Friday, May 5, 2017

May 05, 2017

A solitary figure, walking off the field, drenched in sweat, driven by dreams, untainted by reality, Stephan Blaylock epitomizes leadership on the field, humility off the field, and should be the face of why college football still matters.

Over the past several seasons, with wins, losses, television revenue, conference realignments and multiple serious allegations of misconduct at universities like Penn State and Baylor, too often the right stuff gets buried in the incessant need for headlines that are more salacious than they are revelatory. This does not diminish the significant cultural issues existent within those – or any other – programs. It simply stands as a stark contrast and necessary reminder that there is far more good in college football than bad.

Duck fans were painfully reminded recently just how fragile hope can be. In early February, Landrin Kelly, father of highly prized 2004 Oregon signee Terrance Kelly, died from injuries sustained through violence. Terrance Kelly had been murdered just two days before he was to leave the ‘Iron Triangle’ for Eugene. His father, devastated but motivated, worked to change those circumstances. Every story of tragedy; hope gone wrong; must be accompanied by stories of hope; dreams fulfilled.

This is one of those stories.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit.”

For Stephan Blaylock, everything could have been different; terribly wrong. From the beginning, circumstances created a brick wall in front of his path to success. There are many tales of shattered dreams and lost innocence, and his could have been one of them; except it is not. His mother believed in him and surrounded him with positivity.

“Stephan is special,” began St. John Bosco assistant coach Terry Bullock. A former college football player, Bullock has been around elite athletes for much of his life. “Stephan understands the game like a coach on the field. He knows how a play is going to develop even before it begins,”Bullock continued.

“But it’s not just what he does on the field that really separates him; it’s his desire to work, to escape what could have been.”

Pope John Paul II once said that “social justice cannot be attained by violence. Violence kills what it intends to create.” That is where Stephan’s mother Deja makes her impact. Blaylock’s father has spent most of his life in prison. Being raised by a single mother, Blaylock’s goal has always been to make her proud. Deja stresses academics and classroom success, not athletic achievements.

“He has God-given natural gifts on the field but he knows it means nothing without the education,” said Bullock.

The accolades do not stop with a single coach, player, or family member. Keith Miller, part of the selection committee for the Under Armour All-America game called Blaylock “the most impressive defender I saw at the 7 on 7 tourney in February. He was lights out in every phase; intangibles and leadership in spades.”

When it stands out to interested onlookers, there is more to it than simple effusive praise from a coach. “Some people ‘play for envelopes’ and some people play for money. Stephan plays for the love of the game and to make his mom’s life better,” said Bullock.

Coach after coach I spoke with for this article reiterated one common theme; looking good in 7-on-7 means nothing if the pads change their game. While it can be a good way to learn more technique, play against top competition in the off-season, and show their abilities to colleges, Friday nights in the fall still matter more.

In the same way AAU changed high school basketball, the world of high school football has changed drastically over the past decade. With the advent of 7-on-7 leagues, players are focused, year round, on football. This has sped up the football specific development of the players, but has also had the same side effect on football; handlers. Far more frequently, players have special handlers; summer league coaches who charge hundreds and thousands of dollars to play on their teams with the promise of exposure. All elite athletes play on these teams, but it is very important to understand the coaches and their goals for the players.

Former Oregon great Michael Fletcher leads one of those 7-on-7 teams and is very candid in his views on college football, recruiting, and the need for structure in the lives of young men.

The history of college football is rife with corruption and entitlement; far too much money and pride have been involved creating a sort of vacuum around programs. Young men used to come into programs, be churned and burned, only to be left uneducated with a piece of paper that was virtually worthless. Academic fraud corrupted the entire structure of education – but times they are a changing and more young men, their coaches, and their families recognize that the value of an education carries much more weight than a piece of paper or a faulty promise.

Blaylock has a bigger vision off the field and on. After a very demoralizing loss last season, the Bosco team did a self-analysis, led by Blaylock. “He sees it all and is our quarterback in the secondary,” Bosco defensive coordinator Chris King told the Long Beach Press Telegram. “We trust his leadership and rely a lot on him.”

