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Jim Sheppard flipped through a binder at his home in Urbana last week and reminisced, trying to remember the significance of each page he slid into a plastic covering after using them to make an announcement at a University of Illinois football or basketball game as the teams’ public-address announcer.
“There are some special ones,” he said as he thumbed through the sheets of paper.
Some are announcements he made after records were broken, including Deon Thomas, James Augustine, and Robert Holcombe breaking the school’s scoring, rebounding and rushing records, respectively. Others are tributes to legends, including one to Red Grange 70 years after he scored five touchdowns to beat Michigan, and another to legendary Henry Iba, after which fiery Indiana coach Bob Knight approached him and surprised him by shaking his hand and thanking him for the tribute.
Those pages serve as the highlights, but for 22 years, Sheppard’s deep voice accompanied nearly every Illinois touchdown and basket, every penalty and foul, every win and loss, and, of course, every Dee Brown three-pointer, after which he shouted “Dee for Three,” as thousands upon thousands of fans listened from the stands of Memorial Stadium and State Farm Center, then known as the Assembly Hall.
“His pipes are still pretty legendary and familiar to folks who have been longtime Illini fans, both in football and basketball and elsewhere,” said Mike Pearson, a longtime friend and former sports information director for the UI.
Sheppard has long since exited the announcing booths. His last game was also Chief Illiniwek’s last dance at the men’s basketball team’s game against Michigan in 2007. While he was never given a reason why he wasn’t asked back, he surmises that the athletic department may have wanted a new voice to go along with the Chief’s exit.
Sixteen years later, Sheppard’s voice is still imprinted on some of Illini fans’ most memorable moments, including those from the last two Final Four men’s basketball teams and Big Ten champion football teams.
Those days, of course, have long since passed, but Sheppard is still using that recognizable voice. After calling games for his grandsons’ teams at Unity for several years, Sheppard was asked if he’d be interested in calling games at his alma mater, Fisher High School, by the Bunnies’ new coach, former UI linebacker Matt Sinclair.
While he’s far from the bright lights of the Big Ten, his time at the UI is still imprinted on him in ways that changed his life forever.
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The call in 1985 from former UI All-American football player Tab Bennett, who had recently become the first African American sports information director in the Big Ten, was unexpected.
The previous public-address announcer, Tom Trent, had left Champaign suddenly that summer, and the Illini were looking for a successor. Bennett asked Sheppard, who was then calling play-by-play for high school games on the radio after his day job selling advertisements for the station, to fill in.
“I wasn’t nervous about announcing to that many people,” he said. “That didn’t worry me. The only thing I was worried about were the logistics and timing that go into PA announcing.”
Of course, Sheppard is quick to admit, a public-address announcer relies heavily on his spotter next to him, who relays the names of passers, runners, tacklers and other players involved in plays. Sheppard’s spotter for his first two games in 1985, longtime friend and former Champaign Central baseball coach Charlie Due, died of a heart attack while refereeing a football game the following Friday.
Shocked and devastated as he was, he needed a replacement for that day’s game. In stepped longtime friend Rich Piccioli, who spotted for him for the rest of his time at the UI.
“I think a lot of people that are not familiar with PA announcers, they think, ‘How does that guy get all those numbers of the ball carrier, the receiver and the tackler?’” Sheppard said. “Believe me, the spotters do all the work.”
Of course, Sheppard put in plenty of work. Each week leading up to the game, he made sure to hound each team’s sports information department to make sure he had every pronunciation correct, up and down the roster.
“What separates Jim from others in that role is the prep time,” Pearson said. “That’s a difficult role, especially when there are so many unusual names. You want to make sure to get them right, so he’s always spent a good portion of the pregame talking to both SIDs to say, ‘Tell me how this name is pronounced.’”
In 1995, Sheppard’s life changed drastically again when he met Joan Scott through a dating service. Scott quickly recognized Sheppard’s name and voice, he said. After all, her son was a redshirt freshman on the team — walk-on offensive lineman Brian Scott, a name Sheppard also recognized from his time as a star for Urbana. Three months after meeting, the two were married, and Sheppard was able to announce his new stepson’s games.
His senior year, Scott earned a scholarship and also entered a game for the first time at center. Sheppard announced his stepson’s entrance into the game while making sure to hide his emotions. The experience reiterated to him the importance of his fastidiousness when it came to pronouncing names.
“My feeling was, if you’re a parent or grandpa, uncle, or friend, and you go to a game and your favorite player gets in on one play — they recover a fumble, they make a tackle, or do something — and the PA announcer announces their name and mispronounces it, it really leaves, to me, a sour taste in your mouth about that play,” he said. “To 99.9 percent of the crowd, it doesn’t make any difference, because they didn’t know the kid. But I look at names as being very special and precious to all of us. So I always study names religiously.”
He does the same when it comes to high school games, even though the press materials given ahead of time are nonexistent outside of rosters. He calls coaches ahead of games to go through names and starters and to make sure each player has the right number on rosters.
“I don’t treat it any differently,” he said.
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Four years ago, Sheppard, who is diabetic, was alone at home when he passed out because of low blood sugar. He broke his ankle, and after an operation, he suffered an infection in his leg. Doctors were forced to amputate his lower leg.
Sheppard was resolute, though, that he wouldn’t let it change his life negatively.
“I was very determined that it wasn’t going to slow me down,” he said. “Doctors told me in the hospital that a lot of the diabetics who have an amputation, they give up (on walking). I said, ‘That’s not me.’ I was bound and determined that it wasn’t going to slow me down.
“Obviously there are some changes with having a prosthetic leg, but I got through it fine, and I kept on going through it, motivated, and I just kept on being motivated and resumed a normal life. “
Sheppard think he owes that attitude to his time at the UI.
While he played sports growing up, Sheppard admits he was never destined for greatness at 150 pounds. As the UI’s public address announcer, though, he was able to see first-hand both the successes and the trials and tribulations that led those athletes to those heights.
“Being around athletics for such a big part of my life, I think that had something to do with it,” he said. “You’re bound and determined to get back when you’re an athlete. That type of mind-set of people fighting back, subconsciously, I think that was certainly a factor in my recovery.”
Celebrating those athletes’ time in the spotlight, however big or small, has become one of Sheppard’s passions in life, whether he’s calling a game in the Big Ten or the Small Schools’ division of the Heart of Illinois Conference.
“I thoroughly enjoyed doing it,” he said. “And I still enjoy doing it.”