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SELMA — To some, Malik Shepherd was a name in a headline, a young man shot dead at age 19. To others, he’s a cautionary tale.
But those who knew him best called him an inspiration who lived in a way that’s helping them carry on now that he’s gone.
Shepherd was a former starting quarterback at Smithfield-Selma High School and a loyal friend who knew how to make anyone laugh.
“I don’t think I will laugh like that again,” said his longtime friend, Kavon Ward.
No matter what he was dealing with, Shepherd always had a smile on his face, friends and family said. Humor was how the 2018 SSS graduate connected with others, and it was how he showed he cared.
“He had a great sense of humor,” said B.J. Freeman, a childhood friend and Clayton High School junior who grew up playing basketball with Shepherd. “He used to always keep a smile on his face. If you’re mad and he’s seen you mad, he’ll come text you if you’re not around him, and he’ll just lighten the whole room, just jokes and smiles.”
Shepherd was a teenager always on the go in his gray 1998 Saturn SL1. Even after moving to Charlotte to attend Johnson C. Smith University, the car carried him all over the state to visit friends.
Shepherd loved his car, detailed it often and installed a radio in it himself. One time, while in Greenville, he managed to smooth talk a tow truck driver out of taking away his car.
The car was part of who he was — with a red logo on the front that made it stand out. Friends knew if you were riding with him, food was a no-no, and if he found even so much as a crumb, he’d meticulously clean it, inside and out.
“That was his baby boy,” Ward said, smiling. “That was his Saturn.”
Shepherd died in a car fitting the description of his beloved Saturn.
Shortly after 11 p.m. on Jan. 4, six shots rang out near the intersection of West Preston and South Green streets in Selma. A police department incident report said that when Cpl. J.M. Ward arrived on the scene, Shepherd was unresponsive. He was soon pronounced dead, just 28 days shy of his 20th birthday.
“He found himself in the wrong places at the wrong time,” said Imika Barnes, his mother.
Tyquan Dublin, 21, who was with Shepherd that night, also suffered a gunshot wound. He underwent surgery and survived.
By Jan. 9, Selma police had charged two people in Shepherd’s death — Julian Furr, 23, of Holly Ridge and Kevin Ruiz, 20, of Camp Lejeune. A 16-year-old also faces charges in the incident.
When news of the shooting spread that night, close friends made their way to the scene. They just wanted to see Shepherd, but he was already gone.
Now, some two months later, his death has left a void in the community.
“His dreams were taken away from him,” his mother said.
A dream cut short
In reports of the shooting, news organizations gravitated toward Shepherd being a former starting quarterback for the Spartans.
Those who knew him said that was fitting.
“Malik was a 19-year-old young man who had a love for all sports,” his mother said in a text message to the Johnstonian News. “He enjoyed football the most, and his dream was to become a professional football player.”
Outside of a brief foray into running track, Shepherd focused on football in high school. The sport meant everything to him.
“That’s what he wanted to do,” Ward said. “I mean, we used to laugh and joke on him and everything, but that’s what he wanted.”
And Shepherd had big dreams on the gridiron too, dreams that were set to resume a few days after his death.
He was scheduled to enroll at Barton College in Wilson for the spring semester, transferring from Johnson C. Smith University. On the night he died, his car was packed and ready for a new adventure at a school closer to home.
While he was guaranteed only a spot as a student, Shepherd had hoped to walk on to the Bulldogs’ new program, which will play its first season in the fall under head coach Chip Hester.
“One of the recruiting coaches, we had talked about him coming out there trying to walk on and earn a scholarship,” former SSS coach Mike Parrish said.
Parrish took the job as head coach in 2017, a few months before Shepherd’s senior season for the Spartans. The two already knew each other — Parrish had coached the Spartans’ JV squad — and the pair stayed in touch after Shepherd’s time playing for SSS was up.
The former coach said Shepherd often texted him about getting back into football shape after he set his sights on making the Barton team.
Always the joker
Parrish said Shepherd was a pretty good athlete with some speed and arm strength, but most of his memories of his former QB have little to do with X’s and O’s.
“He was always the joker,” Parrish said. “He would get laser focused when it was time to focus, but he was always that guy to kind of make you laugh, kind of lift you up.”
In Shepherd’s senior season, Smithfield-Selma finished with a 1-10 record. Blowouts were hard, particularly for Parrish, but Shepherd was always there to provide perspective, his coach said.
“I remember we’d be on the sideline and we’d be getting killed,” Parrish said, laughing. “And he’d say, ‘Coach, smile, man. To hell with this game.’ ”
Before Shepherd, Parrish had never lost a player to gun violence. It hit hard for him. And in the weeks since, Parrish has spent a lot of time thinking about the person Shepherd was and how his death changed a community. “He just brought everybody together,” Parrish said. “It didn’t matter, you know, if you were a teacher or a coach, if you were one of his friends, like one of his closer friends, or if you’re just somebody that knew him in class. He was amazing.”
