He Came Out Picture Perfect

A 'can't miss kid' in high school, Stefan Humphries didn't disappoint any profs or coaches at Michigan
June 03, 1984

It was a rollicking affair at the University of Michigan graduation ceremony the other day in Ann Arbor. Gathered in the football stadium, perhaps 4,300 of the school's 5,700 graduates-to-be—the other 1,400 apparently having business appointments—were determined to party. Champagne corks popped like rifle shots and then arched into the perfect blue sky. Some of the revelers wore Mickey Mouse ears, others propellers on their mortarboards. One sported a Baltimore Oriole baseball cap.

When university president Harold Shapiro told the good-timing throng, "This is the first and probably last time you'll sit on the 50-yard line," everyone booed. And when Walter Cronkite, who gave the commencement address, said he understood that venturing out into the world might create a feeling for the new grads "bordering on panic," they laughed. Mostly, though, they popped champagne corks and acted crazy. Looking terribly ill at ease amid the chaos was one Stefan Humphries, a varsity football player and an engineering major, with an interdisciplinary concentration in biology. Once he self-consciously took a sip (a very small sip) of champagne. Once he raised an arm tentatively in celebration. Mostly he looked as if he wished he were elsewhere. "Graduation is supposed to be somber and conservative," Humphries said later. "I don't think you yell until you leave. I never yell about anything until it's all over with."

Yet if any of these students had reason to go bonkers, it was Humphries. "He is the true image of the scholar-athlete," says James J. Duderstadt, dean of the College of Engineering. Indeed, in an age when too many football players never get it straight that attending class is thought by some to be a part of the college experience, Humphries is a beacon. Four years ago, we celebrated him as the ideal mix of great student, great athlete and great person from a great family (SI, May 26, 1980, The Can't Miss Kid) as he emerged from St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale. That appraisal was, if anything, not extravagant enough. Says Michigan athletic director Don Canham, "He's such a remarkable kid. He's lived up to and beyond his billing."

All Humphries did at Michigan, one of the premier universities—public or private—in the nation, was march through a course schedule that appears to have been designed by a sadist. It included such guts as engineering thermodynamics and electro biophysics. With a 3.67 grade-point, he was named Outstanding Student in the engineering school. "Very humbling," says Humphries. "I've encountered some very bright people." In one remarkable streak of academic prowess, stretching from the spring of 1981 through the summer of '82, he took 15 courses for 45 hours of credit. Result: eight A pluses, six A's, one B plus. Indeed, during one blitz, Humphries received nothing but A's and A pluses for three semesters. Finally, when he stumbled to a B in network analysis, a course having nothing whatsoever to do with ABC or CBS, football coach Bo Schembechler called Humphries in and said, "Congratulations on being human." Humphries didn't smile.

Another time, Schembechler summoned Humphries and said, "Aren't you doing too much studying?"

"No," said Humphries.

"Are you enjoying Michigan?"

"Yes."

"And you're getting out some?"

"Yes."

"Are you sure you're enjoying yourself?"

"I'm enjoying myself, Bo, but I've got to go study."

As gorgeous as Humphries' transcript is, it doesn't reflect his true academic excellence. At Michigan, an A plus is worth no more in GPA computation than an A, and Humphries earned nine A pluses to go with his 15 A's. "I didn't come to Michigan to get all A's," he says. "I came to learn." And, as you might suspect by now, he did it all in four years, a feat Duderstadt calls "very rare." Most Michigan engineering students take 4½ to five years to earn their degrees.

Humphries belongs to all kinds of honorary societies, including Tau Beta Pi, the engineering equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa, and ranks among the top 10% of the 1,081 graduating seniors in the engineering school. "He's as big mentally and humanly as he is physically," says Lee Quackenbush, assistant dean of the engineering school, and Humphries is 6'4", 262 pounds. The only documented dumb thing he ever did at Michigan occurred when he arrived as a freshman and was asked to fill out a form listing his "non-athletic activities, hobbies, interests." Wrote Humphries, "Swimming, tennis." In January, The Detroit News named him one of its 10 Michiganians of the Year, a list that included Lee Iacocca.

On the field, Humphries was, well, just as good. A three-year starter at offensive guard, he was an academic All-America twice, All-Big Ten twice and, last fall, AP first team All-America and a National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Scholar. His play was brilliant, slipping only occasionally to merely terrific. Schembechler once said that Humphries was the only player on the squad who never had a bad game. Actually, against Illinois last fall, Humphries faltered—by his own standards—when he had the angle of his blocks wrong, but that was a mere blip.

