Knocked Down, but Not Out
Saturday, August 30, 2008
Like any starting quarterback, Maryland's Jordan Steffy will don a uniform, helmet and shoulder pads today, and he will charge onto a football field before boisterous fans in his home stadium. That is where most of his similarities with the college quarterback fraternity end.
Unlike most players, the 22-year-old Steffy believes playing this season is a "calculated risk" to his health, one worth taking because it is important to finish the career he started. Over the past 11 months, since suffering the concussion at Rutgers that set the stage for the most challenging year of his football life, he has faced moments both "scary and lonely," times so difficult that he vowed never to reveal his thoughts.
The journey the fifth-year senior has made from lying on that Rutgers Stadium field to today, when he will lead the Terrapins in their opener against Delaware, was possible, family members and friends said, only because of his perseverance and character.
"It got to the point where giving up was harder than trying, you know what I'm saying?" Steffy said. "When you continuously fight and continuously fight, you get accustomed to doing it."
Steffy's concussion, at least the fourth of his life, is not a popular subject among the coaches and players in the Gossett Football Team House. They would rather talk about his practice statistics and game management, qualities that enabled Steffy to regain his starting job from the popular Chris Turner, who started the final eight games last season. But this week Steffy talked at length about the effects of the concussion and his decision to return for a new opportunity to close this chapter of his life.
"Honestly speaking, I can't put into words how tough it was," Steffy said of the past year. "I was talking to my mother a while back, and I said, 'At times, Mom, this is so tough that I would never repeat my thoughts.' I would never come out and say it, express it to anyone. I would keep it to myself, because knowing that, in a day or two, I will feel better. Things are tough now, but eventually the sun will shine."
Steffy said he was particularly frustrated because the collision was what the ACC later deemed an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit delivered by Rutgers safety Joe Lefeged. Steffy's mother, Shari Steffy-Long, who watched the hit from the stands, was angry because she feels Rutgers attempted to knock the quarterback from the game, adding: "A 15-yard penalty is going to be worth that, if they could take players out. My anger was that there was no call."
Steffy-Long did not want her son to play football again. His longtime mentor, a former Syracuse wide receiver named Darryl Daniel, did not think he would play again.
The effects were quickly apparent and significant. The headaches were dull and constant, offset only by ones more severe. Short-term memory loss made Steffy unable to recall names of familiar faces. On campus, he would leave one class, begin to head to the next, only to freeze for 10 seconds because he did not remember where his next class was located.
"I would be like, 'Where am I trying to go?' " Steffy said. "It was very frustrating and scary."
After the Oct. 6 Georgia Tech game at Byrd Stadium, Steffy and his mother walked to the car when Steffy asked a question. A short time later, she said, he asked her the same question.
"He was very vulnerable when talking," Steffy-Long said. "I could tell he was in pain, and confused and scared. He didn't seem like a different person, but when talking he would ask some of the same questions and I knew I was repeating things. That would be just scary, because I knew he wasn't remembering."
Steffy was cleared to play for the Oct. 27 game against Clemson, but he said this week that some symptoms continued three to four months after the Rutgers game. His only game action the rest of the season occurred on two series against Florida State on Nov. 17.
"Even when the symptoms went away," Steffy-Long said, "I was just concerned that if he got hit really hard again, the symptoms would manifest itself again."
For counsel, Steffy leaned on his family, girlfriend and mentor. Daniel, who is so close to Steffy that he accompanied Steffy on his recruiting visits, said he had several discussions with Steffy about his future and that Steffy "really questioned it. At that point, you are more concerned about his health."
Steffy said never doubted he could regain the starting job, but the issue was whether returning to football was a "smart move," whether "I would be mentally able to comprehend everything that is necessary in order to be a quarterback."
Steffy said he visited at least three physicians, including the team doctor and a longtime family friend. Because there was significant separation between his concussions -- one occurred in junior high, another in high school and another freshman year at Maryland -- doctors said that, while he was still susceptible and while the 2007 concussion was the most severe, chances were a little slimmer that it would happen again.
Before Steffy reentered the quarterback competition with Turner, he wanted to know whether he still had a future in the program. So about six months ago, Steffy went to Daniel to help meticulously prepare for a meeting with Terrapins Coach Ralph Friedgen. Steffy told Friedgen about his plan to graduate in the spring and pursue a master's degree in real estate development. He talked about his commitment to practice. And he talked about how he could help the team in the fall. After the meeting, Steffy told Daniel he had peace of mind.
"He was stressed about the meeting," Daniel said. "Coach could have said he was moving on. If Coach didn't grant him another year, Jordan wasn't sure what he would do. Jordan was a different person after the meeting. It took a lot of weight off his shoulders."
Football has opened many doors for Steffy. His charity foundation, Children Deserve A Chance, has raised more than $50,000 over the past year. He received blueprints this week for the Pennsylvania-based development center. He routinely speaks with prominent dealmakers, such as Bill Conway of the Carlyle Group, one of the world's largest private equity firms.
But Steffy has at least four more months to focus on football and, if nothing else, would like to complete a full season. Maryland center Edwin Williams, who used to live with Steffy, said because of everything Steffy has overcome and the attitude he has maintained, the quarterback commands respect in the huddle.
Steffy has not had any symptoms in quite some time, and today he will look like any other quarterback trying to win an opener, even though his path to reach this game has been quite different.
"To me, completing something that I started is more important than anything else," Steffy said. "And to continue to fight until the end is what I stand for."