It’s not hard to figure out Gehrig Shepler comes from a baseball family.
He was named after Lou Gehrig, the New York Yankees Hall of Famer known as The Iron Horse.
Shepler’s brother, Denton True Shepler, better known as “Mook,” was named after Denton True “Cy” Young, another Hall of Famer.
Father Rod Shepler played baseball at Hanover College, and instilled a passion for various sports in both Gehrig and Mook from an early age.
Nothing was going to keep the older of the two from playing the sport he loved, even with a condition that often leaves its victims with chronic pain and impaired motor skills.
Gehrig was diagnosed with spastic cerebral palsy at age 2. Now 18, he recently completed his senior year as Union County High School’s No. 1 pitcher, with hopes of playing at the next level.
“We’ve seen lots of doctors,” Rod Shepler said. “He’s had about three surgeries. He’s had a growth plate removed. He’s had what we call facial lengthening, where they cut down by his Achilles — he’s been through the gauntlet.”
But for those who watched Gehrig on the pitcher’s mound, it was tough to tell he had any issues.
In his two varsity seasons, he helped the Patriots contend for a Tri-Eastern Conference title. As a senior, he led the team with four pitching victories, a 2.25 ERA and 58 strikeouts over 651⁄3 innings.
“I’ll be honest, it’s been completely rough living with it my whole life. It really has been, but I’ve made the most of it,” Gehrig said. “I always go out, I just work hard, push myself every single day to get up. I always have to do stretches every morning so I could walk right and let alone be able to walk or throw a baseball.
“I just have to keep working hard, especially for me to play baseball. I had to work hard to play baseball, because I wouldn’t be out there doing what I did today if I hadn’t been working hard my whole life.”
According to cerebralpalsy.org, “Cerebral palsy affects body movement, muscle control, muscle coordination, muscle tone, reflex, posture and balance. It can also impact fine motor skills, gross motor skills and oral motor functioning.”
Rod Shepler said he still remembers the day of the diagnosis.
“We noticed he walked with a limp, kind of gimpy, and they put him through all types of stuff — eye tests, ear tests — fortunately for us he wasn’t affected mentally,” he said.
“It’s heartbreaking news, but I can remember the day vividly when my wife and I looked at one another and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to play the cards we’re dealt. He’s ours and we’ll do what it takes.’ He’s a very strong kid; he’s worked through it all. Do we push him a little bit? Yeah, but once you get to a certain age, high school age, you’re on your own.”
Gehrig said that while growing up he went to physical therapy four or five days a week. Sessions usually lasted 30 minutes to an hour, and he eventually had to learn to do exercises at home.
And one teammate in particular was with Gehrig through it all.
Shortstop Hunter Miller brought a potent bat to the Patriots’ lineup, but his presence when Gehrig went through the therapy process might have been even more important.
“I was just there for moral support and anything he did I’d do with him — slide on ropes, run, stretch — anything he did in there I did the same exact thing,” Miller said. “Over the years, his legs got stronger from stretching and working at it.”
Miller was also a standout basketball player for Union County. Mook plays basketball, baseball and football, and Gehrig played all three at one point, too.
“Sports are pretty much what’s gotten me through,” Gehrig said.
After eighth grade, though, it was all baseball.
He played junior varsity for two years before making the jump to varsity as a junior.
The Patriots went 24-7 that year, setting a school record for victories.
When weather and postponements made for a week with a heavy schedule of conference games, Gehrig was called on for a key TEC game.
He pitched a complete-game, 3-2 victory over Northeastern and made his way to the top of the rotation.
That became even more important heading into his senior year when seven seniors graduated and he was the most experienced arm.
“I don’t think you could argue that kid’s overcome about more than anybody you’ve ever met,” Union County coach Jeff Mathews said after Union County’s recent sectional baseball tournament game against Hagerstown. ” … I think it’s a testament to how people feel about him when the Hagerstown people come over and tell me, ‘Hey, Shep’s No. 1 in our book.’ I appreciate that, that other people recognize what it is.”
Shepler has hopes of playing at the college level. He doesn’t throw the fastest, but has a mixture of breaking pitches, often keep hitters off-balance.
He said he hopes to study special education so he can help those who have been affected by the disease.
Gehrig said he has worked with Alex Bentley, a Union County middle schooler who also suffers from cerebral palsy.
“Just being around him, he’s so enthusiastic,” Gehrig said. “He’s in a wheelchair. Just seeing him wake up in the morning and have a smile on his face and always be enthusiastic and happy, just makes me realize I don’t even know why I complain about having it some days. He’s the one that puts a smile on my face.”