The news, known only to the inner circle of Ken Shepard's friends and business associates, has been, and continues to be, devastating.
On the outside, you would never know that Shepard, the general manager of the Bridgeport Bluefish, has been battling Stage 4 liver cancer for the past couple of years. He's always quick with a handshake, even quicker with a smile, and his seemingly endless energy makes you think that there's no way this guy can be sick.
But Ken Shepard is very sick.
In a recent story published in the Syracuse (N.Y.) Post-Standard, his story -- unknown to many -- became public. Just two and a half years ago, in January 2012, it was discovered that Shepard had Stage 3 liver cancer. After an operation to remove his right kidney (and two other subsequent operations), along with both chemo and radiation treatments, Shepard had been declared in remission. That was August 2012.
But before the 2013 season, his first with the Bluefish, the cancer had returned. And that news hit his Bridgeport co-workers hard.
"You try not to be somber, but it's tough," said Paul Herrmann, the team's director of public relations and baseball operations. "Ken's always been very open about his situation. He is in such high spirits, it's amazing. If you just walked up to him and shook his hand not knowing his situation, you wouldn't have a clue that he was suffering the way he is. Just to see him come in and work his butt off and act like nothing's going on ... it's amazing."
On Saturday morning, Shepard, 49, took part in the CT Challenge -- an annual charity bike ride that was expected to raise an estimated $1.7 million this year for cancer survivorship research and the Center for Cancer Survivorship in Southport -- and attended a cancer survivor's tribute walk.
In support of Shepard, several cycling groups, including members from "Team Wheels," rode in support of Shepard.
"I got a call from a friend of mine and she said that they were putting a team together and they wanted to dedicate their ride for me, and I was honored by that," said Shepard, who's from Syracuse. "There are so many wonderful people out there. I feel love all over the place from everyone, from all the places where I've lived and worked and it really is comforting to know that."
That friend was Lee Crouch, the director for development at the Center for Survivorship. She met Shepard two years ago when she joined the Center and the two quickly became friends.
"That's when I found out he was a cancer survivor," said Crouch, whose team is looking to raise $15,000 in Shepard's behalf by the time donations are due in September. "He's good beyond good and we thought that this would be a wonderful tribute to ride in his honor and build this team because he has so many people that care about him."
Along with Shepard's wife, Tonya, who rode the 25-mile loop, his longtime friend and Syracuse Little League teammate Tony Hwang rode as part of Crouch's team. A total of 1,036 riders either rode a 10-, 25-, 50- 75- or 100-mile course, and over the previous nine Challenges, an estimated $12 million has been raised for cancer survivorship research.
Interestingly enough, Crouch herself is a six-month cancer survivor after doctors discovered and treated her for colon cancer in January. But it was Shepard's story -- he stays in the Holiday Inn during homestands so his family didn't have to move from their Scranton, Pa., home -- and his amazing battle that sparked Crouch to form a team and ride in his honor.
"It's always so much more meaningful when you ride for someone and we're so happy to do that for Ken," she said. "We've kind of built a little community around him. When he's here, we gather around to support him. I call it the patchwork quilt of friends because we all are here helping him when we can and we've become very involved with his family and his kids. He is strong beyond strong. He's a role model for all of us." Read Full Article
This season will be Shepard's last in baseball. His career started some 20-plus years ago in Geneva, N.Y., and has included stops in Prince William, Va.; Wilmington, Del.; Atlantic City, N.J.; Savannah, Ga.; and Bridgeport.
When he's not in Bridgeport working homestands, Shepard is home with Tonya and his daughter Taylor, 16, and son Travis, 7. He is close to John Hopkins Hospital in Philadelphia, where he's been receiving various treatments -- including a special clinical trial drug -- but so far, there has only been limited success.
"Are (the doctors) optimistic? They're hopeful," said Shepard, who's been taking a new FDA-approved kidney cancer drug for a little over a week now. "There's really not much of a chance for a cure for this type of cancer, but everyone's different. You just kind of go every day and live.
"As far as me, I feel fine. I'm still working and I plan to work until I can't and when that time comes, we'll see where things go from there."
Through 36 home dates, the Bluefish have drawn 90,609, an average of 2,517 a game, a solid increase over last season's 2,347. Recently, the team drew 3,917 for a "Battle of the Sexes" exhibition game against the Stratford Brakettes fast-pitch softball team.
"To see him so upbeat and continuing to make the Bluefish work through his leadership, we just have to try and follow his lead," Herrmann said. "We're going to follow him and try to keep that same energy. It's very inspiring just to work for him right now."
Thanks to his faith, Shepard is an inspiration to everyone because of his strength and perseverance.
"I don't know how I'd make it without it (faith) and how Christ has lifted me up," he said. "It's kind of like a hurricane, you know? Most people look at hurricanes and they see destruction and death, but you talk to someone that flies weather airplanes and when they go into the eye, they'll tell you that the eye of the hurricane is the most beautiful, serene thing. And that's where I am because of my relationship with Christ.
"I'm in a great place. I look at it like, `I've got today, I'm going to enjoy today.' And whatever happens tomorrow, well, God's already got that written so I'm not going to worry about it and I don't."