Rhamondre Stevenson stayed focused through NCAA suspension: 'All my life, I've been hit with adversity'

In bouncing back multiple times throughout his football career, Oklahoma's big running back has always been poised to declare "I'M BACK"
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Rhamondre Stevenson is back

Rhamondre Stevenson is back

In a way, Rhamondre Stevenson has always carried the message “I’M BACK.” He just chose last Saturday night’s game at Texas Tech to reveal it.

After Stevenson’s third touchdown against the Red Raiders in his first game back from a prolonged NCAA suspension, he lifted his jersey to reveal the words printed on his undershirt.

First, he swears he didn’t have a plan for exactly how to declare his return.

But he did want to show the world his new status on something more dynamic than a 1-yard touchdown plunge.

“To be honest, I was waiting for a longer touchdown, not a 6-yarder, or shorter.”

Rhamondre Stevenson's first touchdown

Rhamondre Stevenson's first touchdown

Stevenson came off a six-game suspension Saturday night in Lubbock and punished the Red Raiders with touchdown runs of 6, 1, and 1 yards. Truncated as his season already was, his work load was mostly finished after the third score — after he’d given the Sooners a 42-7 lead midway through the second quarter on their way to a 62-28 victory.

So Stevenson abandoned his plan.

“When the third touchdown came,” he said, “I was thinking to myself, ‘This has to be the last touchdown.’ So I just pulled it out.”

Stevenson, a 6-foot, 246-pound senior from Las Vegas, said he came up with the idea a couple days earlier — “I need to make a statement when I get back,” he said — so he had the T-shirt made.

But the shirt was no more grand a statement than his performance.

In his first game in 11 months, Stevenson rushed 13 times for 87 yards, caught a pass for 13 yards, scored three times and was named Big 12 co-offensive player of the week. More than that, he served notice that whatever backfield woes the Sooners may have had over the first half of the season — well, Stevenson delivered a powerful stiff-arm there, too.

“Adding a back of his caliber that can break tackles and has had some pretty good experience here with our guys was huge,” Lincoln Riley said after the game, “and so (he) kinda gave us a little bit more of the full group that we’ve hoped to have.”

Rhamondre Stevenson takes flight

Rhamondre Stevenson takes flight

Said Stevenson, “It was a great feeling being able to fight with my team out there after 11 months of not being on the field.”

Stevenson wasn’t exactly idle during his idle time.

“Rhamondre (was) there every single week giving us a different look on scout team,” said OU safety Pat Fields. “Typically for the scout team running backs, those are the guys that tend to always get beat up by the defensive line because they’re always in the backfield. Rhamondre gave us a unique look. One of the top backs in the country. Every single day, we got a good look. Whether it was tackling a big back (or) a guy that can make you miss in space.”

Stevenson’s football journey had been delayed before. He was the Las Vegas Sun player of the year as a junior at Centennial High School in 2014, rushing for 1,457 yards and 19 touchdowns on just 191 carries. But his senior year was ruined by a broken foot in the Bulldogs’ second game of the season, he said. He tried to return for the playoffs, but they lost that game.

“I feel like that’s a big step in my life that helped me get through this experience, because I was very discouraged,” Stevenson said. “Once I broke my foot, I couldn't play. I honestly thought my football career was over. And then after that, I even took a year off from football after my senior year. So it was a just scary moment for me, but it definitely taught me to just keep going, keep going, and in due time, things will work out if you keep your head on and just do the right thing and push.”

Stevenson said he figured he would be able to qualify for college academically late in his senior year, but came up short. The injury and what Stevenson called bad grades wiped out any real chance of playing Division I football.

Rhamondre Stevenson airborne

Rhamondre Stevenson airborne

So after taking a year off (“I did nothing,” he said) he signed with Cerritos College in Norwalk, CA. The Rhamondre Stevenson story has been unique.

“Well, it’s the junior college story, to be honest,” said Dean Grosfeld, Stevenson’s junior college coach. “I’ve been here 26 years, and we see it all the time.”

