SHREVEPORT, La. -- He knew this backcountry road better than a GPS, drove it daily to and from home, could pinpoint every crack in the pavement and dip in the curve and buzzard in the tree. He obeyed the speed limit even though there wasn't a radar gun for miles, because he babied that five-year-old Ford F-250 as though it weighed eight pounds and was wrapped in a blanket and slapped by a doctor.
That's why, when he didn't buckle up, floored the accelerator, lost control of the wheel, slid off Highway 169, veered back on, crossed the center line, was ejected from the cartwheeling truck and flew six feet before hitting a tree, it was death by contradiction. Which is really how John Stephens lived part of his life.
One of the greatest rookie running backs in NFL history played only five years beyond his first season. Someone who had a reputation for toughness developed a phobia for contact on the football field after leaving another player paralyzed forever. A man whose generosity and down-home personality won over friends and teammates was guilty of sexually assaulting one woman, and at the time of his crash faced 80 years on charges of forcibly raping another. And as a father who didn't raise her, didn't speak to her until she was 13 and didn't really know her at all, he simply could not stop raving about his daughter, who just might be the next great American tennis player.
"She sure is strong, just like her daddy," he'd tell friends and family members.
"Watch out, she gon' be big," he'd say.
"She gon' beat that Serena one day, you watch and see," he swore.
And when she did beat Serena Williams six months ago, bounced the 16-time Grand Slam winner right out of the Australian Open, Sloane Stephens finally arrived in tennis, but four years too late for John. This Sept. 1, on the four-year anniversary of his death at age 43, it would surprise no one if Sloane starts pushing through the draw of the U.S. Open. There she'll find a crowd anxiously hoping she becomes the Next Big Thing, just as John predicted years ago.
Sloane once described her relationship with her dad as "very good." Well, truth be told, it was very incomplete. This was no traditional father-daughter relationship. He married Sybil Smith, the first African American to become an All-America swimmer on the NCAA's Division I level. They had Sloane, their only child together. They divorced while Sloane was an infant. She and Sloane lived outside Fort Lauderdale. He lived in Shreveport, near his hometown. He didn't raise Sloane. At the time of his death, he had nine other children by seven other women, making it hard to keep birthday appointments. Besides, her mother remarried while Sloane was very young, so the father role may have already been usurped.
Nudged into tennis by her mother at age nine, Sloane developed gradually in the juniors, became one of the top Americans in her late teens and then -- in this breakout year -- beat Serena and most recently Maria Sharapova (causing Sharapova to shockingly fire her new coach, Jimmy Connors, after one match together). Sloane was world-ranked as high as 15 and is now at 17. The only American ranked higher is Serena. Sloane reached the semifinals in Australia, the fourth round at Roland Garros and the quarters at Wimbledon, creating a reputation as a big-tournament player. She's feisty, in a wonderful sort of way, friendly and giggly away from the court and also willing to squeeze someone's throat from the other side of the net.
"I can pretty much hang in there with anybody and even beat some of the best players," she said, unapologetically.
She's supremely fit, with tight shoulders and growing biceps and a pretty face held together by a strong jaw-line obviously borrowed from John. It's a body built by genes, the gift from a champion swimmer and also a pro football player who could probably bench-press her 50 times. She calls her inherited athletic ability, which helps her chase down baseline shots, "an advantage, probably" and there is little doubt that it is.
"She makes you hit a lot of ball," said Sharapova. "Sometimes you think you've hit a really good shot but it keeps coming back. She's improved so much over the past year."
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Sloane's father once had a long and productive future, too, as an NFL running back. At least that was the sense in 1988 when Stephens was one of the few reasons to watch the New England Patriots. This was three years after they had the honor of getting leveled in the Super Bowl by the shufflin' 1985 Bears, and a decade before Tom Brady and Bill Belichick came to the rescue. Stephens carried them most Sundays, rushed for 1,168 yards in only 12 games, won AFC Rookie of the Year honors and was voted to the Pro Bowl.
His coach was Raymond Berry, the Hall of Famer who caught passes from John Unitas and played against Jim Brown, and this is what Berry remembers about Stephens: "Best athlete I ever laid eyes on."
Berry is 80 now but swears he isn't suffering from memory loss. He explained recently:
"Jim Brown was the greatest player I've ever seen. John Stephens had the same physical ability, though. Power, speed, that combination. All of it. Amazing athlete… This guy had everything."
