UM's Steffy gives his all

The Baltimore Sun

Lancaster, Pa. -- Tucked inside a metal storage cabinet, which is locked in the football equipment room of Conestoga Valley High, is a tattered, white No. 19 jersey. The right shoulder is slightly torn, and dirt and grass have stained the old high school uniform of Maryland's new starting quarterback, Jordan Steffy.

A few miles away, in a popular downtown barber shop, a similar jersey has been slipped over a set of shoulder pads for display.

The one that might have the most meaning in this small town, though, is stashed away in a 13-year-old girl's bedroom closet. Steffy gave his golden Maryland practice jersey to Katie Hull, who routinely parked her wheelchair at the gate of the high school field where Steffy would greet her with a hug and a smile - win or lose. Hull has cerebral palsy, but mention Steffy's name, and she lights up like the luckiest girl in the world.

Hull is just one of many to witness his generosity.

While Steffy, a junior, has earned a reputation for his goodwill off the field, his career at Maryland remains unproven. Even though he was named the Terps' starting quarterback yesterday, the season opener next Saturday will be his first career start, as his progress was stalled by numerous injuries.

In an eight-month span during his freshman year at Maryland, Steffy endured a concussion, had surgeries on his knee and biceps, and survived being struck by a car. He insists he is finally prepared to lead Maryland's offense, but regardless of how Steffy fares on the field this season, there is a community that already considers him a success.

"For [Katie] to meet Jordan - with the athlete he is and now being the quarterback for Maryland - the girl's in her glory," Katie's mother, Sherri, said. "But even if he wasn't, he would still be No. 1 to us. Right, Katie?"

"Yeah," she said, an irrepressible smile spreading across her face.

Winning mind games

Faith, family, football and charity work have defined Steffy over the years. There were high expectations for him coming out of high school, and many - including Steffy - thought he would play sooner at Maryland. Only this past spring, though, did he rise to the top of the depth chart and above the hype surrounding Josh Portis, the speedy Florida transfer.

"You talk about kids maturing, he came in like a lot of kids - very highly touted, thought he had all the answers, and all of a sudden it just doesn't work out that way," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said.

"You have to be thick-skinned," he said. "A lot of times you get too much credit, and sometimes you get too much blame. It just comes with the position. You have to be mentally tough in order to deal with that. I think for the most part, he is."

Steffy said the key to his success this season is winning the psychological games, first.

"I learned that the biggest thing is the inner belief," he said. "Somebody said, 'What if Coach Friedgen says you choked?' Well, he's said that before. I can't count on both of my hands how many times Coach Friedgen told [former quarterback] Sam [Hollenbach] that in games. That's just the type of person he is. The biggest thing I've learned is to continue fighting."

Showing the doubters

Mixed among the awards, trophies and pictures that clutter Shari Steffy-Long's living room shelves is a scrapbook of her son's high school football career. Michele Witherow, who began cheering for Steffy when he was a midget football player and she was a midget cheerleader, crafted it for him their senior year.

Witherow is now a senior cheerleader at Maryland, and is ecstatic about the chance to be on the sidelines again with her good friend.

"I couldn't be more proud," said Witherow, who sat next to Steffy at their high school graduation, along with Ashley Miller, now a senior on Maryland's competitive cheer team. "I know how hard he's worked. He's never given up on himself. ... He was the same way in high school.

"A lot of people doubted him. He took over as a freshman and took over for one of our older quarterbacks. ... He never looked back. He helped us to our district title game his freshman year. I'm excited to see him get the chance to prove everyone wrong again."

After switching from wide receiver to quarterback midway through his freshman year, Steffy went on to complete 60.7 percent of his passes for 5,587 yards and 51 touchdowns at Conestoga Valley.

"He was a great player in high school, probably one of the best to come out of our area," said Maryland wide receiver Stephen Smalls, who also played with Steffy in high school. "The seats were packed almost every game."

On Friday nights in Witmer, crowds often swelled to 7,000 to see Steffy play, head coach Gerad Novak said.

"He had a goal in mind to play Division I football probably when he was in eighth grade," Novak said. "His focus was always to get to that point."

Novak helped guide him there. He and Steffy embarked on a nine-day recruiting trip, hitting schools along the East Coast and as far west as Purdue. While two other Pennsylvania players - Chad Henne (Michigan) and Anthony Morelli (Penn State) stole much of the in-state spotlight that year, Steffy received more than 40 scholarship offers, but a lot of top-tier programs wanted him as an athlete. He was determined to go where he could play quarterback.

"He felt Maryland was the best situation for him," Novak said. "I think it is."

