The little red scooter doesn't have a lot of gusto in the engine, although that doesn't seem to matter to Mike Sheppard. It gets him to where he needs to go.

It transports him from the Bison Sports Arena to the Fargodome. It gets him around the North Dakota State campus. So what if it's at putt-putt pace?

It's about the only thing that Sheppard does at half speed. Everything else -- school, football, martial arts and life in general -- is done at full throttle.

That's why he's going to graduate in May in electrical engineering. That's why he'll finish his Bison football career as the school's all-time leading tackler. When the senior strong safety hits receivers and running backs, the sound reverberates around the Fargodome.

All of this is not news to Virda Sheppard Perry and Gwen Sheppard -- his two older sisters. They are two major reasons for Mike's success.

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Mike was 11 years old when his mother, Dianne Sheppard, died of Legionnaire's Disease. It meant the role of mother was passed on to the Sheppard sisters to help Samuel Sheppard raise Mike. Virda, 20 years older than Mike, and Gwen, 19 years older, both made sacrifices, Virda said.

"I'm the real baby," Mike said. "Spoiled."

They had too much invested to not spoil him. Dianne and Samuel, Mike's aunt and uncle, actually adopted Mike after his first mother died of aneurysm when he was an infant.

"I think both of us stayed focused on where we wanted to see him go," Virda said. "We weren't afraid to discipline him and we've always stressed education and doing the best that he can do. I think we demonstrated that with our own work ethic."

Sticking together

Virda is a district manager for Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Gwen is a self-employed engineer who just returned from a tour with the Air Force Reserves in Iraq.

It hurt her to not see Mike play his senior season. She missed only three games up to that point.

In Iraq, however, she was able to follow his games over the Internet on The Forum's Web site.

"I missed one game because I was too tired to stay awake," Gwen said. "I thought about him every day. I slept, ate, drank and talked about Bison football and Michael. I shared them with everybody."

She's making the drive from the family home in Brown Deer, Wis., a suburb north of Milwaukee, to be in the Fargodome stands today to watch what most likely will be his last home game. The Bison, 7-3 overall, need to beat Concordia-St. Paul and hope one of three teams above them in the Midwest Region poll loses to have any chance at the postseason.

"First of all, I haven't seen him in four months," Gwen said. "My primary concern is seeing him, holding him and hugging him. Then I hope we win the game. I want to see him knock some heads like he's always done."

Sheppard has 106 career unassisted tackles, which topped the previous record of 96 set by Tim Jacobsen from 1992-95. He needs five solo tackles today to break Joe Cichy's 1969 single-season record of 53.

Sheppard has what his coaches call a "live" body. His mind is also jumping.

There wasn't much question what his college major was going to be.

"He didn't have a choice, you know that," Virda said.

Gwen and Virda both graduated from North Carolina State with engineering degrees. Kevin Perry, Virda's husband, is a civil engineer.

It's a tough curriculum, especially combined with a time-intensive sport like football.

Mike said he gets help from fellow engineering students and makes use of tutors as much as he can. Sleep, sometimes, is not an option.

He had an internship last summer at Fargo Assembly Co. designing and building wire harnesses. He worked in the testing department.

"I think what helps me get through it is I want to be successful after college no matter what I do," he said. "I plan on having a big family so I have to find a way to make money to make it happen."

Those words are a result of his sisters' hard work in helping raise him.

"He had to grow up pretty quick since mom died," Gwen said. "We were pretty devastated but we're a strong family and we stick together."

Samuel and highways stick together. Not one who likes to fly, he's driven from his home near St. Louis to most of Mike's games.

When the Bison lost an overtime heartbreaker at St. Cloud State last week, Samuel was there to comfort Mike back to the NDSU locker room.

"He's been great," Mike said.

Also great to Mike this year: his brothers Sean Johnson and Jimmy Johnson saw him play at NDSU for the first time.

More than football

Virda is a second degree black belt and Mike found out why one day.

"I hit him a little harder than he thought I would hit him," she said with a laugh. "I don't think he realized how good I was until we sparred. I think he had a greater appreciation afterward."

Mike has achieved a purple belt, which is about halfway through the process to get to a black belt.

When he first arrived at NDSU in 1999, the seniors made him do karate numb-chuck maneuvers at lunch break during two-a-day practices.

He's experimented with weaponry and full contact fighting. At his peak, he trained five times a day. He sparred twice a week using full contact.

That probably best explains why he's a force on NDSU special teams. He's a starving lion on kickoff and punt coverages.

Mike's 196 pounds are chiseled into his 5-foot-9 frame. He's come a long way from his days as a teenager growing up near Milwaukee.

He was a skinny skid whose college potential appeared to be in hockey. He attended hockey camps at St. Cloud State and the University of Miami (Ohio).

A good varsity player, he was his team's defensive enforcer. But the fact he took to football surprised everybody in his family.

"Hockey was my favorite sport until I fell in love with football," Mike said.

It didn't take NDSU coaches very long, however, to fall in love with his attitude. As a freshman, he was always in the front of the pack during wind sprints.

"I love that kid," former assistant coach Mark Mauer said after one practice.

Off the field, Sheppard is a polite, well-dressed campus leader. He's a team captain.

"He's a unifying player," said NDSU head coach Craig Bohl. "He has a great sense of what college athletics are all about."

Mike is hoping to take football to another level. Obviously, the NFL is the goal. But he said he would play in either NFL Europe or the Canadian Football League.

He spent his first three seasons at NDSU as an outside linebacker. An off-season coaching staff change brought him a change in positions to strong safety. That would probably be his best position at the pro level.

"You hear a lot of things," he said. "Everything sounds good until people take action."

Virda and Gwen know about taking action. They did it with Mike several years ago.

"He's pretty important in our lives," Gwen said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack at (701) 241-5546