“He would pop by my classroom from time to time and just come in, and the kids that didn’t even know who he was, he’d have some of them laughing,” Parrish said. “Just the way he carried himself, he just brought people together. I don’t really know what it was about him, but he just had that quality.”
Humor on the field
Shepherd became a leader on the football team through his sense of humor. He could motivate his teammates and make them laugh at the same time.
Parrish said he would never forget the second game of Shepherd’s senior season. It was against Wilson Beddingfield on Aug. 25, 2017.
“He made sure everybody was lined up right, then he sent a guy in motion,” Parrish recalled. “Then (he) snapped the ball and threw it into the bleachers at Beddingfield, like straight threw it at the bleachers.
“He gets to the sidelines and I’m like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ And he said, ‘Coach, I forgot the play.’ ”
That memory will always bring a smile to his face, Parrish said.
At a football camp earlier that summer, Shepherd had a hilarious moment when he discovered a coach’s CPAP machine, something he had never seen before. His interaction with the sleep apnea device became an inside joke that stuck with his coaches and teammates.
“He had no clue what it was and that turned out to be hilarious,” Parrish said. “Everybody always joked and laughed about him and that CPAP machine. Man, it was hilarious.”
Freeman, the Clayton High junior, is a standout on the Comet basketball team, which made a deep run in this year’s state playoffs. In the games he played after Shepherd died, Freeman tried to honor his friend the best way he knew how.
After big plays, the 6-foot-6 forward used his hands to flash an M or L, for Malik or “Leek,” as he was known to friends. The two grew up together and spent a lot of time in the gym,.
“He was just a good dude,” Freeman said. “He loved playing sports. He was about to go to college. I just want to continue that tradition and just keep playing for him and playing for his family.”
Freeman is not alone in paying tribute to Shepherd. A few days after he died, hundreds attended a vigil at SSS, and since then, many more have taken to social media to remember him.
“You’re on my mind heavy today, man,” Taya Bryant wrote on Facebook on Jan. 19. “I miss you so much. I called you hoping you would answer. I love you so much, Malik Shepherd.”
Jarence Tyler Scott made his tribute permanent. “Malik Shepherd, got you tatted on me now, dawg,” he wrote on Facebook. “Miss and love you, bro. Rest easy up there. #LongLiveMalik.”
Since his friend died, Ward has had trouble concentrating on his classes at Johnston Community College. The two had known each other since they attended a summer camp together as children.
“School ain’t clicking right now because I’m not really focused on it,” Ward said. “So I’ve just been asking him to help me see a way to do it and get through it, to finish it.”
Making a commitment
In the wake of Shepherd’s death, community leaders have launched “I’m Committed,” a group that hopes to prevent violent teen deaths in Johnston by finding new ways to reach young people who might be at risk.
Antoan Whidbee, one of the group’s leaders, said he can’t help but wonder if Shepherd should have stayed in Charlotte instead of returning to his home county. “He was in Charlotte going to college and he decided to come back home,” Whidbee said. “And maybe that was the worst decision that he could have ever made.”
Whidbee said the chief aim of “I’m Committed” is to prevent teen deaths instead of reacting to them. In its early stages, the group has reached out to all sorts of folks — barbers, former gang members, criminals and law enforcement — to find ways the community can provide positive role models for teenagers.
For Whidbee, a Smithfield attorney who lives in Clayton, his commitment comes from a personal connection to Shepherd. He came to know the teen through what he called a “relatively mundane legal matter,” and from there, he took the high schooler under his wing.
Shepherd became heavily involved in volunteer efforts with Whidbee, and they often talked about his future plans, including football and college. Just a few days before Shepherd’s death, the two ran into each other at Walmart, where they talked about the many things Shepherd had to look forward to in life.
When he learned Shepherd had been shot to death, Whidbee was angry. But while sitting at Shepherd’s funeral, that anger became a question.
“Well, what are you going to do?” Whidbee asked himself.
“You have a kid who was ready to go to college and move his stuff in,” Whidbee said. “I was looking at him in his casket in his football jersey and I remember this kid smiling, telling me he’s about to transfer, about how excited he was. So I’m watching his funeral, I’m listening, and I’m like, ‘You know what? If I’m angry about this, I can only imagine how some of the kids are feeling.’ ”
Whidbee challenged himself to commit himself to finding a way to prevent others from suffering Shepherd’s fate.
“If you say you care, what are you going to do?” Whidbee asked himself. “And the word commitment is doing what you said you were going to do long after the spirit that said it is gone. So once you eulogize someone, are you still committed?”