Chasing the dream

BEN SIECK  | Sports Editor photo-4

Nearly all Butler football players’ careers end with the final whistle of their last collegiate game. When they take off their pads in the locker room, it is the last time most will ever wear them.

Former Butler defensive end Jeremy Stephens’ pads are not going into storage just yet.

Every spring, the Radio City Musical Hall hosts the National Football League draft. Over three days, more than 220 lifelong dreams are realized. Even more are fulfilled in the days following, as teams sign undrafted players.

Whether it is during the draft or shortly thereafter, Stephens will await a call that could change his life forever.

“It’s always been a distant dream of mine growing up (to play in the NFL), but I think I have a shot to get paid to play this game,” Stephens said.

Stephens was a standout for Butler after he transferred from Thomas More College in 2010. From starting in every game in his three seasons at Butler, to being named to the All-Pioneer Football League first team twice, Stephens had an illustrious collegiate career.

His last game in a Butler uniform came this fall when the Bulldogs lost to Tennesse State in the FCS playoffs.

Now, Stephens has his sights set on the NFL.

He will not be found at the top of anyone’s draft board, but Stephens said he believes he can compete with best of the best.

Stephens’ strong will dates back to his childhood. The youngest of two, Stephens grew up the son of  a pastor in Indianapolis. He credits his strong faith at an early age with getting him this far in football.

“Always believing that I can overcome obstacles and things like that has definitely helped me on the field a lot,” Stephens said.

Football has played a prominent role in his life, but it was not his first love. It was not until fourth grade that Stephens first played football—as his first athletic passion was soccer.

“I started off playing soccer, believe it or not, but I went to one of my older cousin’s football games up in Fort Wayne and I saw how passionate and fun it was,” Stephens said. “I told my mom, ‘I have to sign up for football next year, I’m playing the wrong sport.’”

Once he started playing football, Stephens said he never looked back.

Stephens went to Lawrence Central High School, where his high school football career got off to a rocky start.

He fractured his knee three games into his freshman season and missed the rest of the campaign.

However, Stephens came back his sophomore year better than ever. Fully healed, he started for the varsity squad, skipping over junior varsity entirely.

“This was a blessing in itself,” Stephens said. “I was playing against top-tier competition each week. I think that catapulted my football IQ and skills and helped my progression as a player.”

Jayson West took over as head coach at Lawrence Central during Stephens’ senior year. West said he remembers Stephens most for his passion for the game.

“Jeremy always put the team first,” West said. “He wasn’t the most verbal leader, but he was a guy everyone respected and liked.”

West said Stephens was part of a tight-knit group of about 15 football players that West thought resembled a family. When it came down to choosing a college, many of those players—including Stephens—were lightly recruited, so they decided to go to Thomas More together.

Thomas More is a small college located in northern Kentucky, with a Division III football program steeped in tradition. It was that tradition that attracted Stephens and his high school teammates to the school.

In his first year at Thomas More, Stephens helped his team win conference, but he said he felt he was not maximizing his potential.

“I didn’t really like it. It wasn’t a bad school at all, but I just felt like I could play at a higher level,” Stephens said.

That offseason, he reached out to one of his former high school teammates, Jordan Ridley, who was playing as a linebacker at Butler.

“Jordan told me I should come to Butler, and that I could definitely play here,” Stephens said. “That was the best decision of my life, coming here.”

Per NCAA transfer rules, Stephens was forced to sit out and redshirt the 2010 season. But like high school, once he got back on the field, he made his presence felt.

Butler head coach Jeff Voris said Stephens was a leader from day one, always doing what he could to help the team.

“He played out of position his sophomore year as a defensive tackle because that’s where the team needed him,” Voris said. “He’s always been a great teammate and a great leader.

“As good a player as he is, he’s an even better person.”

After his standout junior season where he was named first-team All-Pioneer Football League, Stephens began to attract attention from the NFL. Officials from the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions came to Butler to put Stephens through a series of drills and measure his athleticism.

Halfway through the 2013 season, Stephens said the Houston Texans contacted him for another workout and interview session.

It was during this meeting that Stephens was told he was too small to play defensive line in the NFL. If he wanted the chance to play at the next level, he would have to make the transition to linebacker.

Stephens said he has been training since December to play linebacker at the next level.

Phillip Powell played linebacker for the Bulldogs for the past four seasons and was also high school teammates with Stephens. Powell said he has done what he can to help Stephens with his transition.

“We’ve been going over formations (because), as a defensive lineman he hasn’t really had to worry about formations,” Powell said. “Once the weather warms up, I can go out on the field with him and teach him linebacker drills and stuff like that.”

Powell said he began to see Stephens’ potential as an NFL player as early as his sophomore year of college.

“He started transforming his body into (that of) a premier, top athlete,” Powell said. “Once he started keeping up with me running-wise, that’s kind of when I knew.”

Stephens said he hired an agent after the season to give himself the best possible shot at the NFL.

Eugene Parker, a cousin of Stephens’ father, represents him.

Stephens said Parker typically represents players who are projected to go in the first couple rounds, but he was willing to help a relative out.

When he met with the Texans, Stephens said he was told he would likely be an undrafted free agent. However, he said all he wants is the opportunity to come in and show what he can do.

“I don’t quit on plays. I don’t back down,” Stephens said. “I will outwork anybody on whatever roster I end up on.”

If things do not work out with the NFL, he said he will continue to pursue professional football at some level.

“The Texans’ scout told my agent that I would be a great player in the Canadian Football League,” Stephens said. “We’ve been looking into that and sending my game films to teams in the Canadian leagues.”

Stephens will learn his draft fate while he is in Sweden. He was selected to represent the U.S. team in the World University Championships, played in Uppsala, Sweden. The event overlaps with the NFL draft, but he said he plans to watch what he can on TV.

Ball State University’s pro day on March 27 will be Stephens’ chance to impress NFL scouts one more time before the draft. Stephens’ was not invited to the NFL combine workouts, but he said he plans to do the same tests at Ball State as he would have at the combine.

Amidst the chaos surrounding a college senior working toward a degree in physical education while pursuing a career as a professional athlete, Stephens keeps a positive attitude.

“Hopefully it all works out,” Stephens said. “I’m believing it will.”