EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – For a few moments last Sept. 26, Sterling Shepard feared his football career had just ended.
A routine step while running a pass pattern late in the Giants' Monday night game against Dallas left him with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, one of football's most dreaded injuries. It was Shepard's second major medical issue in nine months after tearing his Achilles tendon in December 2021. Shepard wondered if the latest setback would force him into retirement.
By the time he reached the trainer's room after being carted off the MetLife Stadium field, that dread had dissipated.
"It was pretty much that fast," Shepard said today. "When I was sitting on that table and I knew I tore it, I had to really sit down and think about it. Ultimately, I came to 'I don't want to end my career this way.' I would like to be the one to say, 'I'm gonna walk away from the game' than let an injury and just quitting on myself. So, that ran across my mind. At the same time, I view myself as a mentally strong person and I got that thought out of there real quick when I just made it up in my mind that I was gonna come back and give it another go."
Shepard today cleared a significant hurdle in his comeback when he practiced for the first time after he passed his physical and was removed from the physically unable to perform list.
"It feels great, man," Shepard said after the workout. "Just to be back out there with the guys and actually going against somebody. I've been sitting over there for months, running routes by myself and just trying to visualize somebody there. To actually have somebody honestly was 10 times better. I wasn't even thinking about my planting or anything like that. I felt great, so it was good to be back out there with the guys."
View photos from Sunday's training camp practice at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
Shepard is starting with a relatively light workload.
"We will limit him, relative to the amount of reps and just kind of bring him along," coach Brian Daboll said. "He has done a good job in the rehab process. So, he was ready to get taken off."
Shepard, the longest-tenured Giants player with eight years on the roster, was one of two veteran receivers to make their training camp debuts today; nine-year pro Jamison Crowder was activated off the non-football injury list.
In 2022, Shepard was activated off PUP on Aug. 24 and progressed quickly enough to haul in a Giants season-long 65-yard touchdown pass in the season opener at Tennessee 18 days later.
This year, Shepard returned to the field almost a month earlier because a) he was injured in late September, not mid-December, as he was in 2021; and b) torn ACLs are easier to return from than a ruptured Achilles. Shepard said the extra time will make a "100 percent" difference in his readiness for the season.
"I had a week of practice before my first game," he said. "I hadn't been contacted the whole offseason, then you go through a full camp where you build conditioning. And conditioning is huge. A lot of times you see guys get injured because they're not in condition. I'm the type of guy who's not gonna hold myself back. I'm gonna throw myself out there. It's great having a full camp to be able to work on that conditioning and going against guys, getting contacted. That's helpful."
No one wants to tear a knee ligament, but it's preferable to popping an Achilles.
"The pain was worse when it happened with the knee than the Achilles, but the recovery process was easier with the knee than the Achilles," Shepard said. "Rehabbing after an Achilles is 10 times harder. There is no mobility. You have to be on the scooter for most of the time. Then, you have to wear a boot. With the ACL, I was squatting a couple of days later. You're on crutches for about two weeks and then you can start walking around, if not on the crutches then on your own. From a mobility aspect, it was a lot easier.
"Like I said, two days after, I was squatting and then in another week I was squatting 345 on a trap bar deadlift like it was nothing. I felt like I didn't need surgery. But, you know, I'd take a few steps then it may give on me, and it reminds you the ACL isn't there."
Some players are seldom seen around the team after suffering a season-ending injury. But Shepard was a constant presence on the practice field and on the sideline during games, even on the road. Daboll wanted Shepard to be around the team. And Shepard was adamant the bond with his teammates shouldn't be torn just because his knee did.
"Coach Daboll, (after) camp last season, asked us to write down what we wanted in a teammate," Shepard said. "I came up with 'selflessness' and that's what I was thinking the whole time. I got hurt, but what would a selfless teammate do? That's just honestly who I am as a person, anyway. A selfless teammate is gonna go out there and be with their team, regardless of being able to go home to sit on the couch. Plus, I'd rather be around my guys than sit around on the couch every day, doing whatever, playing a video game. I'd rather be with those guys. If you asked the guys who are done playing, what do they miss the most, it's usually the camaraderie. So, I'm not gonna miss out on that piece."
Shepard knows nothing is guaranteed. Though he has played on the outside, Shepard has long excelled in the slot, and the Giants have numerous receivers who could fill that role. They signed another last week in veteran Cole Beasley. And they have another wideout on PUP in Wan'Dale Robinson, a second-round draft choice last year.
"It's great having that experience being outside and knowing that I can win outside (and) I'm not just banked as a slot receiver," Shepard said. "Especially when you've got guys like Crowder and Beasley who've done it for many years at a high level. You want to be able to have that versatility. It's the easiest way on the field and you know those guys work magic in there, so you want to have those guys in there. The more playmakers that you can have on the field – I mean, we've got a lot of guys that can flat out go, so I enjoy that out there."
Might Shepard be the odd man out?
"I don't worry about how it's going to shake out," he said. "I just worry about where my feet are right now. What can I do to get better? Whatever the training staff has me do, how can I get better if they're going to have me sit out today? That's the situation I'm in right there. I'm going to listen to them, but when I'm on the field, that's my job. I'm supposed to get open, catch the ball, that's what I'm focused on. Whatever decision or however it shakes out, that's just the way it shakes out. It isn't anything that I can do about it but do what I do, so that's the way that I approach it. Every day."
*Two other receivers caught long passes that elicited loud cheers from the fans attending practice – Darius Slayton down the middle from Daniel Jones and rookie Jalin Hyatt up the left sideline from Tyrod Taylor.
*Practice ended with a one-play red zone faceoff. Jones threw into the end zone for Darren Waller, and though the play was officially whistled dead as a sack, safety Jason Pinnock made a backhanded interception with one hand. The entire offense then had to sprint the width of the field.
*Beasley returned to practice after missing Friday's workout after taking a knee to the quad…Defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches was on the field for the first time after sitting out the first three practices because he was in a car accident last Tuesday…Rookie safety Gervarrius Owens also returned to the field.
Outside linebacker Jihad Ward and tight end Ryan Jones (knee) did not practice. "(Ward has) a little bit of something, but it's not anything long-term," Daboll said.