Grosfeld, who was Cerritos offensive coordinator for more than 20 years before taking over as head coach before Stevenson’s sophomore season, said Stevenson had a family friend who played basketball at Cerritos and told Stevenson, after his year off, to give it a shot. Stevenson sent Grosfeld some video highlights.

“I want to say I watched two clips. I was like, ‘Good God,’ ” Grosfeld said. “It was against the best competition in Nevada, and he did things in those two clips that you just can’t do.”

Two things held Stevenson back as a JC freshman, Grosfeld said.

One was financial. Being from out of state, Grosfeld said, they had to keep Stevenson’s class load down so he wouldn’t get hit with a big tuition bill. If Stevenson had been from California and received financial aid, he’d have been gone in just one year, Grosfeld said.

The other was systemic. Coming in behind a couple of sophomores the program was hoping to push on to four-year schools, Stevenson had to wait his turn.

“That first year, we got a lot of flak: ‘If he’s the best running back, how come he didn’t play more?’ ” Grosfeld said. “At the junior college level, we are loyal to a fault. We had some sophomores, and at the junior college level, it’s our job to help those kids move on. Sophomores, that’s their last chance. We knew Rhamondre was a two-year player.”

So as a freshman in 2017, Stevenson rushed for 501 yards and three touchdowns as a backup.

“After that,” Stevenson said, “I started picking up offers after my first year at the juco.”

Rhamondre Stevenson "celebrates" a TD

Rhamondre Stevenson "celebrates" a TD

“He was an awesome kid,” Grosfeld said. “He was like, ‘Coach, I get it. When I get my chances, I’ll get my chances. Those guys have earned their right.’ He was incredible.”

Just like Stevenson’s undershirt, his raw talent had begun to reveal itself. But he didn’t have to wait long.

As a sophomore in 2018, Stevenson rushed for 2,111 yards and 16 touchdowns. If Cerritos played in the NJCAA instead of the California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA), Stevenson’s single-season total would stand as the fifth-best in junior college history (only seven NJCAA backs have rushed for 2,000 yards in a single season).

“If he’d have (started) for us for two years, he’d have crushed every single record,” Grosfeld said. “The NFL might have been calling him from junior college, to be honest with you. Because he would have rushed for 4,000 yards."

Like most Division I coaches, OU’s Lincoln Riley said the Sooner staff wasn’t aware of Stevenson in high school. But, Riley added, “he caught our eye” in junior college.

How could he not? As a sophomore, Stevenson averaged 9.5 yards per carry and surpassed 100 yards in all 11 games in 2018. That included 200 against Moorpark, 339 against Long Beach City, 270 against San Diego Mesa, 215 against Mt. San Antonio and 230 against Golden West.

“We decided at that point that we were in the market for, potentially, a JC running back and started looking around,” Riley said. “And we especially liked the thought of bringing in a little bit bigger body at that time. Not that we were small, but at that time, we were starting to look for those guys and he got recommended by a couple of contacts that we have out on the West Coast. Then seeing him play in person, I thought he was pretty impressive. We watched film, loved the tape, got a chance to get around the kid and it came together.”

Stevenson chose OU over Texas, USC and others.

“A lot of schools wanted me to wait to sign,” Stevenson said, “but I liked OU so I pulled the trigger as soon as possible in December.”

“I remember we were offering him, recruited him for a little bit, he came out here and liked it, and ended up committing,” Riley said. “… I think that was the year we had the first early signing day, and there were several schools that didn’t want him to sign early, wanted to him wait and come visit them in January and have a chance to sign him in February. But he was — lucky for us — he was pretty locked in with us at that point.”

When Stevenson got to OU, the backfield was already crowded. Kennedy Brooks had run for 1,056 yards and 12 touchdowns and averaged 8.9 yards per carry in 2018 as a redshirt freshman, and Trey Sermon had run for 947 yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore. Stevenson’s prospects for immediate playing time weren’t particularly good.

And when OU added the element of quarterback Jalen Hurts as a transfer from Alabama to the ground game for 2019, it seemed Stevenson might not get many carries at all.

