Courtney Stephen glanced around the high school cafeteria, pin-pointed where he often played dominos with his buddies during lunch and then, in a powerfully irresistible way, reminisced about his teenage years.
“This is where it all started for me,” said Stephen, as he praised his high school days at Turner Fenton Secondary School
in Brampton. “The education, the relationships, the great coaching, the teachers – this is where I grew up.”
Not bad, considering the initiation to football came before his ninth birthday. While his first high school season wasn’t until grade 10, Stephen saw action with the Brampton Bulldogs
where he had three interceptions and two touchdowns in his first game.
Five years after his pro debut, with many accolades and achievements he initially thought were reserved for dreams, Stephen comes off a stunning season nominated for two prestigious awards given out before the Grey Cup.
The CFL Players’ Association
highlights the Tom Pate Award – but it’s not one for excellence on the field. Stephen is the Tiger-Cats nominee for an award given to a player with outstanding sportsmanship and one who has made a contribution to his team, community and association.
And Stephen is also being considered for the Jake Gaudaur Veteran’s Award – an honor bestowed upon a player who “best demonstrates the attributes of Canada’s veterans: strength, perseverance, courage, comradeship and contribution to Canadian communities”.
“I am humbled, honored and while the focus is on me, I have been lucky to benefit from lots of good people around me,” said Stephen, recognized and rewarded for his skills beyond the football field. “My parents pushed me to get a good education while teachers and coaches were committed to helping me in my desire to excel. My teammates, and a long list of others stood by me, knowing I had this fire-burning passion to be the best I could be.”
A gifted student with a bundle of athletic energy, it all exploded for the better while at Turner Fenton, first with distance running, then track, basketball and finally football. Twice he was acknowledged as Athlete of the Year - Junior in grade 10 and senior two years later.
“I remember wanting to try boxing, but my mother said that it and hockey were both too violent,” he said, recalling the conversation while visiting Turner Fenton, 10 years after he graduated. “Oh man, I remember the many awards won here. I was competitive then and now, too.
“When you’re in sports, you want to win – but you can also do a lot of winning in life by being a leader, helping others and I’m a big believer in investing in young people the way people did for me.”
High school coach Sean Forrest said the first time he met Stephen, he could see an individual hungry to learn.
“I’m a teacher, a coach and someone whose career is focused on helping students,” said Forrest, who devoted personal time taking Stephen to a major Ohio State football camp. “I remember telling (Stephen) that if he wanted my help, he had to also make an effort. I gave advice and it was up to him to take it or not. When he did, and worked diligently, I could see the making of a winner – and he’s quite the role model.”
Stephen went to Wilfrid Laurier University
in Waterloo for two years and then chose to “live my dream” and play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. His choice was Northern Illinois University
in DeKalb, a short drive west of Chicago and eight hours from his Brampton home.
“I have always believed that if you have talent, use it in a positive way,” said Stephen, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology. “I don’t want to see kids with potential squander it and so, on a bigger scale, my job is to do for others what people did for me.”
Stephen launched the Overtime Football Club
, recruiting other football players and guest coaches to encourage local talent to pursue education through sport. Also on his agenda, Stephen holds a back-to-school football camp for local youth to promoter the importance of education through sport.
And there’s more. Last year, he helped one of his teammates start an initiative to provide over 500 pairs of shoes and socks to homeless people in the Hamilton area.
“Life is about your legacy and what you do for others,” he said. “I have to be a good influence on people. The same passion I have on the field carries over to the community.”