Stephens came to the Patriots' attention at the draft combine, before it turned into a well-orchestrated, overly-hyped Mel Kiper Jr. production. Stephens benched 250 pounds 20 times and ran 4.4 in the 40, causing stopwatches to be checked, jaws to drop and his stock to rise. This allowed a barely-known but chiseled 6'0", 220-pounder from Northwestern State, a mid-major school in Louisiana, to go No. 17 in the draft. He was the second running back taken and went ahead of Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, who finished fifth in the Heisman voting.
"Every part of his body had a muscle," said Odessa Turner, a Northwestern State teammate who played seven years in the NFL. "When I first saw him, I thought he was a linebacker. He was that ripped up. The boy was something. When somebody had to tackle him, somebody was in trouble. He ran with such anger and force, like somebody was trying to take his last drink of water."
Stephens went to a small school because no one knew much about him in high school, either. He was from Springhill, about a half-tank of gas from Shreveport and resting on the Arkansas border. He never knew his biological father, who was stabbed to death with an ice pick in jail. He had a rough streak that was channeled on the football field, where he played guard. After an injury to the starting running back in his junior year, Stephens made the switch and his first touchdown covered 99 yards.
At Northwestern State he broke the career rushing record held by Joe Delaney, the former Chiefs running back and a non-swimmer who died honorably while trying to save a boy from drowning. Alabama, Arkansas and all the big schools that either passed him up or wanted him to play linebacker instantly regretted it after scouting Stephens and seeing the athletic ability that made Berry a believer.
"John could do anything," said his college coach, Sam Goodwin. "In his freshman year, we threw an interception, the guy on the other team took off and John ran him down at the one-yard line. The next week, there was another interception, and John ran him down around the 30. The following week, same thing, but this time John tackled the guy at the 50. He got better at it every week."
He stayed humble, too, or at least as humble as one can get after taking the league by surprise and a bit by storm. A few days after his terrific NFL rookie season, Stephens was back home hunting squirrels and helping his old high school prepare for spring practice.
"He was just a good old country boy," said John King, a former high school teammate. "I remember going out with him one time in the woods, thinking I'm with the Rookie of the Year. But you'd never know it by being around him. He didn't even talk much about the NFL. Didn't big-time anyone. He wanted to know about you."
And so the Patriots figured they struck jackpot, getting a 22-year-old who rushed for the second-highest season total in club history. There was a small catch, however. The fine print raised some red flags. Stephens rarely avoided contact. He wasn't an instinctive runner who knew how to slip tacklers whenever possible. Stephens lowered his shoulder pads and helmet and made his own holes. He relied on strength and speed far too much. This tendency became the one threat that he couldn't outrun.
The next season, Week 7 against the 49ers, Stephens found a hole and broke into the secondary. There, he saw Jeff Fuller. Fuller and fellow safety Ronnie Lott were devastating hitters, to the point where receivers were afraid to catch passes across the middle because they preferred to eat food with a knife and fork instead of through a straw.
"Playing with Ronnie," Fuller said recently, "was fun. We had that intimidating factor going for us. We played a physical style. We won more battles than we lost. But this time I ran into a bigger, stronger player who stood up to us. Not many did."
There was a collision. Fuller and Stephens collapsed to the turf. Fuller didn't get up. He had no sensation in his body. He couldn't move. Players on both teams dropped to their knees. Some said a prayer. Berry called the scene "tragic, one of the worst things I ever saw on a football field." Fuller was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where he remained totally paralyzed upon arrival, until he began to slowly recover feeling in his body. He never regained use of his right arm, though, which sits in a sling today, some 15 years later, a constant reminder of a fateful meeting with Stephens.
"John reached out to me about a year after that," said Fuller. "We talked on four or five occasions. He apologized. I told them there was no reason to apologize. I had a tough time accepting the fact that my right arm was paralyzed for life but I told him not to let it affect his game. I told him to play his game. I thought we had an understanding about that."
They didn't. In a sense, Stephens never rose from the turf after that hit, either. He rushed for over 100 yards in a game only twice more in his career. Two years later, the Patriots gave the ball to someone else and told Stephens to block. Stephens went from averaging 250 carries to getting 63 and started only three games in 1991. Four years after being Rookie of the Year and the future of the Patriots, Stephens was gone from New England. He bounced between the Packers and the Chiefs for a year before he was done.
The memory of that hit on Fuller stole something from Stephens, stole his toughness, stole his desire. He only confided in a few people how he was changed forever.
"He was always afraid of hitting someone that hard again," said David Pickings, a friend who spoke to Stephens regularly. "He told me it bothered him and it was on his mind every game. He was running not to hurt somebody. He said he couldn't run the same anymore. Next time, he said, it could be someone else. Or it could be him."
