Jamain Stephens: On Division II football player's life and death - Sports Illustrated

'A Shock to Us': On D-II Player Jamain Stephens's Life and Unexpected Death

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Jamain Stephens wore a size-19 shoe, could deadlift 635 pounds at the ripe age of 14 and could palm an iPad withe one hand. Stephens, listed at 355 pounds, was immovable as a nose guard and athletic enough to play fullback in goal-line packages, even once scoring a touchdown from two yards out.

But even bigger than his massive frame and football stardom was his personality—a smile-wearing, people-loving guy whom everyone flocked toward.

“The best way for me to explain him is that he was a one-of-a-kind person,” says David Adams, a high school teammate with Stephens at the Pittsburgh-based football powerhouse Central Catholic. “You won’t find another person like Jamain.”

Now, he’s gone at the age of 20—a week after he told Adams and other former high school classmates that he had tested positive for COVID-19. His death stunned his high school and college communities. He was set to be a senior defensive lineman this year at California University of Pennsylvania, a Division II school about 35 miles south of Pittsburgh.

The cause of death remains uncertain. Stephens’s father, Jamain Stephens Sr., told Sports Illustrated in a brief interview Wednesday that the family is “not sure of the truth.” He declined to elaborate further or answer more questions. “We are not making any statements at this time,” he said before ending the call.

In a statement announcing the news, Central Catholic initially said that Stephens died of “complications from COVID-19,” but the school has since walked back that assertion. Steve Bezila, the offensive coordinator at Central Catholic who coached Stephens, says the school modified its statement and that a cause of death had not been identified. The school’s initial statement resulted in a wave of reaction from many in college football. Stephens would be the first NCAA athlete to die of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, communities in Pennsylvania are in mourning for a man known by the nickname of Juice. “He was a very big guy and he had this enormous personality,” says Terry Totten, football coach at Central Catholic. “He was very athletic for his size. Good feet and a lot of different skills. Whether in a meeting or locker room or in school, he had an electric personality that drew people to him. The world has lost a great person.”

Totten says Stephens spent time in the hospital recently and had shown signs of improvement before “the bottom fell out.” During high school, Stephens lived with his mother, Kelly, in the Stanton Heights neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Totten says. His father was a first-round pick in the 1996 NFL draft for the Steelers.

At California University, Stephens served as a reserve defensive lineman. He lived in an off-campus apartment complex called Vulcan Village, but he was not recently involved in any football activities, says Karen Hjerpe, the athletic director at the school. The football team is holding no in-person events this semester and is conducting any meetings virtually, says head coach Gary Dunn. All football fields and the weight room are closed, Hjerpe says.

Dunn described Stephens’s death as “a shock to us.”

“His personality is one that always stood out,” says Hjerpe. “He was such a very well-liked individual by everyone on campus. As news of his death started, we got a lot of emails and comments of how nice he was and always had a smile and went out of his way to help everyone.”

Stephens was athletic enough to even make ESPN's SportsCenter. A viral video of him catching footballs one-handed landed on the network’s popular show. 

During practice in high school, Stephens would align at punt returner, playfully catching punts with a single hand. He also never wore pads in his pants during high school games or practices, says Totten. He didn’t need to. “He couldn’t be hurt down there,” the coach says. “When you ran into his lower half, you were in trouble.”

Donovan Slater knows that all too well. A starting center for Central Catholic, Slater matched up against Stephens during countless one-on-one battles in practice. “You don’t move him,” says Slater, now a senior at Yale. “When he was 14, he walked into the weight room and broke the school deadlift record. He did 635. Everybody went ballistic.”

News of his death began to spread among his friends on Tuesday. It reached Adams while he was in class at Notre Dame. He didn’t believe it. Just a week before that, Stephens posted on a group message with former Central Catholic classmates that he’d tested positive for COVID-19. Adams is on the group message.

“A lot of us thought he was going to be fine. He’s young and active,” Adams says. “Obviously that wasn’t the case.”