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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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He came close to flunking out that year. He had been King Jock at Bountiful, and he had never had to worry about the books: A lot of his high school teachers were his coaches. "I had never taken calculus, chemistry, physics, computer science," Shaun says of his year at the prep school. "I'd never even used a computer before." Like his grandfather, like his father, he was not good at asking for help. Hadn't had to.

And that's when he found someone who could get him through: an old friend—Dion. "I started to think about how he would handle things," Shaun remembers. "Dion could talk to anyone. And every time I started feeling sorry for myself, I thought of what he went through, and everything I was worried about just seemed so petty." Besides, in a macabre way, it was Dion who had gotten Shaun inside the Navy yard. "He paid the ultimate price," says Shaun. "I wasn't going to let him down."

He let the air out of his pride. He got tutors. He would help some 4.0 nerd with weapons class in exchange for help with trig. The grades started rising. Unfortunately, it was the football that went nowhere.

His plebe year Shaun walked on but never suited up. Every day he would look at the depth chart for wide receivers, and every day he would see no change. At the bottom, dead last, it read, Stephenson. He would practice all week. He was no bigger than your local grocery sacker, and in practice 230-pound linebackers would turn him into a smudge mark. Then the game would come, and Shaun would be sitting up in the stands with his friends, aching on the inside. "He was a great guy," says George Chaump, then the Navy coach. "But he hadn't played in a long time, and he was small, and his feet weren't the quickest."

Shaun's sophomore year Chaump asked him to leave the program. "I liked him," says Chaump, "but we only had 140 lockers. We had to keep the size of the squad down." When you have a hard time cracking that top 140, things do not look good.

And yet Shaun wouldn't let the dream shrivel and blow away. He went out for lightweight football, a brand peculiar to the East Coast, which is like varsity football in all ways except that no player can exceed 159 pounds. "I think Shaun made that with room to spare," says his lightweight coach, Bill Beckett.

At lightweight Shaun was a vision. Navy shared the league title his sophomore year and finished second his junior year. Shaun made all-league. His teammates learned his story. The one everybody called Recon caught passes and returned punts and was the inspiration of a team that drew 3,000 midshipmen to the Army game. And still Chaump had no interest.

Friends would go up to him and say, "This kid can really play. You ought a give him a chance." But the coach never did. Shaun was Rudy in a different blue and gold. With only a year left, he was two rungs below hopeless.

But then Chaump was fired after his third straight loss to Army. Charlie Weatherbie, a former Air Force assistant, came in. And then this hit Shaun's E-mail: Anybody who wanted to try out for the football team during spring drills was welcome. Anybody.

What Shaun had before him was a heaven-sent, platinum-plated break. He worked out madly with his friends on the varsity, worked on his speed, worked on his jumping. Unfortunately, the offense that Weatherbie planned to run was the spread, which would reduce the number of wide receivers on the field from three to two and have twice as many running plays as passing plays. Still, Shaun swam on against the current.

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