Family tragedy haunting Eagle

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:37 AM ET

You can see Alltel Stadium from here, decorated with the baby blue signage, the tents and trappings of all things Super Bowl XXXIX.

You are just across the St. John's River from the site of this Sunday's NFL championship game, but the Summer Oaks complex may as well be from another planet.

"Complex" is a shined-up label for this rough neighbourhood where, mere weeks ago, the world of Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard was shattered.

In Sheppard's own harsh words, Summer Oaks is not a complex, it is a ghetto.

The Pro Bowler can spit out the label, one that makes civic leaders here cringe, because he is a Jacksonville native and he has lived that life.

Sheppard is one of the lucky ones, as is teammate Brian Dawkins and Eagles' director of player development, Harold Carmichael.

All three are natives of crime-ridden parts of this working-class north Florida city. They survived their own 'hoods, using football at William M. Raines High School as both an outlet and a means toward a life as professional athletes.

Sheppard's cousin, Terrell Buiey, wasn't so blessed. Just days before the Eagles playoff win against the Minnesota Vikings last month, the 26-year-old was shot and killed in an apparent robbery attempt gone awry.

Understandably, Sheppard was devastated, leaving the team for a couple of days in the week leading up to what at that point would be the biggest game of his career.

Through the grief, he talked about Jacksonville's crime problems, saying his home town is "a crazy place." He talked about the pain he was feeling over the loss of a man who was like a brother, raised under the same roof.

Such is the focus of Sunday's meeting with the New England Patriots that Sheppard didn't want to go there yesterday, despite the pain that still drives through his heart.

"I'm not gonna overshadow what's going on in this moment with that," said Sheppard, whose crucial assignment is to shut down New England receivers.

"It's in the past now. I pray on it and let God take care of that. I don't want to discuss all of that."

Instead, Sheppard wanted to talk football. About how it is his mission to live up to the biggest challenge of his first season as a starter. About how kids like his younger brother, who still attends Raines, can see hope in him. Hope that wasn't enough to spring Buiey from the misery that at times engulfed his life.

"It's big for those kids, that they have something they can relate to," said Sheppard, now 24 but who was a father when he was just 16. "Being in the predicament a lot of them are in ... it's just like any other city, you have your spots.

INSPIRATION

"But a lot of us came out of there and we made it. I hope I am a motivational tool that some of these kids can use."

The details of the as yet unsolved murder could also serve as inspiration for those kids to aim for a better life. According to reports, Buiey was gunned down in front of his family by two thugs wearing ski masks on a Saturday morning as his own kids pleaded for their daddy to be spared.

As is his right, Sheppard didn't want to turn his mourning into an open book, but he has leaned on his teammates.

"It's a tough situation for him, but he's trying to be strong," Dawkins said. "Of course it will be on his mind. He wouldn't be human if it wasn't. All I can do is tell him I will be there if he needs me."

For his part, Sheppard did a good job of putting a brave face on a situation he has not yet dealt with completely. He talked about the hundreds of ticket requests from friends and playing football on a field he first saw in high school.

So the thoughts about the hell that happened across the river will remain private.

But Sheppard's brother, 18-year-old Daniel, was in that house when the murder took place, a reality difficult to imagine not hitting home when he can almost reach out and touch the crime scene.


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