Wreck claims NSU football great John Stephens
9/2/2009 10:00:00 PM
SHREVEPORT -- John Stephens, the 1988 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year for the NFL's New England Patriots following a record-shattering career as a running back at Northwestern State, died Tuesday night in a one-vehicle accident in a rural area near Shreveport.
Stephens, a 43-year-old native of Springhill, apparently lost control of his truck on state Highway 169 near Pine Orchard about 8:30 Tuesday night, according to the Caddo Parish Sheriff's Office.
The 17th player selected in the 1988 NFL Draft, Stephens broke the NSU career rushing record set by Joe Delaney, topping it by 10 yards with 3,057 yards. Ironically, Delaney was the 1981 AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year for the Kansas City Chiefs, and when Stephens won his award seven years later, it made Northwestern State the only school to produce two running backs who went on to be Rookie of the Year winners.
Stephens also won the NFL's first Gale Sayers Humanitarian Citation awarded to a rookie player. A committee headed by Sayers, the Pro Football Hall of Fame running back, made Stephens the inaugural recipient for his work on behalf of the Roxbury (Mass.) Comprehensive Community Health Center. Stephens continued to do extensive charity work in New England during his five seasons with the team.
He played six NFL seasons, reaching the Pro Bowl as a rookie when he ran for 1,168 yards. He played for the Patriots until 1992, then spent time in the 1993 season with Green Bay, Atlanta and Kansas City before retiring with 3,440 career yards and 18 touchdowns.
At Northwestern, along with breaking Delaney's career mark for rushing yards, he set a new career record with 653 attempts. The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder helped coach Sam Goodwin's Demons win the Gulf Star Conference championship as a freshman in 1984, then won All-GSC honors in 1985 and 1986 before a knee injury requiring arthroscopic knee surgery limited his impact in his senior season of 1987, the Demons' first year in the Southland Conference.
Stephens recovered to finish the year, break Delaney's record and play in the Blue-Gray All-Star Classic and the Senior Bowl, regaining his status for the NFL Draft.
At Springhill High School, he didn't play running back until his senior season, after the team's starting tailback suffered a knee injury and Stephens was moved from offensive guard.
He responded by winning the state's Class AA Most Outstanding Offensive Player Award by rushing for 1,984 yards and 28 touchdowns for coach Travis Farrar's Lumberjacks. Stephens went on to win the state championship in the shot put (60-0) and had a best time of 21.3 in the 200 meter dash.
In 2007, when Northwestern celebrated its football centennial, Stephens was recognized on the Top 100 Players in Demon Football History roster.
"I can't think of anyone more impressive as far as strength and speed and power. He could do anything he set his mind to do. He was one powerful human being," said Goodwin, who coached 38 NFL players at Northwestern from 1983-99 after he was an assistant coach under Lou Holtz at Arkansas.
"John was a great friend who always stayed in touch with a lot of his teammates and other people from Northwestern State," said Adrian Howard, who played defensive back for the Demons from 1986-89. "This is a very sad loss."
"About a year ago, I was jogging early in the morning, and a truck with a horse trailer pulled up near me and John shouted out and said, 'hey, you're still running,' " said Dr. Chris Maggio, dean of students at Northwestern and a track and field athlete during Stephens' days at NSU. "He had such a big smile and was very loyal to his friends at NSU."
Former teammates and friends were gathering Wednesday at Stephens' mother's home in Springhill. Funeral arrangements were pending.