Interior offensive-line coach Paul Schudel says that in grading most players it's simply a matter of asking, "Did he make the block or not?" With Humphries, however, the criteria were more stringent because he would make the block. "In his case, he might block a guy downfield for two or three yards," says Schudel, "but I'll decide that wasn't good enough—for Stefan." Last season, Humphries' average blocking grade was 76. In the Wolverine system 70 is considered good and 75 excellent. During one stretch, Humphries graded out at 91, 82, 81, 81 and 79.

Over the years Michigan has had a host of superior offensive linemen, including Dan Dierdorf, Reggie McKenzie, Jon Geisler, Bubba Paris, Ed Muransky, Dave Gallagher, Mark Donahue, Walt Downing and George Lilja. None was better than Humphries. No wonder Schembechler pushes back in his chair, props his feet on his desk, puffs jauntily on an awful-smelling cigar and chortles, "He's just a beautiful kid."

A beautiful kid heading for medical school—either Michigan or Northwestern in the NFL off-season—who says he might specialize in pediatrics or orthopedics. If he chooses the latter, he may use his engineering background to design artificial limbs. Says Humphries, "I like to work with somebody who can talk to me and tell me if I'm helping." First, though, he'll help the Chicago Bears, who drafted him in the third round. Knocking around his Ann Arbor apartment on draft day in a green scrub outfit, he was asked just after hearing from the Bears on the phone, "Are you satisfied with this?"

"You know I'd never be satisfied with being third in anything," said Humphries, "but it gives me that much more to work for." As a third-round selection, he can expect to receive something like $375,000 spread over three years. But Humphries doesn't brood over such things. As Duderstadt says, "He never loses sight of the fact that his primary objective is a medical career. He knows that his scholarly ability will stay with him." As opposed to his lateral speed, which, too soon, will desert him.

Bill Tobin, the Bears' director of player personnel, says, "First, we like his intelligence. Second, we like his stability and ability." What Tobin doesn't say is, third, never mind that the NFL in its wisdom selected 70 players ahead of Humphries, he'll be an All-Pro. You can bet the house and spouse on that one.

When all's said and done, though, Humphries' most significant accomplishment may be the glorious example he set as a scholar-athlete. Says Schembechler, "All Stefan Humphries stands for is everything this game is supposed to be about. Football is always important to him, but never, never to the exclusion of academics." And there's the rub. Why can so few athletes successfully combine big-time sports and big-time academics?

Says Anne Monterio, director of academic services for the College of Engineering, "Are athletics and academics incompatible? Well, athletics and engineering—very definitely. Neither side is very giving about relaxing its demands." Canham says, "They're not incompatible, but they're very difficult to combine." Adds Duderstadt, "Usually, you have to compromise on one or the other." Humphries is cautious on the subject of games and brains. Do they mix? Long pause. Real long pause. Finally he says, "They can."

But do they?

Pause. Long pause. Real long pause. At last he says, "It takes a lot of commitment, a lot of discipline. Sometimes I miss out on what the normal student might experience—like getting involved in clubs, time to sit around and talk, go to parties. I used to think how nice it would be to have time to spend an afternoon in a pickup basketball game. I find myself always wanting another hour. Just one more. It's hard to sit up and study when you're tired and your body is sore. It takes inner motivation."

So the two mix, sort of?

Pause. Long pause. Real long pause. Finally he says, "Professors here aren't too tolerant of athletes flunking classes and just getting by. The truth is, playing football at this level is a real disadvantage academically. I have to admit it. But in the growing it makes you do as a person, it's an advantage."

So you could have gotten a better education without football?

Serious silence. Hello? Stefan? The lights are on in there, but is anybody home? Finally, he says quietly, "No." Feel free to translate that as "Yes."

Richard Scott, an engineering professor and Humphries' adviser, agrees. "What's his average—3.6, 3.7?" says Scott. "He's about reaching academic saturation." But obviously racing through Humphries' fertile mind—don't be tricked by his sleepy eyes and his demeanor, which suggest he's stuck for an answer when somebody says hello—are memories of those weeks when football required 50 hours, studying another 30, and classes and labs 15.

Humphries' father, Thornton, is the principal of the Everglades Traditional Middle School in Fort Lauderdale. Thornton makes sure not only that his school gives out the same number of awards for academic achievements as for athletic accomplishments but also that the trophies are the same size. "The two can mix," he says, "but a young person has to want them to mix. The big problem is that sports bring immediate recognition while nobody sees an A being made in chemistry. The benefit of that A is down the road. What has to be emphasized is that education is the way you become successful. Stefan had the background when he went to Michigan to compete academically as well as athletically. However, you don't start preparing for that in high school. You start on the first day of kindergarten."

Pat Haden, a Rhodes scholar who played quarterback on USC's national championship teams in 1972 (consensus) and '74 (UPI) before playing pro ball, says, "Athletics and academics should mix. Why not? It's simply a matter of organizing one's time. Players say they're so busy with football that they don't have time to study. That's not true."

