At the end of the day, that is all any fan may ask of a young person who's playing football and getting an education. It's been said the only thing that endures in life is character. Across five seasons, suffering the slings and arrows of playing for the Windsor Lancers, a program which seems to bring out a special kind of bile in OUA fans, Stephenson has always let his game speak for him. He's shown character in spades.
It was fitting how Stephenson's record-breaking night unfolded. The Windsor star ground out a 115-yard night to become Canadian university football's all-time leading rusher, with 4,740 yards lifetime (in four less games than Dominic Zagari accumulated the old mark of 4,738). It was raining cats and dogs, the Guelph Gryphons had the game well in hand, and who knows, perhaps Windsor coach Mike Morencie, who surely had a few alumni staring daggers in his direction on a night when Lancer ceremonially marked 40 years of Lancers football, kept Stephenson in to make sure he got the record on his home field.
What does matter is now that the record's his, it's time to salute Stephenson for standing for total effort, putting up numbers in oftentimes trying situations. This isn't a Who's The Best discussion. It's about acknowledging that whatever your opinion of his team or the calibre of his competition in the OUA, Stephenson has earned your respect.
I've only been a hardcore CIS nut for 11, 12 years, so my historical perspective is lacking, but it's hard to remember an offensive star who had a harder time getting his due as a great player. There have been plenty who shone despite being on losing teams -- look at Matt Connell at McGill, or Mount A's all-purpose wideout Gary Ross -- but no one questions them.
With Stephenson, it's like he had a few strikes against him from the get-go.
- The next great running back in the OUA after the dynamic duo of Andre Durie and Jesse Lumsden was bound to suffer in comparison.
- Stephenson was a player out of London who passed up the traditionally strong team in his hometown, Western, to go to Windsor. No doubt some view him as someone who should been a Mustang.
- Thirdly, his highly contentious selection as the Hec Crighton Trophy winner in 2006 was the eighth straight for a player for an Ontario-based school, which was understandably hard to take for fans elsewhere in the country, especially given well-founded questions about the calibre of some OUA programs.
On the first count, there is no way to definitively figure out how he compared to Lumsden (Durie was just from another planet). What is known is that Lumsden, while far from being a product of McMaster's system, at various times had four offensive linemen who went on to the CFL -- Fabio Filice, Matt O'Meara, Ryan Donnelly, Kyle Koch -- blocking for him. That's four more future CFLers than Stephenson has had blocking for him at Windsor.
Secondly, like it or not, a student-athlete's choice of school is her/his own business. Some Western fans probably didn't take it well when Stephenson went elsewhere, but he wasn't the first, nor is he the last, young person who had an opportunity to play a CIS sport and decided to do it at a university a couple of hours away from home rather than in his own backyard.
From a football standpoint, it also made sense. Western, in the winter of 2003-04, had two excellent tailbacks -- D.J. Bennett, who was going into his third season, and sophomore-to-be Randy McAuley. The Mustangs also had Andy Fantuz at receiver. Meantime, Windsor was offering to build its running game around Stephenson. Anyone who had spent his football life carrying the ball probably would have taken the latter.
As for the 2006 Hec, it's hard to begrudge anyone personally for winning an award. Applaud the honouree, but argue for a different way to decide the honour.
None of the above should diminish Stephenson's feat in anyone's mind. He's kept his head up through thick and thin and been loyal to the Lancers. In a year when several teams have fifth-year transfers, he returned to a team which was 2-6 in 2007 to begin work on a masters' degree. That's not meant to slight anyone else, but it says a lot for him. Like one of the devotees at cisfootball.org said tonight, he's risen above some tough times for his team, one carry at a time:
5 years of pounding and devotion to this program won't ever be forgotten. say what you will, but far too often he's been a one man show for windsor.... as he was again tonight.One truth in life is that if your head can hit the pillow with the feeling you gave the best you could that day, then you're worthy.
Daryl Stephenson is worthy. There's even video evidence: