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College football’s worst fear in the pandemic: The death of a player

PITTSBURGH — Jamain Stephens did not need much of an introduction when he showed up years ago for his first day of practice at Central Catholic High School. His father, with the same name, was a former first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But Stephens made a memorable entrance anyway, wearing a white T-shirt, as was required by all freshmen, that happened to be dotted with red Kool-Aid stains. A fitting nickname was born: Juice.

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Wherever Stephens went, through high school and then to California University, a small college in southwestern Pennsylvania, he brought juice to the room.

Stephens grew into a mountain of a young man, at 6-foot-3 and in the neighborhood of 350 pounds, playing defensive tackle. His feet were so enormous that his high school coaches went to the Steelers to find size 19 cleats. His hands were so immense that he carried a tablet in the palm of his hand as if it were a phone.

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His personality was equally outsize. Juice always had a smile on his face — even, as a former teacher said, when he wasn’t smiling. At Cal. U., as the school is known, he was typically the first player to reach out to a new recruit.

“If you see Juice as a human being, you see a very large human being,” said Garth Taylor, a youth football coach who had known Stephens since he was a young boy. “His spirit was twice as big as that.”

Stephens' impact explains why so many people were left reeling earlier this month when the college senior died from a blood clot after being hospitalized with COVID-19 and pneumonia.

His death has rippled through the sports landscape, as he is believed to be the first college football player whose death can be traced to the virus.

“This is a billion-dollar industry — I get that,” Kelly Allen, Stephens' mother, said of the continuation of college football games. “But not at the risk of these boys' lives. Nothing is worth that.”

Cal. U., a public school whose enrollment last year was 6,842, is wedged into a bend in the Monongahela River, an hour south of Pittsburgh. Allen drove her son there on Aug. 17 and checked him into his ground-floor apartment at Vulcan Village, which is popular with football players because it is adjacent to the school’s football stadium.

When his mother spoke to him on the phone on Friday, Aug. 28, she asked if he was congested. He told her his allergies were acting up. But he also said his roommate, Josh Dale, had been fighting what he thought was a cold.

"The next day, he said, ‘Oh, I think I caught Josh’s cold,’ " Allen said.

That night, Stephens attended a party in his building, but left after a short time because he was tired, according to one of his teammates. School officials would not say if any of the six reported coronavirus cases at Vulcan Village stemmed from the party. But in an email to residents two days later, the complex manager said the party exceeded a 10-person limit on gatherings and warned that similar parties could lead to dismissal.

When Allen called her son on Aug. 31, Stephens was uncharacteristically asleep at 10 a.m. She started reading a list of COVID-19 symptoms to him: headache, sore throat, loss of taste and others. “It was no, no, no, no,” Allen said. “And when I got to the bottom of the list, I said ‘diarrhea’ and he said, ‘Mom, when I got up this morning, I did have diarrhea.’”

Allen picked Stephens up, and he was hospitalized later that day after he tested positive for the coronavirus. A chest X-ray revealed he had pneumonia.

Stephens let some friends know he was in the hospital, sending a Snapchat photo of a hospital bootee that covered only three toes on his enormous feet. Doctors moved him into intensive care for several days to increase his oxygen. He was moved out of intensive care and told friends he hoped to be released soon. But he was sent back the next day after he said he had become lightheaded while taking a shower.

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The next morning, Allen received a call from a physician assistant: an ultrasound had revealed a blood clot in one of Stephens' lungs.

Allen called her brother to tell him what was happening, and went upstairs to get dressed and head to the hospital. As she did, a nurse called again with an urgent message: Come now, he’s gotten worse.

“When I got there, they pulled me in the office for the doctor to talk to me, and I just remember screaming, ‘Where’s my child?’” Allen said. And then when the chaplain came around the corner and told me he was gone, I just remember screaming. The rest is just a blur, honestly, after that."

As the college football season begins, few university presidents or conference commissioners have invoked Jamain Stephens, at least publicly.

Stephens was buried on Friday. The funeral procession from Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ wove through the city’s serpentine streets until it arrived at Allegheny Cemetery, where he was laid to rest under a maple tree.

The day before, a viewing for Stephens drew more than 500 people, including dozens of his son’s former teammates.

Some went off to play at universities like Penn State, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Clemson. They are big, strong and imbued with the sense of invulnerability that football requires, but after Stephens' death they were as shaken as anyone else who had lost someone to the coronavirus.

That night, Allen said in a phone interview that many players, as they had shared their sorrow, over and over again expressed what they would likely not admit to anyone else — an uneasiness about playing football during the pandemic.

“This makes COVID seem really real,” Allen said, “having to look at their friend and teammate in a casket.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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