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February 27, 2006
Overcoming it all
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Kansas City is famous for many things - jazz, barbeque and fountains. But one thing the Kansas City School District isn't well-known for is its ability to produce Division I football prospects.
It's been more than 10 years since a top-flight recruit came from inner-city Kansas City, but that'll change in the class of 2007 because of Central High School offensive lineman Donald Stephenson.
The fact that the 6-foot-6, 275-pounder is the first legitimate prospect to come out of the Interscholastic League in years is a story in of itself, but this is a truly special tale when you look at the obstacles Stephenson had to overcome.
Stephenson is the type of success story you often don't see from inner-city programs, especially from the embattled Kansas City School District. Financial problems, teacher strikes and violence in the schools have plagued the district for years, but Stephenson is a shining example of making the most of a bad situation.
With a 3.0 grade-point average and a class schedule that includes advanced Algebra, Stephenson has pushed hard with the academics and should be a full-qualifier.
"I try to pick and chose the teachers I want because some of them don't really seem to care a whole lot and aren't very good at what they do," Stephenson said. "I like fast paced classes. My favorite class is my advanced Algerbra class.
"I like it because it's a challenge. My teacher, Christy Adams, keeps it faced paced, so it's like you slip up on one subject she won't let you move on. There can be distractions at this school, but I've learned to block it out. I have to stay in the books and stuff."
That's because his mother won't let him slip up.
Ethel Stephenson has been a central figure in Stephenson's life. Despite being a single-mother, she raised Stephenson the right way and forced him to focus on the little things like being polite, courteous and focused on academics. She always had big plans for her son and some times it was tough, but together they made it over the bumps and now he's on the verge of having his dreams come true.
"It's hard to put into words how important she is," Stephenson said.
"I may not always show it, but I'm really proud of her. She's very important. She makes sure she knows what grades I'm making, even though I'm starting to get predictable. Even though she knows what my grades will look like, she still acts as if she doesn't know and won't accept anything but the best.
"She keeps me quick on my feet. I want to be a judge or own my own law firm, but if I'm playing in the NFL that'd be great too. But the No. 1 thing for me is to get my education. I enjoy football, but right now it's a tool for me to get to college for free, and I plan on using that tool."
That brings us back to the football field. Want to find out more about Stephenson's junior season?
Central doesn't have a football coach after the administration and the former coach had a falling out after a 3-7 season. You see, there isn't much support for athletics in the Kansas City School District, and up until the Kansas City Chiefs donated money for a football field across the street from Central High, the team played in a sandlot. The make-shift stadium still doesn't even have lights.
Home games are played on Saturdays and Stephenson said they're lucky to draw around 50 people at the games, which is 30 more than what came out for the team last year.
"It was tough, because I was playing both ways on every single play last year," Stephenson said. "By the time of end of the games, I would be worn out.
"I played well, but it was really hard since I was going both ways and we only had about 20 guys. I had to do a lot of things, and when I was playing defensive tackle I got tired a lot because I was doing everything. They said they needed some weight in the middle, so I volunteered."
But offensive tackle is where Stephenson's future is at. For a player that has had virtually no high-level coaching and is playing on pure God-given talent alone, Stephenson has remarkable feet and mobility. He loves to pull and get up to the next level.
"I play blindside tackle," he said. "The tackle has to be quick on his feet. I think he's basically the most important person on the field. If you don't do your job, the quarterback gets killed.
"We tried to throw the ball, stretch the field horizontally and then try to throw it deep some, but by the end of the season we went back to running. I liked getting after it. I got to knock some heads. We ran it right up behind me almost all of the time."
Stephenson also uses his intelligence on the field.
"I'm really big into the Xs and Os," he said. "It's the whole science of it. I enjoy learning plays and knowing the offense. It's a team sport, and everybody has to do their job for the play to work. That's why I like offense. On defense everybody can screw up but one player, but on offense you have to do everything right. You have to always be thinking and people rely on you."
While he does have all this ability, Stephenson is still virtually a blank canvas for college coaches to work with. While other high schools across the country have elaborate weight rooms and some even have strength and conditioning coaches, Stephenson said he has to almost break into the weight room to get an opportunity to lift weights.
"I have to sneak in there sometimes," he said. "We're really not supposed to be in there, but I have to get some sort of work out in."
Because it's been virtually impossible to get tape on him, Stephenson's name is just now starting to make waves with college coaches.
"I went to Missouri's junior day a while back, and it was pretty good," he said. "I talked to Andy Hill, the line coach and the head coach. They've been trying to get tape on me, and I had to get a tape from my freshman year since we don't have a coach.
"Then I went to Wisconsin this weekend for the junior day up there. My brother-in-law drove me up there. The stadium really impressed me. It was pretty big. I got to talk to Dave Doeren. He said that they were really close to offering me, and they're going to review the tape I gave them (Sunday) morning."
Kansas and offensive line coach John Reagan is the other program showing him the most interest. Stephenson said the Jayhawks were probably the first team to show him legitimate interest. But he does plan on hitting as many summer camps as he can, so people can learn more about his game.
"A lot of the schools don't know about me," he said. "If it wasn't for my old coach helping get my name out there to a few coaches, I don't know if anybody would know about me. We don't have anybody here now trying to help me, so I'm still a little under the radar."
That is until now.
Stephenson is the type of underdog that you want to root for good things. He's worked hard and overcome a lot to get to where he's at now, and eventually he hopes he can help change the perception and prove there is talent and good kids in the Kansas City School District.
"They don't come down here now," he said. "If you want to be recruited it's really hard. Nobody takes the time to come down here. You have to go to them, and when people start to see how good I am, I'm hoping they want to come down here and see that there is talent in our schools."
And just maybe Kansas City can become famous for being the home of Donald Stephenson and other talented Division I football prospects.