The hardest days were game days. Sunday afternoons. When his teammates were playing football and JaCorey Shepherd was stuck on the sidelines watching.
“It was tough, man,” Shepherd said Monday. “I never had to miss a season. I never had to really miss a game. Missed two games in college but other than that, I never missed anything.
“Game days were the toughest. Sitting on the sideline and I couldn’t do anything. Practice was tough, but I got used to it. But games? That was the hardest.”
Shepherd, then a rookie sixth-round cornerback out of Kansas, was having a very good preseason last year when he tore his right ACL during practice in early August in a sideline collision with running back Darren Sproles.
“Second half of the season it started to get easier because the season was starting to wind down,” Shepherd said. “I’m in the moment, but I was also looking forward to moving forward.”
There are two ways to go when you’re hurt. You can feel sorry for yourself, tune out and wait to get better. Or you can make use of every single moment available to you during your rehab.
Shepherd, always a workaholic, always a film hound, always the hardest worker on the roster in college, didn’t hesitate to make the right choice.
As disappointed as he was, he made sure his 2015 rookie year didn’t go to waste.
“JaCorey, you could tell it was really hard for him to not play,” said veteran corner Nolan Carroll, whose 2015 season was also cut short. “But he made the best use of his time last year.
“Chip (Kelly) let the injured guys stand on the sidelines for games and even brought them to road games, and when me and Walter (Thurmond) and Malcolm (Jenkins) would come off the field, he was always right there listening when we went over what just happened with (defensive backs coach Cory Undlin).
“You could see that he wanted to make the best of his situation and learn as much as possible, even though he couldn’t play. That’s not always easy for a young guy to do, but JaCorey, you could tell he just wanted to learn as much as possible.”
You have to give some credit to Undlin — Kelly’s defensive backs coach last year and still here this year under Doug Pederson — for taking the time to coach up a rookie sixth-round pick who was on injured reserve.
“Coach Cory, he always made the time for me,” Shepherd said. “The defense would come off the field and he would be like, ‘Watch this on this side,’ ‘Watch this route concept,’ just making sure I’m staying in tune.
“They kept me occupied and busy and preparing like I was still playing. ... The older guys would always question me to make sure I was on my P’s and Q’s so that way when I got back, I had the mental part down and it was really just a matter of getting my feet down under me and I’d be ready to go.”
Now that training camp is here, Shepherd is fully healed, 100 percent healthy and certainly not lacking in confidence.
His practice Monday on the opening day of training camp for rookies, quarterbacks and players who finished last year on injured reserve was his first real workout in a year.
“Two years I haven’t played in a game, man,” he said. “So it feels real good just to be out here. This has been a big test for me, but I think it’ll pay off. I learned some patience. That’s one thing I’ve always needed to work on, my patience, and being a smarter player.
“I feel like I’m a lot smarter than last year after sitting on the sideline for a year having to pay attention and learn. I feel like I’m a better player this year than last year even though I didn’t play a snap.”
Along with guys like Jalen Mills, Randall Evans, Jaylen Walker, Eric Rowe and Denzel Rice, Shepherd is one of a number of promising young corners on the Eagles’ roster.
Shepherd loves the competition. He embraces it.
“All of us love to compete,” he said. “That makes it fun. It’s not like, ‘Oh man, it’s a job.’ It’s fun because we’re all out there competing against one another and having fun together.
“We know we’re fighting for spots, but at the end of the day, if you’re having fun and just competing? You don’t want to be thinking about that. Especially around this time. You really can’t afford to because why are you worried about something you can’t control?”
How can Shepherd separate himself from all the other young corners?
After all, he’s not one of Pederson’s guys, he’s not one of Jim Schwartz’s guys. He’s a Chip Kelly draft pick, so he may have to do a little bit more than others just to open some eyes.
“All I can do is continue to do what I do and control what I can control,” he said. “You know? That’s the way the game is. There’s always going to be competition. Frankly, I love competition, so that doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve never been worried about competition, and I’m not going to start now. Just going to do what I do.
“If there’s not a job here, there’s a job somewhere else. All I can control is give it my all on every play.”
Shepherd said Monday’s initial practice was a big step for him, and another comes Saturday, the first practice of the summer in pads.
But the big one, the date circled on his calendar, will be Aug. 18, the preseason opener and Shepherd’s first game since Kansas-Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas, on Nov. 29, 2014.
“Everybody wants to know what JaCorey is all about,” he said with a laugh. “Keep watching. I’m planning on showing them.”