Ravens Eric DeCosta, John Harbaugh and Joe Hortiz on this years draft picks and different draft process.
On April 25, Erin Stone threw a draft party for her best friend. Admission was limited. To get an invite, you had to be family. To get in the door, you had to have your temperature taken. To enjoy the food, you had to tolerate the smell of brand-name disinfectant.
“I'm pretty sure they probably ate Lysol all day,” Erin recalled recently, mindful of the coronavirus pandemic, “ ’cause I sprayed it all day long.”
Twenty-one years of motherhood had given her so much, but not the power to keep her only child’s heart from breaking. As pick after pick of the NFL draft’s third and final day came and went, they sat in their socially distanced living room, his dream, within reach, slowly crumbling.
Erin knew the look on Geno’s face; she’d seen it years earlier, when he’d march out to the mailbox every day at their New Castle, Pennsylvania, home and come back crestfallen. She suggested he take a walk. “Don’t let them see you cry,” she remembered thinking.
Geno moved to his bedroom, then to his car, and the misery compounded, every passing round a punch to the gut and slap in the face. At one point, Erin proposed asking her family to leave. It was getting late. She remembers the look he shot her: “You’re doubting me. You are doubting me. I made this choice. I will live with it.”
They were in this together, the single mother and the son who’d never imagined leaving her.
A “miracle baby,” Erin calls Geno.
She hadn’t planned to have a kid at 19. She was a beauty school student who one day wanted to be a nurse, who wondered whether she could even become a mother. She thought she’d have a hard time conceiving. That’s what the doctors had told her anyway.
But on April 19, 1999, Erin had Geno, and she considered herself lucky.
“I wouldn't even know what to do with a girl, to be honest,” she said.
At age 3, Geno started playing T-ball. By the second grade, he’d picked up football and basketball. He was a natural athlete, a future three-sport standout at New Castle Junior/Senior High School.
Erin called him her sidekick. With Geno’s father in and out of his life, they went everywhere together. She spoiled him. Of course she did. When Geno was young, he hated booster seats. They’d be driving, and he’d be screaming “like a psycho,” a wave of tears crashing down. Finally, she’d submit.
“I would get out and put him on my lap and drive,” Erin said. Her son, the future star safety, already understood leverages. “He would only do it with me because he knew that I would give in.”
She did all she could to keep Geno on track. Life sometimes made that difficult. When he was 9, Erin’s fiance, Bobby Lepore, a former Division I football player who’d helped raise Geno, died in a car accident. Geno struggled with it.
Erin had always asked him to be open with her. She knew Geno was a quiet kid — “And then there’s me,” she joked. “I never shut up” — but he couldn’t be scared to tell her he was in trouble. Geno had grown close to father figures, only to have them “taken away from him,” Erin said. That was their burden: She had to protect him. He had to look out for himself.
“That's the only person I really had as my support system growing up,” Geno said of his mother last week. “I had a bunch more people, but that was who I was closest to.”
In January 2016, just weeks away from national signing day, Iowa defensive coordinator and secondary coach Phil Parker needed a safety. The Hawkeyes had just lost out on a recruit from Detroit; there was still a scholarship available.
A coach told Parker about a senior in New Castle — committed to Kent State but looking around. So Parker flew in and drove over to the city, not far from the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, to ask about Geno Stone. He chuckled as he remembered meeting Sam Flora, New Castle’s longtime athletic director.
“Of course, he gave me an ass whooping because I wasn't there earlier or something like that,” Parker said last week, “but I really don't recruit that area.”
Only two years earlier, Ohio State had come to New Castle to sign Malik Hooker, a future All-America safety and first-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts. Geno hadn’t gotten that kind of attention.
He’d wished he had. Geno’s first offer was from Harvard, but he grew up wanting to play for Penn State. Nine times he visited the school, a round-trip ride of over 320 miles. At one point during an all-state senior season, Geno later told reporters, Penn State said an offer was imminent.
So out to the mailbox he would go, hoping each time that this was the day he’d tear open an envelope and gaze upon his future. When Geno was stuck at school, he’d text or call Erin and ask for updates: “Did something come from Penn State?”
The truth did not fit his dreams.
“We just got kind of strung along,” Erin said. “It was gut-wrenching. It really was. … It's hard as a mother to feel that pain. That's something I couldn't fix. You can always try to fix something as a mother. And that was out of my control, and it hurt. So after that all came, we knew, you know, it wasn't coming.”
