Constable: After nearly dying, former top MLB prospect becomes motivational speaker
As the hardest-throwing pitcher in college baseball in 1995, Alvie Shepherd dreamed of playing baseball for his hometown Chicago Cubs. Now he's grateful simply to be alive to watch the Cubs on TV.
"I definitely wanted to be drafted by the Cubs," remembers Shepherd, 43, as he watches a baseball game from the bleachers at Hinsdale Central High School, where he has helped coach kids in baseball and football. During his junior year at the University of Nebraska, Shepherd not only boasted a 98 mph fastball, but he also hit .343 with 12 home runs and 70 RBIs. Shepherd pictured himself playing for the Cubs in the National League, where the lack of designated hitters gave pitchers the opportunity to bat.
Instead, with the fourth pick in the draft, the Cubs drafted a hard-throwing Texas high school pitcher, who also could hit a bit -- Kerry Wood. Shepherd was drafted 21st by the Baltimore Orioles and given a $750,000 signing bonus. An athlete whose 6-foot-7, 240-pound frame made him a top athlete in baseball, football and basketball during his years at Proviso West High School in Hillside, Shepherd was projected to be a closer for the Orioles.
"I was raw," Shepherd says of his talent. "It was all potential."
His first season in the advanced A-league, Shepherd was 10 for 10 in save opportunities and struck out 104 batters in 96⅔ innings. During spring training in 1998, Shepherd made ESPN when a TV camera captured him running off the field while pointing to the legend next to him and saying, "Hey, Ma. Cal Ripkin." Shepherd pitched well enough that year in AA ball to be a likely call-up to the Orioles' MLB roster on Sept. 1, 1998. But those MLB dreams vanished when he hurt his shoulder on Aug. 23 and was done for the year. Shepherd worked hard to rehab, but his fastball never recovered. He eventually had surgery, and the Orioles cut him 10 months later. The Angels picked him up, then cut him. So did the Mets. Shepherd's baseball career ended after spring training in 2000.
"I was 24. I had a bank full of money and no purpose," Shepherd says. "There were a lot of bad things that occurred after pro ball. It really took me away from my values. It took a toll on me."
Bad investments forced him to move back in with his parents, Alvie and Faye, in Bellwood. His weight ballooned to 307 pounds, and Shepherd turned to alcohol and drugs.
"I was pretty much in a shell at that point. I'd help other kids get their skills sharpened and then go drown my sorrows," says Shepherd, who suffered with depression and thought about suicide during a 13-year downward spiral. "It was a battle. I prayed a lot."
His prayers were answered on April 27, 2013, he says, by a brain aneurysm that sent him to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge for emergency surgery and a two-week hospital stay.
"I want to live," Shepherd remembers thinking when he came out of surgery. "I knew right then I was going to get my life back."
He married his longtime girlfriend Rachel, they moved to Darien, and they now have a son, Kingston, who will be 3 in October, and a daughter, Braven, who celebrated her first birthday in April. Determined to get back in shape physically, emotionally and financially, Shepherd became a distributor with Isagenix International, a 15-year-old company that sells health and wellness products by using a network of direct salespeople. Shepherd lost weight, gained muscle and beat out thousands of contestants to win the 2016 IsaBody Challenge in Las Vegas, becoming the face of the company and touring the nation giving inspirational speeches. His #YESYOUCAN hashtag is the motto for his new life.
"It gives people hope," Shepherd says, noting that he is driven by his love for his family. "Because I've become the best version of myself, I've been able to inspire others."
He still roots for the Cubs, and he admits to getting a little teary when the team won the 2016 World Series.
"I fell in love with the energy," Shepherd says of the Cubs and Wrigley Field. "And I like a good underdog."