Walk-on makes impression on coaching staff with relentless effort
Larry Stevens thought a joke was being played on him.
When it came time for Rutgers football team's coaching staff to announce its three players of the game — one from each phase of the team — from the Scarlet Knights' 52-14 walloping of Howard, Janarion Grant seemed like a shoo-in to receive the honor for the special teams unit.
Grant, who would go on to win Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week, recorded his first special teams touchdown of the young season with a thrilling 84-yard kickoff return in the first quarter of Rutgers' win.
But Grant's name wasn't called.
Instead, true freshman walk-on safety Larry Stevens was named Special Teams Player of the Game for his performance against the Bison.
"Larry is a guy not a lot of people know about," said head football coach Chris Ash. "He came here as a walk-on back in May back at the beginning of summer workouts, just — doesn't say much, just works extremely hard, and when I pick up the remote and I push play on the remote (while watching film), I really love the way this kid plays and what he brings to our football team on special teams."
Stevens, who plays on punt and kick coverage and punt return, was initially as surprised as anyone to receive the high recognition and praise from the coaching staff.
"It's an honor actually. The coach initially said it in the meetings and I was surprised. I thought it was a joke," Stevens said. "But then he showed us the film and showed how hard I went. I didn't realize how hard I went. I did, but I didn't realize how much I affected the team. So it was an honor to get that award."
For a player that stands 5-foot-8 and carries a weight of 185 pounds, success in the sport of football is hard to come by without the determination and toughness that Ash detailed, which can be traced back to Stevens' high school days.
Stevens played high school football at Don Bosco Prep and his road getting there wasn't easy — literally.
As a native of Lawrenceville, New Jersey, Stevens would make the 140-plus mile, four-hour roundtrip drive everyday just for the chance to play football at the prestigious program in Ramsey.
As a cornerback and running back for the Ironmen, Stevens brought that lunch-pail mentality seen among the Knights with him to the field, according to a current Rutgers player who had a first-hand account.
"That kid was one of the toughest and most hard-working kids. Wasn't always a big guy. Gave it all he had," said fifth-year senior Darius Hamilton, who was teammates with Stevens for one year at Don Bosco. "(He) can hit. I don't think a lot of people can see what he does, has seen that side of him yet, but you guys will. He's a competitor, loves to compete, comes to work everyday. Quiet guy and he just loves to play football. Obviously the success that he had last week, that's just gonna keep building and building. I know what kind of kid he is and I'm excited to see how he develops the rest of the season."
When National Signing Day came around last year, Stevens had his list of possible schools dwindled down to Army, Syracuse and UConn, according to NJ.com. He opted to sign with Army, even though it meant he would have to spend a year playing for the United States Military Academy Preparatory School.
The defensive back played the entire season for West Point Prep, which included games against some of the top junior colleges, but decided to leave the school in February.
"I looked at it bigger than football. I knew I would get a great education coming out there and I knew I'd be set for life so I chose there over other schools," Stevens said of his decision to play at Army. "It's not for everybody so I gave it a shot (so I) wouldn't regret it later in life. So, did it and I didn't like it. So I decided to leave and I have no regrets now."
When he returned home, he began to work out in preparation for wherever the next stop of his collegiate career would be. He eventually got in contact with defensive backs coach Bill Busch and, following a visit, Stevens decided he would walk on at Rutgers.
He cited proximity to his hometown — a short 45 minute drive in contrast to the distance to Don Bosco or West Point — as one of the determining factors for becoming a Knight.
And since he joined on in late May for summer camp, it hasn't taken Stevens long to catch the eye of the coaching staff. Before he was named Special Teams Player of the Game, Stevens worked his way onto the season-opening depth chart behind senior Anthony Cioffi at strong safety and hasn't relinquished that spot since.
"I just came here to grind and just to play ball again," Stevens said on what's attributed to his fast rise at Rutgers. "I just gave it everything I had and everything else came. Just give 100 percent everyday."
Most notably, Ash has used Stevens as the bar-setter for how he wants the rest of the Knights to play. And if the walk on continues to play at that high level, he could be rewarded for it soon.
"We were in a team meeting yesterday talking about special teams and using (Stevens) as an example of how we want the game to be played with our football team," Ash said. "We can't get enough guys like Larry Stevens. The guy is tough. He plays with relentless strain. Doesn't say anything at all. He'll knock people down, get knocked down, he gets back up, goes to the sideline and asks for his next mission. We'd love to have a team full of guys like Larry Stevens. Really appreciate what he brings to the table as a guy that came here as a walk-on, and he's going to earn himself a scholarship if he keeps doing what he's doing."