By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 27, 2008
This past summer, Jordan Steffy was preparing for graduate school at Maryland and hoping for a last chance to regain the starting quarterback job after a well-publicized, injury-plagued career. At the same time, a spry adolescent in Virginia named Jason Waldman was thinking about fantasy football drafts, the start of sixth grade and the 30 minutes of video games he usually plays each day.
Neither one had heard of the other. But in the months that followed, experiences with concussions brought together a 12- and 23-year-old in a union predicated on healing. Out of that unique bond, both found a friendship and an unexpected catharsis.
"In different ways," Steffy said, "we both have gained a lot from this relationship."
Many know about Steffy's work with his charity, Children Deserve a Chance, the main reason he will be one of 22 players honored at halftime of the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl as part of Allstate's AFCA Good Works Team. An in-depth feature on Steffy will also be televised on Fox's broadcast.
But few know about Steffy's goodwill phone call in September that led to more calls, a Sunday home visit, a handful of casual get-togethers, and even a Thanksgiving dinner invitation.
Four months ago, Steffy tried to raise Jason's spirits. What resulted gave each of them a needed lift.'Perspective'
A month after suffering a concussion because of a head-to-head collision in basketball camp, the usually cheery, energetic Jason was what his father called "a blob." The short-term memory loss, the debilitating headaches, the extreme exhaustion -- all of the normal effects of a concussion were bad enough.
But Jason's symptoms worsened so much he could not attend school full-time in September. He could not visit a movie theater because of the noise. When he went fishing, his head drooped, and he fell asleep after 20 minutes. Doctors told his parents the effects would eventually pass, that the brain takes time to heal, but the Waldmans wondered if Jason would ever be the same.
"It shook his whole world," said Jason's father, Jeff Waldman. "He went from 90 miles per hour to in park. He was a totally different person and didn't have a lot to look forward to."
In College Park, Steffy should have been enjoying himself. The fifth-year senior, whose 2007 season was ended by a concussion after just five games, had regained the starting quarterback job and had helped Maryland beat Delaware, 14-7, in its Aug. 30 season opener.
But Steffy fractured his thumb in the victory and suddenly faced the prospect of losing his starting job to injury for the second straight year. Moreover, the Terrapins' offense had sputtered, and Steffy, whose selection as the starter over Chris Turner was not popular with some of the fan base, heard a loud chorus of boos in the third quarter. Even the usually stoic Steffy acknowledged the injury angered and frustrated him at first and that hearing the fan reaction was initially hard to take.
"But a few days later, I get an e-mail from a woman who says her son is going through something [with a concussion], and he is very depressed," Steffy said. "Something like that helps me put my situation in perspective."A Relationship Begins
Jason didn't know anything about Steffy, other than what his family had read about his concussion in the newspaper a few days earlier. So the family looked him up on the Internet during the day and then waited for the phone to ring at night. By 8:30 p.m., Jason told his mother, "Well, I guess he is not going to call." Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang. They talked for seven minutes.
Steffy told Jason that while it may not seem like there is happiness in sight, while it may not seem like the symptoms will ever subside, it all would eventually end. Steffy said he battled the same negative thoughts and physical challenges late in 2007 and told Jason: "Ride it out, be strong. Life is about reaction. How you respond will show your character."
Soon after, Steffy gave the Waldmans tickets to the Sept. 20 Eastern Michigan game. Overjoyed, Jason sat in the Byrd Stadium stands wearing earplugs to prevent headaches. After the game, he took pictures with Steffy, who provided his phone number and said, "Anytime you want, give me a call."
Jason's parents were grateful for Steffy's generosity but expected the brief relationship to fizzle. They knew Steffy was busy, rehabbing his thumb, pursuing a master's in real estate development and engaging in a handful of charitable off-the-field endeavors. They did their best to temper Jason's expectations.
Yet time after time, Steffy called.
On Sept. 28, the day after Maryland beat California, Steffy visited the Waldmans in Centreville and spent three hours talking to Jason about perseverance and goals, work habits and character. He talked about life, not sports. After giving Steffy a tour of the house, Jason walked into the living room with an ear-to-ear smile.
"He was like a walking role model," said Jason's mother, Barbara. "I would have paid for him to do what he did. He was full of motivational things to say. When he left, my chin was on the floor. I was speechless."'Important Things in Life'
Since then, Steffy and Jason have bowled and eaten dinner together. Their families have met and embraced. The Waldmans have attended another Maryland game and even invited Steffy over for Thanksgiving dinner (he had plans to go home instead). One common link has united them.
The Waldmans looked at Steffy as a "hope and a promise that Jason would come out of that dark tunnel," Barbara said. "Jordan coming was like a light for him that was priceless."
For Steffy, a career that began five years ago with lofty expectations will end Tuesday with the backup quarterback standing on the sideline of a blue field in Boise, Idaho, watching his Maryland team play an afternoon football game 2,400 miles from home.
Despite the seemingly unglamorous sendoff, helping Jason this season refocused his mind on "important things in life," Steffy said. "The faster you can figure out what truly makes you happy, the faster you can obtain that goal of being the happiest you can possibly be. I realize that helping other people truly makes me happy."
These days, Jason is almost his normal active self again. He attends school full time and is gearing up for winter league baseball and AAU basketball next month. Jason said he hopes to be like Steffy when he grows up because Steffy is "really kind and unselfish. He doesn't think of himself. And he wants to give instead of receive."
A 12-year-old now wears a No. 19 Maryland jersey and smiles because of advice that benefited both of them.
"Good things come out of bad situations if you don't feel bad for yourself," Steffy said. "If you handle it with dignity and morals and character, good things will happen. I truly believe that. I am an example of that."