OXFORD, Miss. -- Tee Shepard doesn’t know why he’s deaf or what caused his hearing impairment, but he remembers the first time he realized something was wrong.
"First grade, preschool, I was doing everything," he recalled. "But when we really got to the math and to the reading in third grade, I was like 'I can’t read. I can’t hear what anybody is saying.' It just got worse as I got older."
Shepard also remembers his first pair of hearing aids. Unlike the ones he has now, which are hardly visible, these were lime green and wrapped around his ears and the back of his head. He picked out the color himself because he thought they looked cool, but his classmates didn’t see it that way.
"Everybody was like, 'Oh my God, what is that? Are those radios in your ear? Are those MP3 players? Let me listen.' I was afraid to tell them I was deaf," Shepard said. "And then once they found out I had hearing loss, they would make fun of me."
It was a struggle for Shepard growing up. He was bullied, and felt embarrassed that he couldn’t hear.
But those days are long gone. He’s found a new home in Oxford -- 2,000 miles away from where he grew up in California -- and he’s expected to start at cornerback for an Ole Miss team that could win the SEC. More importantly, though, he’s embraced his situation.
"I think about living in that world, and I don’t know that I would handle it as well as he does," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. "But 90 percent of the time, he’s got a tremendous, beautiful smile on his face, and he’s excited about the opportunity he has."
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When you talk to Shepard, you almost have to be sitting next to him for him to hear you. Even then, he’s reading your lips. If you turn your back to him, forget about it.
That’s one thing the Ole Miss coaching staff, in particular co-defensive coordinator Jason Jones, had to adjust when the former junior college transfer arrived on campus last summer.
"When he first got here, we sat down and we had a conversation," Jones said. "I told him I never coached a player with a hearing problem, and I said you’ve got to help me. If my back is turned and you need to see me, you’ve got to let me know. It’s not like I’m being disrespectful to you. It’s just something you and I, we’ve got to work through.
"I think we’ve got it down. We have different hand signals that we use to communicate with each other. And in the meeting room, I make sure I’m always facing him as we’re installing and putting things up on our defensive board."
Talent, however, was never a question with Shepard.
In fact, Senquez Golson might never have had his breakout season with a league-leading 10 interceptions last fall if it wasn’t for a toe injury during fall camp that ended Shepard’s season early. Before the injury, Jones says Shepard was pushing both Golson and Mike Hilton for a starting spot.
But the injury, which forced Shepard to ride a scooter for three months, allowed him to get in the weight room and get stronger, and now he’s a more complete player.
The coaches' only concern this fall is how he will react when he’s in a game.
"There’s no question talentwise, he’s talented enough to really help our football team," Freeze said. "But there are still some unknowns that I don’t think we’ll know until we get under the lights and he’s out there on his own some."
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Ole Miss opens at home against UT-Martin in two weeks. That will be the first time Shepard gets to run out of the tunnel with his teammates, but he’s already impacting lives.
He’s a role model to his younger brother, who has the same hearing impairment he does. And he’s a role model to the kids at Memphis Oral School for the Deaf, the school he visited this summer to share his story.
"That was one of the best days in my life," Shepard said. "It humbled me. And it not only humbled me, but it just gave me chills."
He’s a role model for kids all over the country who are growing up with challenges.
"I’m pretty sure there are a lot of kids out there that are scared," Shepard said. "They’re probably talented, but they’re afraid because everybody has pretty much been bullied in their life. There’s always that one bully that we don’t come home and tell our parents about.
"I held it in. I didn’t ever tell my parents. I held it in and just fought through it all my life. It was hard, but I’m here."