But while Stevenson started his first year at OU third on the depth chart, he didn’t stay there very long. In blowout wins over Houston, South Dakota and UCLA, Stevenson accumulated 21 carries for 182 yards and three touchdowns — including a six-carry, 104-yard effort against South Dakota that featured a 75-yard touchdown run.

He had just three carries for 28 yards but scored another TD against Texas Tech, then burst through Kansas for 109 yards (and a 61-yard TD) on just five carries.

Rhamondre Stevenson's 61-yard TD at Kansas last year

Rhamondre Stevenson's 61-yard TD at Kansas last year

The following week against Texas, Sermon (who’s off to a good start at Ohio State this season) wound up in Riley’s doghouse, and Stevenson mostly shared carries with Brooks after that. In the final four games, Stevenson ran 24 times for 146 yards and a touchdown before his suspension for the Peach Bowl.

Grosfeld said he still catches up with Stevenson on a weekly basis and said when he heard of the suspension, “I was shocked. Because we do drug testing at our level, and there were no signs of it. We were shocked. I think in some people’s eyes, that’s a character flaw. In my eyes, it’s not necessarily a character flaw, it’s a mistake.”

Grosfeld said he fears a failed drug test will be a red flag for NFL teams, but times are changing. Riley himself said he’s changed 180 degrees from the way he used to look at marijuana. Attitudes are also changing in the NFL — as well as society at large. Forty-seven states went into Election Day with some kind of legalized marijuana laws already on the books, and on Tuesday, Arizona, New Jersey and South Dakota became the 12th, 13th and 14th states to legalize recreational marijuana use.

“Is it out of character? Some people may be looking at it as a bad thing, so sure,” Grosfeld said. “Is it out of character when a kid tries something? No. But is he some full-fledged drug addict? In no way, shape or form.

“Does he own this? Yes. Is he embarrassed? Yes. I think embarrassment shows you sometimes a human emotion. He was embarrassed. He was embarrassed as all get out. He didn’t blame anybody else. But he was embarrassed, and that shows you what kind of human he is. He’s an incredible human being. He’s just awesome. I love the kid to death. I work with a lot of kids, and he’s just as solid as a rock. He’s just a good human being.”

Rhamondre Stevenson

Rhamondre Stevenson

Grosfeld said Stevenson has “always owned” his struggles and has “had it really, really rough.”

His two years at Cerritos, for example, he slept in a teammate’s family’s garage apartment and paid rent when he could by working a part-time job.

“We’re non-scholarship in California. It’s very, very tough in California to make it,” Grosfeld said. “Thank God a family of a player took him in that he befriended. It’s hard on those kids to try to find food, to do whatever. They work part-time jobs. It is brutal for those kids to try to make it. But he never complained, and you would never know. He just put his nose to the grindstone and got after it.

“That’s the difference between the NJCAA and us,” Grosfeld said. “They can provide scholarships and housing and we can’t. It shows you how hard it is and shows you how neat their story is.

“When people want to attack the junior college kids, I raise my hand and say, ‘How about giving them credit?’ “

Stevenson said staying motivated for the past 11 months was not as hard as it sounds. Not with all the support he’s had.

“For me, it was just staying focused and when my time came I just had to make the most out of it,” he said. “As for the process, it was frustrating but I knew my time would come. I just had to wait it out and work hard, practice hard, go through all the motions like I was playing first game. Just had to wait until the six games were up.

“Of course I was discouraged for a few weeks, but talking to my coaches and my players, they kept me grounded a little bit. I knew this time would come, the six games would be over eventually. I knew I had to keep working. I just knew it would come.”

The crowning moment, Stevenson said, was knowing his parents were in Lubbock for his return, and getting to spend time with them. His mother had posted on Twitter a week earlier that she and her husband would be at the game cheering loudly as her son’s suspension ended. That they got to see him reach the end zone three times and have such a big impact on the OU offense was uplifting after a long, dark 11 months.

“It meant everything to me,” he said. “They’ve been going through this process and feeling the same frustration as me. To have them there and me put on a pretty nice game, it meant the world to me.

“All my life, I’ve been hit with adversity from on the field to off the field. So that really made me into the person I am today.”

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