Novak said he is still asked about Steffy all the time, and he has his own memories stashed away.

"Usually I give all the jerseys down to the junior high," Novak said. "I just kept 19 aside, just to think back."

He's still waiting, though, for what's ahead.

"I told him I'm not stepping on that field until you play," Novak said. "Don't ever expect to see me at a game until you're a starter."

Novak planned his trip to Maryland for the season opener weeks ago.

Hurting as a freshman

Steffy was a freshman at Maryland, crossing Route 193 in broad daylight to buy a cell phone with linebacker Erin Henderson when he saw the oncoming car. Henderson was already in the clear, but Steffy didn't have a chance to run.

He tried to jump over the car, but his left leg went through the windshield. He was in the hospital just one day and didn't break one bone, but the shard of glass that went into his leg barely missed a major artery that could have cost him his life.

"My whole leg was completely gashed," he said. " The car was going 55 mph. There's no reason I should be alive."

That incident was the last in a string of injuries that kept him off the field. In November 2004, he suffered a concussion against Virginia Tech. The next month, he had surgery on his right knee to repair a torn meniscus.

In April 2005, he was hit by the car and missed all of spring ball. He flew to Alabama that July to have an operation on his right biceps, a result from too much throwing. He finally got a reprieve as a sophomore - he redshirted.

There are few people who know Steffy's true feelings when it comes to football. Darryl Daniel, a Conestoga Valley graduate and mentor to Steffy who spent two years in the NFL, is one of them.

After Maryland games, Daniel waits for Steffy. When the crowd goes one way, they go the other.

Last season, Steffy got another chance to prove he deserved to be Maryland's quarterback, but in the season opener against William and Mary, he was 0-for-5 with an interception.

He didn't play again, and it became clear that Hollenbach would be Maryland's starter last season.

"He didn't want to hear it," Daniel said. "It was hard because he knew, 'I can do it, too,' but that's just the way it is."

Steffy spent the rest of last season calling in plays from the sideline, a role he learned from and eventually accepted.

"I've never seen Jordan disgruntled," Friedgen said. "I've always seen him contribute in meetings. I thought he and Sam worked together, critiquing one another. He was always into the game.

"In the Champs Sports Bowl, he saw something, how they were playing on a tight split, and made a recommendation to me. I called a go route with the guy on the tight split, and [Hollenbach] hit him for a touchdown. [Steffy] and I are high-fiving on the sideline. If it was a guy who didn't want Sam to do well, he probably wouldn't have said something like that."

Helping others

James Kline, a former high school classmate of Steffy's, has been in the quarterback's living room more times than he has seen him play football.

On one of those occasions, Kline pulled at his shirt collar to reveal a pink scar just above his heart. It is evidence of the surgery he had to help control his epileptic seizures - a surgery that was possible only because of a fundraiser Steffy initiated in high school.

Steffy used the attention he gained on the day he scored his 1,000th point in basketball to raise money for Kline's hospital bills. He put donation baskets at the concession stands and entrances, made a halftime announcement and sent students through the stands to collect money.

That was the just start.

In March 2006, Steffy began filling out paperwork to start a tax-exempt organization. He founded the Children Deserve a Chance foundation, which benefits underprivileged kids and children with epilepsy.

On June 30, he and a group of friends and family put together what he hopes to be an annual golf tournament that raised more than $16,000 to benefit epilepsy and the New Image Youth Center he learned about while in Orlando for the bowl game.

"It was something I found that truly made me happy," Steffy said. "It may sound cliche, but people spend a lot of their life searching for things they can do that really make them happy. When I originally did it in high school and we raised some money for James to get his surgery, when he came to my house after the surgery, just seeing how different a person he was and how when a couple of people get together and put their heads together, what an impact it can make for someone ... shoot, if I can do that and make a difference in someone's life, I definitely want to do that."

Ask Novak what memory best captures Steffy on the field at Conestoga Valley, and the answer has nothing to do with football.

"There's a young lady, who's handicapped in a wheelchair," he started, referring to Katie Hull. "He always stopped to talk to her. She was a Jordan Steffy fan, loved Jordan. Whenever she was here, he always made it a point to go and see her."

Said Sherri Hull: "He always says that he's blessed for what he has, but we're blessed to have him in our lives. Right Katie?"

"Yeah," she said, that huge smile occupying half her face again.

Katie Hull and her family will be at Steffy's game next weekend, along with about 40 other people from his neighborhood. Sherri Hull ordered a Maryland jersey customized to fit her daughter.

The one in her closet is waiting to be framed.

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

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