Notre Dame High School three-sport star continues to inspire 18 years after his death from colon cancer.
Making sense of the death of Joel Stephens never came easy for me.
Twenty-two years is too short of a life for anyone, but seeing a young man with incredible personality, movie star looks and more athletic talent than anybody I have ever covered taken from the world at that age, his body ravaged by colon cancer, was devastating.
I was told about Stephens’ illness in the fall of 1997. Less than a year later, the former three-sport star athlete at Elmira Notre Dame High School was gone. He died the morning of Sept. 30, 1998, surrounded by family at his home in Tioga, Pennsylvania. I covered his high school career, his death and his funeral, which was attended by between 550 and 600 people.
Friday marks 18 years since his passing, with a full generation of students coming and going since. A lot of them are aware of the headlines of Stephens’ life, particularly Notre Dame football players.
Stephens had a rare combination of power, speed and grace that helped him rush for 4,715 career yards, which ranked fifth all-time in New York state at the time of his death. He gained 1,954 yards in a senior season in which he could have easily had 800 to 1,000 more yards if he weren’t on the sideline so often in blowout wins. Stephens’ 352-yard game against Trumansburg, on just 25 carries, was at the time a Section 4 record. That game happened to come on Sept. 30, 1994, exactly four years before he died.
Stephens was an All-American in football and baseball at Notre Dame. He chose the latter for a career path, ending up playing in the Baltimore Orioles’ farm system. When he was hit with the cancer diagnosis, Stephens was on the verge of switching gears and returning to a football career at Syracuse University.
People have an idea of Stephens’ tremendous character through the Joel Stephens 5C Award that is given annually to an area football player who demonstrates Stephens’ qualities. Golf tournaments and baseball tournaments were named after Stephens. A statue of him sits in a park outside of Notre Dame High School. His story was told through a 2009 book written by his high school football and basketball coach, Mike D’Aloisio, entitled “5 C Hero: The Joel Stephens Story.”
The last time many people saw Stephens was four days before his death, when he delivered a halftime pep talk to the Notre Dame football team during a scoreless tie against Tioga Central that turned into a 14-0 victory. Stephens, in tremendous pain that day, was presented the game ball.
That team went on to a Class C state runner-up finish, falling to Edgemont by a point in overtime in the title game at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. The field is now called Ernie Davis Legends Field in honor of the Elmira native who won the Heisman Trophy for Syracuse University in 1961, less than two years before leukemia claimed his life.
The connection between Stephens and Davis goes beyond their untimely deaths and the statues that honor each, with Davis’ statue now sitting in front of Ernie Davis Academy. They also shared a courage and concern for others in their final days that shaped their legacies.
“I just can’t imagine somebody coming in and saying you have three months to live, then have him respond that he was happy that he could really be a true example of one’s faith,” said D’Aloisio, who still coaches football at Notre Dame.
So many people struggled as they watched cancer take away Stephens’ strength and life. Beyond Joel’s family, few people were impacted as much as D’Aloisio and his wife, Jayne. Stephens’ impact on them is no less today; greater in fact. They try to visit his grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Tioga, Pennsylvania, every March 15 and Sept. 30, the dates of Joel’s birth and death.
“Just to go and reminisce and talk to him a little bit,” Mike D’Aloisio said. “It’s in between those two days he touched so many lives and made such an impact on the world in such a short period.
“Even though his life was short, we can’t say it wasn’t full because of all he accomplished in reaching out to people in those 22 short years. There are thousands of exceptional athletes at all levels, but something stands out between the ones they make memorial parks for and the other ones who leave this world. There has to be something different. The difference is how they treated others and how they lived their lives.”
D’Aloisio and others have talked about the extraordinary manner with which Stephens embraced his illness. Deeply religious, Joel firmly believed he was afflicted so he could help others. Perhaps even Joel was unaware to what extent that would hold true.
Several weeks before his death, Joel kept a promise to 8-year-old Eric Schall, who was battling non-Hodgkin lymphoma, by taking him to the Little League World Series in Williamsport. Within the last seven years, D’Aloisio was playing a golf tournament outside of Williamsport when he ran into a healthy and happy Schall.
“I was just so happy to see he beat it and I would like to think Joel had a part of that,” D’Aloisio said. “I can’t tell you the number of times people have been sick over the years and I said, ‘Pray to Joel. He’ll help you.’ And they have and they beat some tough diagnoses.”
Will Worth, the senior quarterback for the football team at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, wrote to D’Aloisio in 2014 after reading his book. Worth, a native of Valrico, Florida, and his family invited D’Aloisio and his wife down for any Navy game they wanted to attend. Worth also wore a No. 24 wristband to honor Stephens, who wore that number in high school. Worth was recently featured in a piece that appears on NFL.com breaking down 16 college football players who could someday run for president.
The card from Worth to D’Aloisio reads in part, “I’ve tried my best to emulate all I’ve heard and read about Joel, both on and off the field.”
D’Aloisio tells a story about losing his dog and paying a prayerful visit to the statue of Stephens. By the time he had returned home, the dog had been returned.
“Being a big baby, my eyes filled up with tears,” D’Aloisio said.
While feeling a bit down about six months ago from the effects of foot surgery, D’Aloisio found old tapes of television interviews of Stephens that took place during his cancer fight. Stephens’ courage immediately inspired again and D’Aloisio choked up as he felt guilty for feeling sorry for himself given Joel’s unwavering positivity as he fought his disease.
During a ceremony to commemorate the statue of Stephens six years ago, those in attendance included Troy Hughes and his dad, Tom, who drove them to Elmira from New Jersey on Troy’s 15th birthday. Tom Hughes had presented Joel the Gatorade New York State Football Player of the Year Award after his senior season.
Troy was inspired by Stephens when he underwent brain surgery in December of 2008, with D’Aloisio sending him one of the wristbands that honors Stephens. Troy went on to win a state free-throw shooting contest while wearing his wristband.
Perhaps the things that bother me most about sports nowadays are the ever-growing selfishness and sense of entitlement that are too often on display. When I visit the statue of Stephens, I am reminded of the absolute selflessness he displayed in turning the darkest of hours into a guiding light that still shines brightly.
Stephens prepared some final words that he asked to be read at his funeral. The message: “In a lifetime, one will face many tests of faith. How you deal with these tests makes you out to be the person you are. You can not control what is going to happen to you, but you can control the faith you have in the one who has complete control – our lord Jesus Christ.”
John Maio, one of Stephens’ close friends, is a longtime assistant football coach at Notre Dame and owner of New York Sport & Fitness in Elmira. The stocky Maio, who played college football at Mansfield University, called Stephens “the toughest guy I know” in regards to how Joel dealt with his illness.
Pat Gillick, general manager of the Orioles at the time of Joel’s death and currently a senior adviser for the Philadelphia Phillies, said then, “He was a very unique and special young man, one that we admired a great deal. Joel’s tremendous faith and courage were a lesson for all of us.”
D’Aloisio said he doesn’t think about what Stephens’ life would be like now because that suggests Joel didn’t live a complete life. D’Aloisio did say, however, he would think a 40-year-old Joel Stephens would be working with disabled or handicapped kids given his affection for children.
Joel dying at such a young age still doesn’t make sense in a lot of ways. Everything about his life, however, makes more sense now than ever.
“He’s still touching people even though he’s been gone 18 years. His story and legacy live on,” D’Aloisio said.