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The first time he was accused of rape was 1994, at the Adam's Mark hotel in Kansas City, just days before his football career ended when the Chiefs cut him and a year after Sloane was born. A woman claimed Stephens took her to his room and forced himself upon her. Stephens left town before the incident was reported to the authorities. He was sent back to Kansas City after being pulled over and arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, a .50 caliber handgun with one bullet in the chamber. He pled guilty to sexual assault, got five years' probation and had to register as a sex offender. By then, Smith and Sloane had left him and were gone to Florida for good.
Stephens then tried to stiff-arm the law. According to records, he moved temporarily to Texas after his guilty plea, but then used the middle name "Millston" instead of "Milton" and the last name "Stevens" to get around and avoid the sex offender registration when he later relocated to Shreveport. When he repeatedly failed to provide an update for his status, he was arrested in 2006 and ordered to re-register, using his proper name.
Around this time, Stephens tried to connect with the daughter he barely knew. He attended one of her junior matches in College Station, Texas. She visited him once at his home in Shreveport. It was the last time she was in his company until his funeral.
She found him to be surprisingly friendly and chatty and immediately saw the facial resemblance. Still, it was a bit jarring, as you can imagine for a middle-schooler who opens the door of her life to a father for the first time. Because of his ability to make even strangers feel comfortable, the thaw of unfamiliarity between them melted fairly quickly, and they talked often by phone.
"It was all good," Sloane said. "All good memories. I'm glad I had the time to get to know him and I'm glad we became friends."
It helped that Stephens' intentions were genuine. This wasn't the tired case of a father vanishing and then materializing on the scene just as his prodigious kid was banking another million dollars. At that age, Sloane admitted, "I wasn't very good, so I don't know what he saw" and was just one of thousands of tennis dreamers who were asking for autographs instead of giving them.
"John was a people person," said his attorney, Mary Jackson. "I didn't even know he was this former football player when he hired me, not until someone else told me. That wasn't too much of a surprise because he never talked about himself or his private life or his family. There was one exception. He said he had a daughter, a tennis player. Said she was going to be special."
The second time he was arrested on a rape charge was May of 2009, four months before his crash. The victim was 51 at the time and told investigators she suffered from a spinal condition. Her claim: Stephens wanted to show her some rental property he owned, but instead took her to an oil well site and forced her to have intercourse. Then he took her to a house, but before entering, another rape took place. Then he drove her to a nearby convenience store, gave her $50 and told her to keep quiet.
Pickings, his close friend, said it was out of character for Stephens, but also wasn't aware that Stephens had pled guilty to an earlier sexual assault. Stephens never discussed that. Pickings said Stephens, if anything, claimed to be a blackmail victim in some relationships with women that turned sour.
"He said he'd get a phone call and if he didn't take them on a shopping spree, this is what they were prepared to do," Pickings said.
He added: "I was with John that day and later that night. Something happened, but not like the woman claimed. I heard he was innocent. I wasn't there, so I can't say for a fact. But I don't think [a rape] happened."
The authorities disagreed. Stephens was free after posting $100,000 bond. Prosecutors were prepared to introduce the 1994 sexual assault whenever the 2009 case went to trial. The woman was prepared to testify along with her niece, who drove her to a hospital for treatment within an hour after the alleged incident occurred.
And then Stephens lost control of his truck on a road he knew well. There was no trial.
At his funeral, people stared and pointed at her, a teenager they only knew about second-hand. Greg Burke, the athletic director at Northwestern State, heard all the stories from John Stephens about Sloane and how he knew she'd be a star soon, well before she demonstrated as much. Earlier this year, Burke remembers catching one of her matches, one that ended well. The Serena Williams match, late night drama from Melbourne.
"I stayed up to watch that," Burke said. "When Sloane smiled after that win, I got a little emotional. I started thinking of John. He had a big smile. He was part of that victory because of the physical talent she had. The inner strength and the ability to come through a tough contest reminded me of John. I was very moved.
"In spite of the fact John had some very troubled times, he had some positive things about him. To me, look no further than Sloane. There is an intrinsic similarity."
Actually, Sloane Stephens is more a product of Sybil Smith than John Stephens, who wasn't really there, who was more spectator than provider and navigator of her tennis career. But a former professional athlete can spot another from a mile away, and Stephens always had a hunch.
"Winning the U.S. Open would be awesome," Sloane Stephens said. "It's a home slam. I'm American. It's what everyone dreams about. I can't wait."
Four years ago, when police arrived on the scene of a fatal accident along a quiet road just west of Shreveport involving one vehicle and one man, who happened to be facing serious charges and the rest of his life behind bars, the Ford F-250 was just about totaled. Inside they found, among other items, a few opened beer cans, an ice chest. And a tennis ball.