“Walking the line, on and off the field”
By Beverly Vereen
Jamain Stephens does not like to boast about his five-year stint in the National Football League, not because he isn’t proud of his accomplishments, but more so because he doesn’t want to be defined as an ex-football player.
“I want people to remember me as the guy who was humble and able to go with the flow and inspire others,” Stephens said.
Perhaps this is why so many people, including former coaches and ex-teammates, typically describe Stephens as being down-to-earth, approachable and humorous.
Stephens, who was a star football player at Lumberton Senior High and North Carolina A&T University, entered the draft in 1996 as a third-round pick. He was acquired by the Pittsburgh Steelers and signed a multi-million dollar contract.
Despite the fact that he spent his high school and college years as a defensive tackle, he was introduced to the NFL as an offensive tackle. According to Stephens, this position cost him several thousands of dollars.
“I had no idea that by agreeing to be an offensive tackle I would be losing out on so much money,” Stephens said. “But I had a close friend in the league who told me that defensive tackles make more money than offensive tackles. Not having that knowledge really held me back, financially speaking.”
Stephens, however, does not like to dwell on the money aspect. Instead, he takes solace in the fact that he was able to play the game he loves the most—football.
During his three-year tenure with the Steelers, Stephens said he quickly learned a lot about the aspects of walking the line in the NFL, on and off the field. He played under the legendary coach Bill Cower. It was a fulfilling experience for Stephens. Not only did he gain extensive leadership skills under Cower, he also developed a sense of what it means to be an outstanding athlete on the field and a role model off the field.
When asked about the most challenging aspect of his career with the Steelers, Stephens said that without a doubt it was learning how to play on a professional level.
“There are some things you don’t learn as a football player in high school or college. The NFL is an entire different entity that is exclusive to only a few who are lucky enough to be drafted and play,” Stephens said.
Stephens noted that playing alongside NFL superstars such as Kordell Stewart, Jerome Bettis and Yancy Thigpen was probably one of the biggest highlights of his career.
“Those guys were the ultimate teammates, very encouraging and extremely devoted to helping me become a better player,” Stephens said.
Although Stephens never started in a game, he was elated to be on the sidelines cheering for his team. When he did get to play, it was a feeling of bliss. Stephens said being out on the field is“magical…surreal.” He also noted that he felt at home and at peace when he got to play.
The most fulfilling reward for Stephens was simply having the opportunity to play the sport he had dreamed of playing since he was a little boy. It was a rewarding feeling because he was doing what others had told him he couldn’t do on a professional level.
“There’s nothing like proving haters wrong,” Stephens said. “Me being on the field with those football superstars, like Bettis and Stewart, made me feel validated. I was doing something positive with my life and exceeding the expectation some people had of me.”
Stephens was quickly settling into his role as a guard for the Steelers. However, in 1999 he was traded to the Cincinnati Bengals. It was somewhat of a shock to Stephens. He thought things were going well with the Steelers and believed that he was gearing up for a starting role with the team. But, as with most professional football teams, trades are inevitable and a permanent fixture in the NFL these days. And so Stephens found himself the product of a trade.
“At first, I thought it had something to do with my performance, and I took it a little personal,” Stephens said. “You want to know that you’re playing your best game and helping the team all around. So when talks of trade come about, you’re taken aback somewhat, because when you’re happy with the team you’re with, you feel like you’re home, and you don’t want to lose that.”
The trade to the Bengals was an eye-opener for Stephens. At that time, he realized home was not so much where the heart is, but where the team is. It was difficult leaving the Steelers. After all, it was the place he had called home for three years. Stephens had set goals that aligned with his position with the Steelers. And when it was time to leave, he felt a sense of loss.
“Having to say goodbye to Cower, Bettis and Stewart was really hard,” Stephens said. “But at the same time, I realized that I had to look at things from a temporary standpoint and realize that it wasn’t the end of my career in the NFL, but more like a new beginning.”
While playing for the Bengals, Stephens still maintained his position as an offensive tackle and was able to start for a couple of games. Stephens soon fell in love with his position all over again and relished in the fact that he was still playing in the NFL. He took to the field every Sunday with a winning attitude. Unfortunately, his desire to win was not enough to actually get a win. The Bengals had two disappointing seasons back to back, and in 2001, Stephens found himself on the sidelines once again. This time, however, he wasn’t traded. He was released from his contract.
This was a devastating blow for Stephens. He felt as though his dream of making a career as a professional football player was slipping through his fingers. Stephens didn’t know what to do to make the pieces come together. He no longer played for a team and had no prospects.
In 2002, he was invited to try out for the Denver Broncos. The team was coached by Mike Shanahan. Stephens spent eight weeks on a grueling and demanding practice squad. Much to his dismay, he was not offered a contract.
Following his stint at the Broncos training camp, Stephens struggled to find his identity. It was difficult at first because he had spent his entire life playing football.
“You can’t just go from playing in the NFL to just sitting around the house looking for a regular job,” Stephens said. “It’s just not the same. There’s a feeling you get from living your dream that can’t be fulfilled by doing something you don’t love.”
Aside from not being able to play in the NFL, Stephens soon encountered health problems that were related to his days on the field. While he had dealt with minor injuries that come with playing professional football, Stephens was not prepared to deal with an ailing shoulder injury that happened during a preseason game against the Buffalo Bills while playing for the Bengals.
Stephens said the injury had initially been diagnosed as a shoulder sprain. Upon further review, Stephens learned he was suffering from a left rotator cut to his shoulder that had to be operated on. Stephens insists that the surgery was a success and that he is in great condition. Still, he wishes to play professional football again one day, though he knows the chances are slim at the age of 38.
Because Stephens is aware of the fact that it’s highly unlikely he will return to the NFL one day, he has been conditioning his body for a chance to play arena football. So far, so good.
In 2011, Stephens signed with the Carolina Speed, an arena football team located in Charlotte, NC.
“I’m excited about the second chance God has given me,”Stephens said. “Just the fact that I’m on a team again is very rewarding for me. I believe good things will come out of this.”
In addition to living out his dream on the football field, Stephens has another position that is sacred to him. Being a role model and encouraging others to follow their dreams is extremely important to Stephens. In fact, it is so important that Stephens has recently signed with a manager to help him coordinate speaking engagements.
Stephens has taken to speaking at local high schools to kids about his life experiences, from growing up in an impoverished neighborhood to being drafted by the NFL. Stephens’ stories are filled with inspirational quotes and a testimony about what it is like to face adversity and overcome it in order to obtain the goals one sets.
“If I can change one life with my testimony, then I’ve done my job,” Stephens said. “I’ve learned that it’s not so much about winning on the field as it is about winning in life.”
And winning at life is exactly what Stephens is doing, one day at a time.