By Elizabeth Exline
Stephens brought pizza and soft drinks and spent two hours crying and listening to the students’ stories. Some, he learned, were dropping out because of the gangs. Two girls were pregnant. Some were dropping out because their parents were in gangs.
“So, I wept and prayed. Then, an idea came to me. I told each of the students, ‘I refuse to let any of you drop out. Not on my watch.’ I told them I would go back to school with them,” he says. “That day, we drew up 17 contracts [stating] that I would return to school for one year only if all 16 stayed in school and graduated. … They all graduated.”
Fourteen went on to college. And so did Stephens. He enrolled at University of Phoenix (UPOX) two days after the contracts were signed and went on to earn his Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice; then, 16 months later, his MBA. He recently earned his doctorate in education.
And those students? They built lives and careers — and they still stay in touch with Stephens. “This is my reason for becoming a Phoenix,” he adds. “Not just because we rise from the ashes. But we fly at low levels sometimes to bring others along.”
Stephens’ path to that moment was, in some ways, as rocky as the one his students had trodden. He was born and raised in Detroit, one of four boys who lived in the city but who spent weekends working on their grandparents’ farm. When he was 11, Stephens’ father passed away.
This was the first of several traumatic events that would punctuate Stephens’ life. His response was to stop talking for a year. He stopped eating the foods he and his dad had shared. He slipped into the background at school, dealing with the occasional scuffle in silence. His mom gave him the space he needed, surrounding him with uncles and his grandfather as a circle of support while he grieved.
“Then I came out of it,” he says simply. “My first words to my mom were, I think, ‘I’m ready.’”
Stephens, as it turned out, was ready for quite a lot. He finished high school and started working odd jobs while practicing football with semi-pro teams. He discovered a talent for cooking and worked as a sous chef. He also fathered a child, a girl named Erica, whose lungs were underdeveloped and who lived less than a month in the hospital.
“I was in the hospital the entire month she was alive,” he recalls. “She was in critical condition, and I stayed there until they turned the machines off. They let me hold her. She opened her eyes, smiled and just passed away in my arms.”
Stephens still carries her photos with him, still retains the commitment that experience seared into him. For that was the moment, he says, that he dedicated his life to children.
When he left football, he took a detour into another field that interested him: security. He worked with the J. Paul Getty Museum for close to a decade before hitting a ceiling in his career. He thought about joining the police force at that time, but his mother feared for his safety, so he took a different job instead. The problem was that job was just as dangerous.
“I met this young lady who had heard about me,” Stephens says. “She said, ‘Hey, I’m a principal at a school. It’s in the worst part of LA, and we’re having problems with gangs. Can you come and help?’”
Stephens did, and it was a career that was to change his life.