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The Ultimate Price
Rick Reilly
October 02, 1995
It took his brother's death in combat to help fulfill Shaun Stephenson dream of playing football for Navy
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October 02, 1995

The Ultimate Price

It took his brother's death in combat to help fulfill Shaun Stephenson dream of playing football for Navy

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Dion was a marine right out of the birth canal, like the leatherneck himself: his father. Jim Stephenson was the gung-holiest marine ever to get inside a pair of camouflage utilities. "I think of myself as a warrior," he says, and he was. He went behind enemy lines in Vietnam. After his tour he joined the Army reserves and became a Green Beret. You want a hard-ass, squared-away bastard, get a marine-slash-Green Beret. Whatever his boys turned out to be, Jim knew one thing: He would have them ready to do their duty. "They don't have to be marines," Jim would tell friends. "But they have to do their duty." The only confusing part was whether that duty was to their country or their father.

When the boys were three, for instance, Jim began giving them "p.t.'s"—timed physical training tests. At six, the kids were eating C rations. When they were eight, Jim hung a knotted rope from the top branch of a 30-foot tree in their backyard in West Covina, Calif., and timed the boys going from the bottom to the top. By the time they were 10, Jim was bicycling alongside them, hollering out encouragement, as they ran cross-country. By 16, the boys had been to Devil Pups, a two-week marine-style camp for kids, complete with all the discomforts of real boot camp: no TV, no music and no visits from parents. "Tell you what," says the Warrior. "They come back from that, and they're answering, 'Sir, yes, sir!' " It is never too soon to be a soldier.

Jim's adoptive father, Edward, was a decorated Navy gunner in World War II whose fixed machine gun was set ablaze by Japanese fire. Without calling for help, he single-handedly put out the flames and resumed firing. Jim's adoptive mother, Alice, was a Wave. When Jim was 14, his father, brother and sister died in an airplane crash. Jim stood sentry beside the coffins for eight hours, tearless.

And yet when Geri bore their first son, Jim could not get over the fact that he finally had somebody connected to him by flesh, and he wept like a schoolgirl. "This is me," he said. "My child. This is my blood." After Shaun's arrival, Geri would gently complain sometimes that she and Jim never had a night alone, that maybe the boys didn't need to come with them to the movies again, but Jim couldn't leave them. "See, I never had the kind of guidance you need to really excel," Jim would explain. So he would take the boys even to the weight room, where he often lifted with an Austrian bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger. And at each task, each challenge, each morning, Jim told his boys the same thing: "Let's go kick some butt!"

By high school these two boys were like a Doublemint gum ad come to life. There was nothing they couldn't do, nobody's heart they couldn't win, no honor they couldn't earn. One time Shaun arrived at a date's house, and the girl's mother saw those An Officer and a Gentleman looks that could stop a secretarial pool—those chocolate eyes, that perfectly square chin, and that letter jacket festooned with pins and medals—and asked him, "Are you for real?"

In 1983 Jim got a job as a Delta Airlines mechanic, and the family moved to Bountiful, where in high school Dion made the state tournament in swimming three years. Shaun came along two years later and made state in swimming three years, beating many of Dion's records. Dion was a star left wing in soccer. Shaun starred at wide receiver in football. Dion was voted Best Kisser and captain of the drama club. Shaun was Wally Cleaver polite and the starting shortstop besides.

"Shaun worshiped the ground Dion walked on," says their closest friend, David Hearn. "Maybe that was why Shaun was always trying to outdo him, just to make it even." The truth was, Shaun ached to do something completely different. Dion was going to be a marine, but Shaun wanted only to play football and to fly. His jones for flying began when he was 12 and he saw the Blue Angels perform. His addiction to football came the same year from watching the game on Saturdays with the Warrior. Shaun's two dreams fused magically the day he saw the Army-Navy game on television. The United States Naval Academy: Here was the most wonderful place in the world, a place where you could be a soldier, play football and prepare to fly all at once. Making it to the Naval Academy became Shaun's one true aim.

"Go after it," Dion would tell him. "You are capable of more than me. You've got more upstairs." If Shaun made it, he would be the first in the family to go to college.

"An officer in the family," the Warrior said. "Wouldn't that be something?"

But Shaun failed. He turned down football scholarships from Weber State and Southern Utah State, but he kept barely missing the minimum test score to get into the Academy. He took the ACT three times, the SAT four. By then Dion had graduated No. 1 in his boot camp, graduated No. 1 from infantry school, jumped from airplanes at 30,000 feet and scuba dived at 100 feet, and he had made Force Reconnaissance, the marine equivalent of the Navy Seals or the Army Special Forces: the marines who were trained to go behind enemy lines, to gather information, to draw enemy fire just to learn enemy positions. Basically, the hell-raisingest marines there are.

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