Football: Stephens, the unsung hero

Nov. 9, 2011, 3:03 a.m.
Football: Stephens, the unsung hero
Terrence Stephens (making tackle, above) was the Cardinal player responsible for forcing the fumble that resulted in Stanford's triple overtime win over USC on Oct. 29. (SIMON WARBY/The Stanford Daily)

Nobody knew Terrence Stephens was responsible for the fumble, including Terrence Stephens.

As the players celebrated their thrilling triple-overtime victory over USC on Oct. 29, the post-game pundits went to work. They praised quarterback Andrew Luck for putting on a Heisman-like performance, pulling his head out of the sand after a costly interception to engineer a touchdown drive that forced overtime. They praised backup kicker Eric Whitaker for nailing two field goals and six extra points in his season debut. And they praised linebacker A.J. Tarpley for his interception, forced fumble and, of course, fumble recovery at the game’s conclusion.

But someone was left out of the spotlight. A Cardinal player was responsible for stripping the ball out of USC running back Curtis McNeal’s hands. What about the hero who made the play that essentially saved the Cardinal’s perfect season?

According to Stephens, the play happened so quickly he had no idea that hero was him. But he could’ve cared less to find out.

As soon as Tarpley fell on the loose ball in the end zone, Stephens sprinted toward midfield with his hands in the air, hugging every lineman, wideout and coach in sight. He never once wondered whether the celebration was due to his play.

It actually took a YouTube video, two hours after the game, for Stephens to find out officially. As the team headed toward the airport, Stephens received a video of the final play of the game from his mom, a clip that had already received multiple page views.

At that moment, most players would’ve jumped out of their bus seat in personal exhilaration, immediately sharing the news and showing the video to surrounding teammates.

But that’s not Terrence Stephens. He doesn’t care about personal glory.

He’d rather play the role of the unsung hero.

“A win is a win, no matter how it happens. Coach Mason and Coach Tarver always say that it doesn’t matter how we win, it’s that we put the ‘W’ on the board,” Stephens said. “We just knew there was going to be some way that we were going to do it, and I’m honestly just glad that it happened to be that way.”

Stephens is one of those players who radiates humility and selflessness, to the point where you know he’s not just being cliche. He deflected every question about his play in the USC game, responding with some thought about the team instead.

“My play couldn’t have happened if a linebacker didn’t stay in the hole, or even the series before, if someone didn’t step up in the second overtime, or if the offense didn’t step up to the plate and keep us in the game,” he said. “I think a lot of people will focus on that one final play and that’s great. But at the end of the day, if our offense and defense didn’t step up and make plays, we wouldn’t have been in that position.”

Stephens may not be the defensive player featured first on College GameDay or called over for interviews following victories. But he is a team player through thick and thin.

And that’s what being a member of the Stanford Cardinal defense is all about.

Stephens grew up in Gaithersburg, Md., with no siblings and one parent, his mother, Tracey Stephens. According to Stephens, his mother was his role model, the woman who sowed the seeds of hard work, determination and teamwork into his core.

“From a young age, my mom was the one who taught me how to really work and how to never give up on the things I believed in,” Stephens said.

Embracing his mother’s words of wisdom, Stephens shined as a football player and student. A graduate of Quince Orchard High School, Stephens was listed as the 19th-best defensive tackle in the nation by and 41st-best defensive lineman by Super Prep Magazine. He was very social among his classmates and stood out as a singer, known for his Motown and R&B vocals around campus. He even tried out for American Idol when the show came to Philadelphia.

But when the time came to select a football scholarship offer, the hot recruiting commodity shifted off the beaten track. Instead of accepting offers from the likes of Nebraska and Maryland, Stephens accepted the offer from Stanford, a program just two years removed from a 1-11 season. With the help of fellow high school senior football standout Shayne Skov, Stephens recruited the nation’s top players to follow suit, helping the Cardinal achieve a top-25 recruiting class, one the Mercury News characterized in 2009 as “Stanford’s best in years.”

Stephens’ high school friends and the other players called him “the Mayor” for his recruiting efforts. But unlike politicians, Stephens wasn’t reaching out to other players for his own personal gain.

Stanford football, underlined by a winning culture and team-first mentality, had potential to thrive as a program. Stephens felt the program just needed the pieces to do so.

“I had hopes that we could become what we are today,” he said. “I had this feeling. And when you bring in the right guys and you bring them into the right place at the right time, you can feel that.”

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the Mayor. As other highly touted recruits got starting time on the field, Stephens spent his first year behind stud defensive tackle Sione Fua, now a member of the Carolina Panthers. Stephens played a reserve role in six of 12 games his freshman season and 12 of 13 his sophomore season.

For most football players, going from the national high school stage to reserve duty would be tough to swallow.

Stephens wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“You kind of have to stay in your lane, earn respect from your teammates as a team player,” Stephens said. “And in my opinion, that’s the way it should work. [I] had to show people what [I was] preaching.”

For the first two years, Stephens did everything he could, both during practice and behind the scenes, to earn that respect. He pushed himself to the limit on the field. He spent time performing service work for the community off it. Finally, after waiting his turn for two years, Stephens notched his first start against San Jose State on Sept. 3.

He couldn’t have entered into more of a high-pressure environment.

Going into the 2011-12 season, Stanford was an intriguing entity. Columnists for ESPN suggested that the Cardinal was overhyped, that the team was all Andrew Luck, that with five departing starters, including Fua, Stanford wouldn’t be able to compete for a national championship.

Stephens said the team channeled the preseason criticism as fuel for motivation. But nothing fueled the defense’s fire more than Skov’s injury on Sept. 17.

“When he went down [against Arizona], it hurt because I know how much he wanted to invest in this season, how much he had already invested in this season,” Stephens said. “At that moment, everybody just had to refocus and reevaluate themselves as players and as people and realize that we needed to step up our game for him.”

With the heart and soul of the Cardinal defense out for the season, doubters popped their heads out of the sand. According to the general consensus among reporters and analysts, Stanford’s chances at a national title now looked grim.

Yet Skov’s torn ACL inspired the defensive players to develop a new mantra, one that they discuss before the start of every practice, football game and key play.

Who cares?

“Who cares where they get the ball, who cares how many points they have on the board, who cares what we have to do to get them off the field,” Stephens said. “We just have to do it.”

Thanks to Stephens’ unsung heroics, they haven’t stopped doing it yet.

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