternoon, Shepherd, now a senior, is talking about connections and friendship — and the kind he didn’t expect to have when he arrived on campus as an athletic young receiver from Texas. Shepherd came to Kansas to play football for Turner Gill, and that, he figured, would be the highlight of his college days.
But then came a speech class during the summer before his sophomore year. A classmate gave a presentation on the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, a national organization that seeks to foster relationships between adult volunteers and children in the community.
In Lawrence, the waiting list was — and is — long, sometimes stretching to as many as 60 or so boys in the area without a Big Brother. Shepherd was immediately interested.
“It’s just something that made a light click in my life,” he says. “That sounds like something I would want to do.”
During the same summer, a young Lawrence boy named Christopher was on the waiting list. His mother, Angie Mumford, hoped it wouldn’t last long. Her two older daughters had enjoyed the program. Christopher had taken part for a few years, too. But his Big Brother and Big Sister — a couple — had moved away after college.
A single mother, Angie had nicknamed her son Tank because of all baby fat he carried as a newborn. Now, as he grew toward adolescence, she hoped her son could find another male role model.
Soon enough, an official from the organization called. They had a match for Tank, and this one was a little different. It was a KU football player.
“He was shocked,” Angie says of Tank.
“It is very rare,” says Leilani Tuttle, a program director for Kansas Big Brothers, Big Sisters
Two years later, the relationship has continued to bloom. There have been paintball sessions, bowling trips and dozens of hours of video games. Sometimes, they’ll just shoot baskets and talk.
“I just remember reading the things that he liked,” Shepherd says. “It was so much similar to mine, and that’s what made me feel like: ‘This little guy would be perfect for me.’”
When Shepherd read about Tank, for instance, the packet said he was well-liked at school. Shepherd liked that.
In the Kansas locker room, Shepherd is the mild-mannered senior with a reputation for making teammates feel connected. He speaks in soft breaths. Tries to make young teammates feel welcome. For the moment, he has a swath of reddish blonde hair, creating a sort-of stylized Mohawk. It’s about the loudest thing he’ll do.
On Saturday, Shepherd will start at cornerback while Kansas heads on the road to face Duke at 2:30 p.m. For a converted receiver who received all-Big 12 honorable mention in his first year starting, you probably won’t hear too much from Shepherd.
“That’s how he is,” says sophomore cornerback Greg Allen. “He really is like a big brother.”
When Shepherd was growing up in Mesquite, Texas, the family passion was horses. His uncles worked them. His mother, Roshunda, passed the knowledge onto her children. Soon enough, young Shepherd was learning to break in colts or tame wild horses during his spare time, each one a new project. He liked the thrill, the challenge, the opportunity to finish a job.
“You just ride them until they stop bucking,” Shepherd says.
Shepherd promised to take Tank riding sometime. For the moment, Angie says, laughing, Tank is still working up to the idea of hopping on a live animal. That’ll be the next project.
“After the season,” Shepherd promises.
Ah yes, the season. Naturally, there are fewer days to hang out during the fall. And worse, of course, is that Shepherd will have to leave KU soon enough.
When he signed up for the program, Shepherd looked forward to forming a bond and volunteering his time. But he didn’t realize how much he’d gain from it.
“JaCorey is like one of our family members now,” Angie says. “He’s like an older version of my son, it’s really amazing.”
If Shepherd’s college career is winding down, he made sure to leave one more imprint on Tank. Last school year, Tank decided he didn’t want to play football. Basketball was enough. This year, he’s back on the football field, wearing JaCorey’s No. 24.
A few days ago, Shepherd picked up his phone in the evening after practice. Tank had notched an interception, and he had a message for JaCorey.
“He had one more than me,” Shepherd says.