The problem is that a lot of colleges have lost their way in attempting to sort out the academic-athletic conflict. Increasingly they talk of their academics, while continuing to accept young men whose intellectual curiosity extends no further than knowing their time in the 40—on grass and artificial turf. Says Humphries, "I do wish universities would try to improve their academics, putting more emphasis on them and less on football. An athlete should come to school with some priorities in mind. He should make education the first priority. Then he should have alternate career goals outside of sport. Then he should enjoy the college experience. Then he should play football. Now, if you figure you'll use football to get a good education, it will be a positive experience. Conversely, if you figure you'll do everything in football and not worry about education, it will not be a positive experience. In college football, anytime you see a guy flunk out, it's a stigma."

Coaches exacerbate the problem. While they publicly stand foursquare behind the idea that their players should excel in the classroom, in truth they have their fingers crossed behind their backs. That's because coaches must win or be fired. Thus, how much can they really be expected to worry about a tight end's progress in European history?

Despite his sometimes outrageous behavior on the sidelines, Schembechler sympathizes with the athletic-academic dilemma as much as any big-time coach. Over the last four years it was virtually impossible to visit with him for more than several minutes before he started riffling through the papers on his desk, looking for a copy of Humphries' record to display. Once he peered down at it, shook his head and said, "I can't even pronounce the names of the classes he's taking." Then there's the time Humphries had to miss practice because of a lab. He walked up to Schembechler and said, "Bo, you're not going to like what I have to tell you, but there's nothing we can do about it." Schembechler tells that story on himself and gets great joy out of it.

Says Mike Wilson, a graduating defensive tackle and Humphries' roommate at Michigan, "School can take away from your concentration on the football field. To try to combine the two is a heckuva problem." George Hoey, Michigan's academic counselor for the jocks, says, "I don't know if athletics and academics are compatible, but Stefan has made them so. It also seems as if he has sailed through. He does it the perfect way, with long-range planning and short-term goals. What sets him apart is that there are a lot of guys with a vast amount of ability on the field who do O.K. in the classroom. What Stefan is saying to them is that O.K. isn't nearly good enough."

How often does a guy like Humphries come along?

"Never. It just doesn't happen," says Hoey.

Humphries is so special his mind has been celebrated at Michigan as much as his body. In one team meeting Schembechler used the word legitimize and then stopped. "Now, Stefan, is legitimize a proven word?" asked Bo. Yes, advised Humphries. Once, while adding numbers on the board, Schembechler turned to Humphries and said, "Is that right, Stefan?" No, advised Humphries.

Yet, in the world of football, brains can be a minus. "I've heard the fact that I want to go to medical school is a detrimental force with the pros," says Humphries. It is. The Bears, for example, checked carefully to make sure football was in Humphries' future. "He told us he wanted to play," says Tobin. "But with these guys with real, real high IQs, there's always a little concern about whether they will."

Go back to draft day. The Seattle Sea-hawks had sent scout Ralph Goldston to hover over Humphries because they thought they might pick him in the second round, and they wanted to make sure those bad guys from the USFL didn't show up with money hanging out of their pockets. Goldston engaged Humphries in conversation: "You want to be a lawyer or doctor or something?"

"Yes, a doctor."

"Oh, so do you know which medical school you're going to?"

"Not for sure."

"Yeah, well, a medical school is a medical school, right? It don't make no difference, right?"

"It does to me."

"Oh, yeah? Well, I don't know nothing about this medical school crap. So why did you come to Michigan to school?"

"I wanted to build snowmen."

See, what does fluid mechanics have to do with executing a horn block? Different worlds.

Oh yes, did we mention the Rhodes scholarship? As it turns out, Humphries narrowly missed being selected. (About his only other failure in life was when he lost a Florida state spelling bee as a fourth grader by flubbing "outmaneuver"; he reversed the c and u.) Had he received the Rhodes, he would've had to choose between two years at Oxford and pro football. No problem for Humphries. He would've taken the fellowship.

Recently, after dinner at an Ann Arbor Chinese restaurant, Humphries read his fortune from a cookie: "Serious trouble will bypass you." He pondered it, smiled and said, "That's good news." Which is exactly what Stefan Humphries is. But he's not yelling because, remember, he doesn't yell about anything until it's over. And for Humphries, it has only just begun.

PHOTOTONY TOMSICHumphries ranks in the top 10% of his graduating engineering class. PHOTOTONY TOMSICSchembechler says Humphries never played a bad game. PHOTOTONY TOMSICWhen Humphries had to choose between football practice and a lab, the lab won out. PHOTOTONY TOMSICNo wonder Humphries was selected as the Outstanding Student in the College of Engineering. PHOTOTONY TOMSICHumphries' grandmother, father, mother and two sisters joined him on graduation day.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)