In mid-December, a month after he’d scored five touchdowns and picked off three passes to lead the underdog Red Hurricanes to the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League Class 4A state final, Geno committed to Kent State.
The Mid-American Conference school wasn’t far from New Castle, just an hour’s drive or so, and coaches there had noticed Geno’s talent early. “He respected that, that they saw talent in him from the beginning,” said New Castle boys basketball coach Ralph Blundo, a family friend of the Stones.
Then his recruitment got complicated. That January, Michigan State showed interest in Geno, then canceled his official visit just days before his flight out to East Lansing. Another defensive back had committed.
Geno at least knew where Michigan was. When Iowa’s Parker met with the Stones not long after, “it wasn’t an easy sell,” he said. Parker could sense how close Geno was with his family. The coach told him that he’d earned an official visit to Iowa City; he didn’t have to commit.
The day after, Parker texted Geno to officially offer him a scholarship. As Geno mulled visiting with Erin, he wondered: Where is Iowa even located on the map? Far from here, Erin told him.
“I'm not going. I'm not going to visit there,” Erin remembered him telling her. “There's no way.”
Erin was undeterred. Geno was going to visit Iowa. She heard every excuse. “You just don’t have a choice,” she told him. This wasn’t a booster-seat situation.
But time was running out. On Jan. 27, Geno had a Friday night playoff basketball game. On Jan. 29, coaches would enter a “quiet period” for recruiting. A day later, there would be a brief “dead period.” National signing day was less than a week away.
So at 10 p.m., after Geno’s basketball game, he and Erin prepared for a long night. Erin’s fiance, Ryan Davis, was starting the 10-hour drive to Iowa City.
On the day he decided he would play for Iowa, Geno kneeled next to Erin, still half-asleep in bed, and told her he was signing with Kent State.
He had been thinking long and hard about his decision. A couple of nights earlier, Blundo had gone over Geno’s options with him. If Kent State was where he was leaning, the coach told him, then he should go to Kent State. He impressed on Geno that only he knew what was best.
“I think we can guide him, but he has to be the one to make that decision, because he's going to be the one going to those practices and classes and living in those dorms,” Blundo said.
When Geno told Erin he’d picked Kent State, she couldn’t believe him. Why not Iowa? He’d loved his official visit. Then she couldn’t believe herself: “Oh, my God. I just told my son to go 10 hours away.”
Erin knew Geno had a half-day at school that day, and she told him to come back afterward and pick her up. They could drive out to the gas station. She’d fill up his tank, her treat.
On the ride over, Erin told Geno that this was his dream, that Iowa would be fine, that she would be fine, that he didn’t need to worry about leaving the mother who’d sacrificed in her own life so that he could lead his.
Geno sat in silence, listening. “He’s the kind of kid that just stares a hole through you when someone's coaching him,” Blundo said. Finally, he was certain. “All right, I’m calling Coach.”
“Once I got the OK from her to tell me to go chase my dreams, that was something she wanted me to always do,” Geno said. “I know it was hard for her to tell me to go, but just seeing her being that strong to let her son go 10 hours away from home, away from her, to chase his dreams, it really helped me a lot.”
Erin doesn’t mind getting it out now, not with her son a two-year starter at Iowa and NFL draft pick: After she dropped Geno off at the school for the first time in 2017, after trying so hard not to be emotional on campus, she broke down on the drive back home.
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She could protect him from only so much. When Geno came back home for the draft party last month, Erin said the day’s first few hours played out like the Penn State heartbreak. She knew how much he wanted this. She knew how much she wanted this for him.
Around 5:30 p.m. that Saturday, the Ravens called Stone. They were taking him in the seventh round with the No. 219 overall pick. Erin’s party erupted. “It was like — I think the roof of my house flew off,” she said. A procession of cars soon formed outside their home, neighbors honking their horns and waving at the family, a quarantine toast for the next New Castle kid in the NFL.
Stone’s three-year ascent didn’t surprise Blundo. His adjustment did. In New Castle, the love, the support, the hype that can build up a star might “cripple” them when they leave for college, Blundo said. He’s been coaching long enough to know that not every recruit finds happiness at their new home. Fewer still embrace how far they’ve come.
“All of my players who have left at some point have called me in those first couple of weeks and said to me, ‘I don’t know if this is for me.' And I know they just got to get through that first few weeks of discomfort and get comfortable with what they’re doing," he said. "I never received that phone call from Geno.”