On the shoulders of his leadership, Bosco went on to win the CIF Open State title with a resounding 56-33 victory over storied DeLasalle – the former team of Terrance Kelly and inspiration behind the movie When The Game Stands Tall. On that Saturday last December, those things that are right with the game stood front-and-center. There were no scandals and no individuals larger than the game.

“The coaches talk a lot about how every game could come down to us and the defense. We take that personally and as a compliment,” Blaylock said of the team’s appearance in the victory over De La Salle. When offers started to come in, proving the hard work and dedication were close to fruition, an emotional Blaylock described it in surreal tones. “Dreams. They come true.”

Of note was his sixth offer from Oregon, an offer he considered very important. “Oregon is a school that I really wanted an offer from,” Blaylock told Duck Sports Authority in February after the coaches made the official offer to the rising safety prospect. “A lot of guys worry about going to the league,” Blaylock said. “That would be nice, but that’s not my plan,” he continued. “Education, getting a degree. That means more than anything. That’s real, the NFL is more like a dream.”

It’s why an all-important trip opened Blaylock’s eyes into what matters “Some fans only care about the players on the field, but not off,” Blaylock confided. On his first trip to Eugene, however, that was a main point made by new head coach Willie Taggart. “What I loved was that the coaches cared more about me off the field. They really felt like family and stressed to look beyond the facilities and uniforms,” he continued. “They want to make sure I am successful off the field as well, which impressed me the most,” he said. One assistant told Duck Sports Authority that the message was well received by his mother Deja. “She was his biggest concern; he wanted to make sure she was okay if he chose a place like Oregon,” the coach told us following the first visit. “Afterward, she is one-hundred percent on-board. She loves Oregon and really likes Coach Taggart.”

It’s about relationships and education. Coaches are judged by wins and losses at contract time, but also consider the development of young men in the same regard as wins on the field. Blaylock also has a very good relationship with UCLA defensive back coach Demetrice ‘Meat’ Martin. When he picked UCLA over Oregon on Friday night, it was that relationship, as well as his close friendship with 2019 UCLA commit Chris Steele which really sealed the deal for him. “I think when it came down to the final decision, he just really wanted to play close to where his mother could see him play in person; where all of those friends who propped him up could be there for him,” a friend told me Friday.

Recruiting sites cover recruiting. We bring information about interest, offers, evaluations, analysis and thoughts about the players. But these are also young men with stories. There are always those stories which inspire and remind us that lives do not have to be shattered; violence will not always prevail.

Brenda Tracy, the rape survivor who has made it her mission to change the culture of college football, has made a tour of college campuses, talking about her experience and how it shaped her life. The guilt, blame, shame and multitude of emotions that nearly destroyed her life have created a better vision of what college football can become.  It is in her story where we can find inspiration to change the world. The light of her hope, the light of players like Stephan Blaylock can create a new reality.

Football is a sport which binds us all together in some way. Towns in Texas virtually shut down on Friday nights in the fall. Lincoln, Nebraska, is an empty freeway and a sea of red on Saturdays. Fans care; sometimes too much and about the wrong things, but they still care. It is the people; those young men who play the game, and all the people by whom they are surrounded; who have the immense power and responsibility to create something better.

“The only people who affect change are those who believed they could,” said Tracy. “Don’t ever let anyone steal your belief that you can make a difference.”

“Perseverance is more prevailing than violence; and many things which cannot be overcome when they are together, yield themselves up when taken little by little”. Plutarch

Through perseverance Stephan Blaylock will escape the clutches of pain with a free college education. That is what we cheer. He is not the first, nor will he be the last. At every school across the nation, there are young men just like Stephan struggling to escape the clutches of violence, poverty and abuse. For every Stephan that escapes, there are far too many unnamed who don’t. There are far too many Terrance Kelly’s in this world, young men of promise who are needlessly taken.

Success is not written in statistics, or highlights, but on report cards. Stephan Blaylock is exceeding all expectations. Sometimes, darkness gets a victory. Sometimes, character, integrity, discipline, heart and effort will conquer the flaws of mankind. Stephan Blaylock has emerged from the dark shadows and hopelessness of violence through those very traits.


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