Talks with Hawks: Episode 31 – Courtney Stephen

I have gone over the previous 30 episodes that I have completed so far and it seems like I have interviewed a disproportionate number of defensive backs. That trend continues with this latest feature. Courtney Stephen played for the Hawks in 2008 and 2009. During those two seasons, he had 7 interceptions and 5 fumble recoveries. In his rookie year, he was a 2nd team OUA All Star and the following year he was a 1st team OUA All Star and a 2nd team All Canadian.  He was destined for greater things, transferring to Northern Illinois to play NCAA football. After sitting a year, Stephen contributed significantly during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. During his final season, Northern Illinois was 12-0 becoming the first MAC school to play in the Orange Bowl. Although they lost 31-17 to Florida State, his team finished 15th in the national rankings. In 2012, he was the 8th overall selection in the CFL draft and played 6 years with Hamilton before moving on to Calgary for the 2019 season. He has now returned to Hamilton to continue his CFL career and it will be awesome to see a great Laurier football alum play locally in the GTA. Current Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator Ron VanMoerkerke had this to say about him: Courtney separated himself from his peers in two ways. The first was his physical approach to the game. He would not be intimidated by anyone and he set the tone for the defense from his first day on campus. The second way was his relentless drive. Everything he did on the field and for his teammates was on another level. Although he was only with us for two years, his performance and passion for the game of football make him a Laurier legend.

Dave Morrissey: Why did you decide to come to WLU?

Courtney Stephen: I went to visit a bunch of different schools, but when I visited Laurier, I really felt like even if for some reason I didn’t play football there, it would still feel like a place that I could call home. I felt very comfortable being on campus even before I officially signed.

DM: Tell me the story about how you ended up at Northern Illinois.

CS: The main catalyst was my brother. He went there many years earlier. He went in 1999 and finished in 2001. It wasn’t until 9 years later that I went there. A player that he used to play with was now the Huskies’ recruiting coordinator. I had reached out to Northern Illinois before I even started at Laurier and after my 2nd season with the Hawks, an opportunity came up to move down south. Coach Jefferies, Coach Van Moerkerke, Coach Cameron and Peter Baxter were very supportive of my decision. They supported my pursuit of my NCAA goal.  After walking on at Northern Illinois, I eventually earned a full ride.

DM: In both of your seasons at WLU, the team finished 6-2 and then ended up losing to Western in the playoffs. What was your biggest thrill and biggest disappointment as a Golden Hawk?

CS: Well, in my 2nd year I think we were actually 7-1 and we only lost to Queen’s who ended up winning the Yates Cup that year. Waiting underneath the stands right before game time on a night game home game was so exciting. My last game, which was a playoff loss to Western, really stands out in terms of the atmosphere being electric. I really felt like I was in the zone that game. Since we didn’t win that game and that’s how my career ended, that was also my biggest disappointment.

DM: How would you compare the level of football in the OUA to the NCAA?

CS: Football in the USA is so different. It is a full time gig and so many people are involved to ensure a team’s success. I know for certain that every year there are guys in USports football that could go down south and compete, but I would say there are a few positions where the differences are especially larger. First off, in the NCAA, the offensive lineman are cut from a whole different cloth in terms sheer size and strength and so many seemed ‘NFL ready’.  Secondly, the QBs were on another level in terms of arm strength and accuracy. Finally, there’s a big difference in terms of roster depth. It’s much deeper in the NCAA. 2nd and 3rd stringers on those rosters could step in and you would barely notice a drop off in terms of quality. Simply put, there’s a much bigger talent pool to draw from for NCAA schools. The population is ten times bigger than in Canada.

DM: The average length of a CFL career is 3.2 years. You’ve been in the CFL since 2013. To what do you credit your longevity?

CS: Well, to be good, I think you’ve got to have a bit of luck. I’ve been  lucky to have great coaches who were willing to work and stick with me through some of my growing pains as a new professional player. I’ve had a relentless attitude to continually strive to get better. You don’t just get paid to show up.  You get paid to show up AND make big plays in big moments! Playing with confidence is key and you can’t ever get complacent.

DM: What is the biggest setback you’ve faced on the football field?

CS: In 2016, I was having a really good year through the 1st ten games. I had my first 2 career sacks, three interceptions, some forced fumbles, and tons of tackles. I was on my way to a career best season. During a game vs Montreal, a WR tried to cut block me downfield. I dodged the cut block but he leg-whipped me and I tore my MCL and I missed the final 7 games of the season. That made me ineligible to be selected an All Star. When I returned in the playoffs, very early in the game I made a big hit on Darrell Walker and I separated my collarbone which knocked me out of the game.

DM: To what extent have you had to deal with racism in your life?

CS: There are many layers to that issue. There are certainly overt acts of disrespect and intolerance, but there’s also the underlying beliefs and attitudes that people have before they even meet you. Even in school, there were people that just assumed I was in some sort of general studies program when really my goal was a 4.0 GPA. Racism has been more present in my everyday life off the field than on the field. Football isn’t hockey. The majority of the players in the pro football are black. Because of that, within the sport, we can navigate things differently than in the outside world. I wouldn’t say I live in fear, but I am aware of little things like where my receipts are when I’m leaving a store or where my hands are if I am stopped on a routine traffic check. People who aren’t black don’t have to think about those things as much.

DM: Tell me a bit about this financial literacy project that you have started.

CS: At my website courtneystephen.com and on my Youtube channel, I’ve created an archive of life lessons for my kids. Both of them are under 2 right now, but down the road I want to have stuff they can refer to. My parents taught me some great life lessons. I am proud that I was able to pay off all my student debt within three years of graduating. I’ve been able to establish a good financial net worth and spent time building up my financial IQ. What I’ve put together is also helpful for some of my peers who have been especially been hurt financially because of the covid situation. Now, I am focused on teaching some of these lessons to students and athletes around Canada and the USA.

DM: What has been your most satisfying moment in your CFL career?

CS: In a game vs Edmonton, we were losing by 21 points at halftime but we had a big comeback.  Late in the game, they had a chance to retake the lead but our DC dialed up a blitz for me. I was able to come off the edge and get a sack and cause a fumble that sealed the game. It was also great to play in the Grey Cup in 2014 vs BC (even though we lost).

DM: Who has been the toughest receiver to cover in the CFL and who was the toughest one to go up against when you played in the OUA?

CS: Lining up in the slot, SJ Green was always a challenge. He was a super talent. To me, quite often playing safety, to me the more relevant matchup is the opposing QB. Ricky Ray was always hard to force into an error. Mike Riley has a cannon for an arm. Henry Burris could make every throw.  At Laurier, Ottawa QB Brad Sinopoli was mobile and huge and Danny Brannagan from Queen’s were tough to go against. There was this guy name Faulds over at Western who was pretty good too!

DM: Let’s play ‘How well do you know your own statistics’.  During your 2 years at WLU, how many interceptions and fumble recoveries did you have?

CS: I’m not sure if you are counting playoffs, I don’t really remember but if I had to guess I would say 7 and 3. 

DM: Not bad!  It was actually 7 and 5. Have you ever thought about getting into coaching after you retire?

CS: I would love to coach. The game has given me so much. I’d love to give it back, as long as it a good fit with my family and my lifestyle. I’d love to work with players at any level. Right now, my immediate goals are to become the best father I can be and to improve financial literacy.

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