It was Jan. 1, 2011. Texas Tech was facing Northwestern in the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas. Tech was up 24-9 with 11:05 left in the third quarter and had possession at its own 14-yard line.
Sophomore 5-foot-8, 190-pound running back Eric Stephens took the handoff.
“I do remember the play that was called,” said Stephens in an interview on Saturday. “It was ‘zone left.’ Baron Batch (then a senior) had been our guy, our featured back — he later played for the Pittsburgh Steelers — but he’d gotten hurt in the first half. So this second half was sort of a passing of the torch to me. Speed wasn’t my thing, I was more quick than fast. But I hit the hole and there was a lane. I just kept going and said to myself, ‘Don’t get caught.’ ”
Stephens raced 86 yards into the end zone upping Tech’s lead to 31-9, a lead it never relinquished.
Stephens then started the 2011 season, his junior year, in fabulous fashion. Through five games, the Red Raiders had put their trust in Stephens, handing him the rock an average of 21 times per contest. Stephens responded by averaging 5.2 yards per carry, gaining 565 rushing yards — putting him amongst the top rushers in America. And Texas Tech was 4-1.
“Then, after those five games, I tore my ACL and MCL,” Stephens recalled. “It was my left knee. I was out for the year.”
Stephens came back and still had a productive senior season, averaging over 5.4 yards per carry. Overall, in his four-year career, Stephens gained 1,973 rushing yards, averaged 5.3 per carry, scored 21 touchdowns on the ground and four more via reception.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in December of 2012 — graduating from Tech in just three-and-a-half years — the New Orleans Saints invited Stephens to their mini-camp.
“Khiry Robinson (of Midland) and I were roommates there,” Stephens said. “To be honest, it seemed he was the only other back that I had to compete with there. But Khiry had a lot of speed and, again, I was more ‘quick’ than ‘speed.’ So they kept Khiry and I didn’t make the Saints.”
Stephens stepped away from football and took a job with a mortgage company.
“I hated it,” he said.
After two months, Stephens took a job activating phones for Target. After two months there, he spent six months working for General Motors.
But 10 months in the business world was all Stephens needed to know where he fit best.
“Football,” he said. “I needed to get back to being around football.”
Stephens, now 23, and his wife Toria have a 2-year-old daughter named Erin.
“Outside of my family and my religion, my next greatest love is football,” Stephens said. “I wanted to coach at the high school level. College football is more of a business. At the high school level, I knew I’d have a chance to be passionate about what I love to do — mentor young kids and help them grow to become great men.”
When Stephens was a star back at Timberview High School, his offensive coordinator was Trent Gregory — now in his second year as head coach at Ellison.
This summer, Gregory picked Stephens as his running backs coach.
“I am fired up,” Stephens said. “I’m part of a great coaching staff and we have a great group of kids to coach.”
There are two things Stephens won’t be making a big deal out of once practice starts next week: his own successful collegiate career and Ellison’s recent history.
“I know the kids know I played at Tech but it’s not something I’m going to talk about with them,” Stephens said. “I don’t want them to listen to me because I played college football. I want them to listen to me because I am passionate about teaching them how to be better football players and better people. I want my players to be humble so there is no reason for me to talk about my own playing days.
“As for Ellison’s recent past (0-30 the last three years), we all know the record. But, first things first, the kids need to be reminded that last year was just Coach Gregory’s first year here. It does take a little time to turn things around. If the kids buy into us as a staff, if we earn their trust — and I am certain we will — then they’ll start working hard and everything with regard to positive results will take care of itself.
“There may be teams we face with better athletes. But I feel the teams that are most disciplined are the teams that become the most successful.”
Of course one question must be answered. If Coach Stephens, say in Week 2 of practice, were to hold a football at one goal line … and hand each of his running backs a ball … and have each of them standing at that goal line … how many of them would beat their coach in an 86-yard race down the field?
“Well, I do still work out,” said Stephens with a laugh. “But here’s my answer: All of them would beat me in that race. And I do want my kids to have confidence in themselves.
“I believe in setting the bar high. And I know we have kids at Ellison with a lot of character. If we, as coaches, set the bar high for them, they’ll hit it.
“I don’t want to put pressure on our kids but I see no reason why we can’t make the playoffs at Ellison. And then, eventually, I want us to be in the hunt for the state title every single year. All it takes is one season for the kids to buy in for a program to turn around.
“Nobody expects anything out of our team except the coaches in our own building. We do believe in these kids and there is nothing phony about that. I’m not promising a state title this season but I am promising a turnaround.
“Ellison will be back.”