On the first day of spring practice, he looked at the depth chart and saw that his name was still right there near the bottom. Then, just to take the odds clear off the tote board, he broke his thumb. Fine. Put it in a cast. He was not missing this.
Then an odd thing happened. Every night Weatherbie and his staff would sit down, exhausted, and look at film of 150 kids practicing, and every night they would find themselves saying the same thing: "Wait. Run that back. Who's the kid making the great block?" And, "Was that 18 again?" And, "You know, this kid, Stephenson? He's getting the job done."
In the spring game Shaun caught three passes for 54 yards—making one reception as he dived into the end zone for a touchdown (with a cast on the broken thumb, no less)—and madly blocked anybody he could find, including the chain holders. Finally, when Shaun was given the Vice Admiral William P. Mack award as the most improved player in spring practice, there was nothing Weatherbie could do. The new depth charts were posted the next day. At the top of the list of receivers, above the recruited players and the ones who stood a helmet taller than Shaun, above the 4.5 sprinters, was the little walk-on from Bountiful who was somehow missing the quit gene.
He called home and told his mother, "You're going to be going to a lot of football games next year, Mom."
And still, the happy ending wouldn't come. At the last scrimmage this fall, before Navy's opener at SMU on Sept. 9, when more than 20 of Shaun's friends would fly to Dallas to be part of this joy that grew from so much grief, Shaun tore a ligament in his left knee. He might be out for three weeks, six weeks, the year—nobody was sure. As he stood on crutches the night of the scrimmage, he was completely out of stiff upper lips. All the marine drained out of him. Player after player came up, all of them towering over him, gently rubbing his head and leaning over to whisper in his ear, and yet he could not be strong. He had come so far.
"I'm sorry," he said through tears. "You just don't know how much this team means to me."
The Warrior is even prouder of his son in death than in life. "Because of what he stood for," Jim says. "Dion was willing to stand up for people in a country he knew nothing about." But honor and duty and glory are best left to marines and fathers and warriors. For mothers, war is just another way to get your son sent home under a colorful cloak. Jim wears his son's death with pride, but Geri wears Dion's Mickey Mouse watch instead. There are days she misses him so much that the hands seem to stop completely.
Michael, the Stephensons' third son, is 14 and the triplicate. He is handsome, a soccer star and unfailingly polite. He has already signed up for Devil Pups. Pictures of Dion and Shaun in their dress blues hang over his bed. The other day Michael said, "Dad, I might want to do what Shaun's doing."
Geri tries not to hang her head. "I worry," she says. "But I'll just let him do what he wants and say my prayers every night."
She may need to double them. Shaun spent last summer aboard an aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, his first step toward becoming a fighter pilot. The rule is that brothers cannot die in the same theater of war, but Bosnia is a long way from Khafji. Geri thinks about it. Shaun followed Dion everywhere else; will he follow him someday in another long, slow parade?