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BIG MAN
ON CAMPUS

Meghan Shaffer
Jeromy Mackey

Photo: By Cal U Athletic Department

 

        Jamain “Juice” Stephens, sporting a Vulcan Nation T-shirt, snatches effortlessly out of the air with just his right hand a football thrown to him from about 20 yards out during a workout. After the catch, the lineman looks straight into the camera in his July Twitter post and tells the viewers: “Come on, man, stop playing with me.” As if to show the snag was not a fluke, he tells his followers to stay tuned: “Hey, Come on man watch me work.” And work he does making several more one-handed catches, one where he’s leaping. Multiple online publications picked the video up, amplifying its original caption, “Respect the lineman,” and “Lineman’s got hands.”

        But even before the Twitter post went viral, Stephens, the 6-foot-3 and 355-pound lineman, had already garnered local celebrity status as a big man on California University of Pennsylvania’s campus both on the field and in the classroom, according to those who knew him. So when the senior business administration major and Vulcan football team nose tackle died unexpectedly in September, his death rocked the Cal U community.

        “On the day he passed away, my wife is in labor with our third child; my phone is ringing off the hook from players and coaches,” said Cal U defensive coordinator Michael Craig. “There was an hour break, and I saw the news. About an hour later, my third daughter was born. I’ll always remember it was the most emotional, high, low day of my life.”

        Stephens began experiencing symptoms of what he thought was a cold. As his symptoms progressed, he was diagnosed with COVID-19. Shortly after this diagnosis, doctors discovered that Stephens had pneumonia as well as a blood clot in his lungs. The combination of these three conditions proved to be fatal, and Stephens died in the hospital on Sept. 8--just shy of his 21st birthday. The impact of his passing was immediate. Even in a remote learning campus setting, the news spread through texts, tweets, and Zoom and the immortalizing of “Juice,” began as people began to tell their stories of the affable lineman. Corey Street, a Cal U graphic design major, said he’ll never forget his first day on campus hanging out with Stephens who convinced him to attend Cal U.

        “I remember the first day we went to three or four parties, and we were walking when a group of people walked up to Juice, and they seemed so excited to me that I thought we were going to get jumped,” Street said.

        Cal U head coach Gary Dunn said he noticed early on how people were drawn to Stephens during a recruitment trip at Stephens’s Central Catholic High School.

        “He was a quiet kid, but you could tell he was a good person, just from the way people interacted with him from the guidance counselor to the principal, and it was clear that everybody in this school loves this kid,” said Dunn.

        Those who knew Stephens said people were drawn to him because he looked out for others, especially his friends. In fact for his friends, Stephens showed love almost to a point of stubbornness. Austin Gockel, a friend who met Stephens during their high school football days, can attest to that.

        “When communication was light, he would always shoot me a FaceTime. He would get mad if I wasn’t answering,” said Gockel, a Geneva College student. “He wanted to make sure you were okay, and if you weren’t, he was going to make it okay. He would blow up my phone and I’d be like ‘Did you call me nine times?’ He said, ‘Next time I’ll call you 10 times.”

        Although he was caring, Stephens could dish out tough love when necessary, according to teammates and peers. Vulcans quarterback Nate Mitchell recalled a stern discussion from Stephens during a pickup basketball game.

        “He was always encouraging people to do better, and I remember we got into a verbal altercation because I went up to dunk,” Mitchell said. “He corrected me saying ‘No protect yourself, always keep the bigger goal in mind.’ I thought he was babying me, but he still pushed me (to do better), that was Juice.”

        Coach Craig said Stephens’s teammates were willing to listen to him because he cared, and he was willing to hear them out.

        “When he spoke, it resonated,” Craig said. “He didn’t speak a lot, but when he did, people listened. He gave great advice. He was a good listener.”

        In addition, Stephens was often the first to reach out to new players, according to his coaches. Stephens had already begun welcoming Cal U’s freshman football class through social media.

        “Some of those stories after he passed, every aspect of our team from freshmen to transfers to high school kids, Jamain reached out to all of those kids,” Dunn said. “He was the first to reach out and talk to those kids. Unfortunately you don’t realize at the time, you didn’t realize the impact he had on the freshmen that hadn’t really been there on campus yet.”

        Stephens didn’t just talk. He lead by example. He put in work all the time even with his natural athletic gifts would have allowed him to coast, according to his coaches.

        “For big Juice, he is one of the most athletic people I know,” Craig said. “From hand-eye coordination, to a large man with nimble feet, he was always surprising me. He constantly worked to be better. He was disciplined. He was a solid kid.”

        That discipline didn’t just stop on the field. Stephens worked in the classroom as well, pushing himself and his fellow student athletes to succeed there, according to those who knew him. Cal U history professor Kelton Edmonds said he was impressed by the young man.

        “A lot of athletes take night classes, and even though those students are usually more mature, athletes by 6 p.m. are tired and irritable and hungry,” Edmonds said. “Whenever I went in a lull with those classes, Jamain was always the first person to re-energize the class by speaking and participating. I could always call on him, he was my go-to person when things got quiet. I could always count on him.”

        Edmonds said Stephens wasn’t just dependable, but also a passionate learner and academic participant.

        “He had a thirst to want to learn more, and to push his critical thinking skills further,” Edmonds said. “Even just seeing him in the classroom I could just tell how great of a dude he was.”

        Coach Dunn said Stephens “came from a good family,” mentioning the football connection to Jamain’s father, by the same name and former first-round draft pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers; however, the coach spent most of his praise on Stephens’s mother, Kelly Allen.

        “His mother is a super woman,” Dunn said.

        In the days and weeks following his death, Allen used that strength she instilled in her son to speak on the experience of losing someone in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, encouraging people to do better. To date, the United States has more than 13.8 million COVID-19 cases, 272,525 of which have resulted in deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

        Ian Kendall, a alumnus of Central Catholic and a Duquesne University freshman, is still shocked that Stephens got swept up in this pandemic and is mourning the death of his friend. Kendall was the person in the viral Twitter video seen firing balls at Stephens. He was also there for Stephens in his final weeks at the hospital as best as he could during the pandemic, just like he knew “Juice” would have been there for him. Kendall was able to FaceTime Stephens before he passed but is still burdened by his inability to have been there in person for a guy who had always been there for him.

        “He has been there for me my whole life; I loved him so much,” Kendall said. “As of today, I have lost a part of my heart. He was my inspiration. He taught me how to be a man of God, a brother… he was my mentor.”

        Kendall said Stephens remained true to form until the end providing him with encouragement. The lineman with the hands of a skilled receiver passed on these parting words for his friend.

        “The last thing he ever told me was to make it to the league for the both of us,” Kendall said. “He said, ‘I will be your guardian angel and get you there every step of the way.’”