Living his dream: New Detroit Tigers play-by-play broadcaster Matt Shepard recalls days as a Chippewa
Matt Shepard sat in a classroom surrounded by his peers as a senior in 1988, ecstatic to finally receive his degree from Central Michigan University.
Shepard listened intently to a respected CMU broadcasting graduate preach to the class. When asked for advice on the future, he was blunt.
"Get out of the business," Shepard recalls the alumnus saying – claiming the broadcasting industry was too difficult and challenging.
Amidst his fourth year of school with graduation looming, Shepard thought the words were unfair, selfish and wrong. He didn't let the alumnus squash his dreams, and he never backed down from his goals.
Thirty-one years after Shepard walked across the stage on graduation day at Rose Arena with a broadcasting degree in his hand, he accepted his dream job as the television play-by-play broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers on Fox Sports Detroit.
"This is the greatest honor I've ever had in my broadcasting career," Shepard, 53, said. "Baseball is a big deal in Detroit and the state of Michigan. Everybody knows it."
Shepard now controls 1-of-30 television play-by-play jobs for an MLB team, a testimony to talent in the industry. His dream finally came true.
Attending Central Michigan was a key part of Shepard's life, but his journey to becoming a play-by-play broadcaster for the Tigers truly began as an adolescent.
A Boyhood Dream
Back in the day, Shepard and his father, Yale Shepard, could be found watching baseball in the family room. The Tigers weren't on every day, but there was always baseball. If it was a night where Detroit wasn't televised, the duo enjoyed watching the Montreal Expos or Philadelphia Phillies.
Shepard talked with his father about the game, legendary players of the past and future stars. His family didn't have enough money for season tickets or a spot in the seats on Opening Day, but the pair always found their way to Tiger Stadium at least once per season.
Because Shepard didn't attend as many games as he would've liked, he learned from Ernie Harwell and George Kell, two legendary Tigers broadcasters.
"For me to be able to sit there and talk baseball with my father was really important," said Shepard, who dreamed of broadcasting Tigers games since he was 10.
Shepard was 19 years old when his father died in 1985 at age 60. When he got the Tigers play-by-play job, he broke down in tears – remembering the time spent with his dad.
Jeff Byle, the executive producer at Fox Sports Detroit, said Shepard's childhood in Farmington Hills, high school years at North Farmington High and in-state collegiate days played a colossal role in making him the next voice of the Tigers.
"Detroit sports fan are passionate, knowledgeable and caring. It's the fabric of who we are," Byle said. "To have someone be a play-by-play that understands that firsthand is invaluable. You can't buy that."
Fox Sports Detroit general manager Greg Hammaren agreed. Shepard's hometown background sealed the deal.
"The fact that he not only knows the fan base, but is the fan base, represented a lot of what we were looking for in our future play-by-play man," he said.
Shepard's CMU Journey
Developing an early love for sports and broadcasting, Shepard landed at Eastern Michigan as a walk-on baseball player. He transferred to CMU for his final two years of college and got involved from the moment he stepped foot in Mount Pleasant.
He lived on Maple Street. His wife, Lisa Shepard, a fellow graduate of CMU, resided on Cherry Street.
Throughout his time at CMU, Shepard broadcasted football, basketball and baseball games for various radio and television stations. He fondly remembers interviewing two CMU legends in football coach Herb Deromedi and baseball coach Dean Kreiner.
Shepard, as a broadcaster for the Chippewas, called games played by first baseman Shawn Hare, who went on to play for the Tigers, outfielder Larry Lamphere, who later participated for Team USA baseball, and right-handed pitcher Kevin Tapani, who held a 13-year MLB career, to name a few.
Even though Shepard's path was clearly set on sports, he also did a television show at CMU where audience members danced to different types of music. The task forced Shepard out of his comfort zone.
"That made me more comfortable with the television presentation," Shepard said. "Of course, when you're working for News Central (34) as a sports anchor, that helped me. All the experiences were fun for me."
Shepard was classmates with Rob Simpson, a hockey sportscaster in Canada, Ed Kengerski, a reporter for MGoBlue.com, Bruce Gillies, a movie producer, Tom Zito, a national sales manager at KTVB News Group, and a number of play-by-play talents.
When Shepard was announced as the Tigers play-by-play broadcaster, Zito reached out to him.
"This is for our graduating class at Central," Zito explained over a phone call.
"Man, we are all pretty successful at what we are doing," Shepard humbly responded. "There's a lot to be proud of."
"But yeah, you get that job – it means something special," Zito said.
Without Zito and the rest of CMU's graduating class of 1988 pushing him to success, Shepard doesn't believe he'd be where he is today.
Coming out of graduation, his short-term goal was to get back to Detroit in five years. He accomplished it in four. Shepard's long-term goal – earn the play-by-play job for a Detroit sports team. It took him 31 years, and he's officially made it.
As a young broadcaster, there were moments when Shepard and his wife had to decide whether to pay the bills or put food on the table.
"That wasn't easy," Shepard said. "There's been times where I've missed really important events in my kids' lives, and they've always said it's okay and supported me in everything I've done. I just think to all the sacrifices my wife and kids made while I've been on this journey."
The trip to the highest level has paid off, and it's only getting sweeter for Shepard.
Following Dick Enberg
Shepard declined to put his name in the same category as Dick Enberg, arguably the greatest broadcaster to ever work in the industry.
Enberg, who died at 82 years old in 2017, graduated from CMU in 1957. He went on to broadcast baseball, football, basketball, college football, college basketball, golf, tennis and boxing in a play-by-play role. He compiled 13 Sports Emmy Awards.
"Nothing but a complete professional at what he did," Shepard said of Enberg. "Dick Enberg's a legend, but he's done it at a level that's far superior to what I've done. I'm honored to have done all four professional teams in Detroit on television, three on the radio, but Dick Enberg's in a different class.
"I'm really proud that I came from the same school as one of the greatest broadcasters."
Working under Byle as the San Diego Padres primary play-by-play commentator, Enberg retired from his craft in 2016. Byle, who left Fox Sports San Diego in 2015 for Fox Sports Detroit, got a strong taste of Enberg's work ethic and noticed some of the same in Shepard.
Other characteristics Shepard has in relation to Enberg are versatility, teamwork, a desire to be the best and making everyone around him better, Byle added.
"Is it a coincidence? I don't know," Byle said. "CMU's doing a pretty good job of putting out some broadcasters. Shep's one of the most versatile guys I've worked with, aside from Dick Enberg."
Shepard has been with Fox Sports Detroit for nearly 20 years. He's helped produce on-air content for the Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Pistons, Detroit Lions and, of course, the Tigers. He also broadcasts University of Michigan men's basketball and Eastern Michigan football while maintaining his sports morning radio show, Shep, Shower 'N' Shave.
Since Shepard worked as the EMU football play-by-play commentator for 18 years, he made sure to remember his time as a Chippewa when the Eagles visited Kelly/Shorts Stadium to play CMU.
"It's always fun to go back and visit the things you did and reflect on all the fun times," Shepard said. "The campus looks great."
He is a two-time winner of the Michigan Sportscaster of the Year award and recently added the 2018 Ty Tyson Award to his resume.
Adam Jaksa, a CMU graduate and young broadcaster on the rise, was pleased to learn of Shepard's hiring. Jaksa, 27, currently calls CMU football, basketball and baseball games for the Chippewa Sports Network, an IMG College affiliate.
"Matt does a terrific job engaging his analysts," Jaksa said. "Being on a broadcast, you have to deliver the information and have a conversation with the viewer and analysts. He's very conversational. If there was one guy that I wanted to get the position, it was Matt."
"Knowing others that came from CMU were able to get to that pinnacle just gives hope for me."
Shepard has a message to leave with student broadcasters at CMU, and it's nothing like what an alumnus once told him over 30 years ago.
"Don't let anyone squash your dreams," Shepard concluded. "Get as much experience as you can and go for it. I still have a folder of all the rejection letters I've got in my broadcasting career, and it inspires me."
"Find the path."