Sept. 12, 2008
By Benton Strong
It was the 2006 Apple Cup in Pullman and the Cougars just wanted to get into the fourth quarter down only four points. After getting the ball on their own 17 yard line with over a minute left in the third, they immediately went three-and-out.
In a game where Washington scored three times on plays of 60 yards or more, Chris Stevens was about to make the biggest one of the night.
Darryl Blunt dropped the ball toward his strong foot to punt back to the Huskies, but Stevens came flying off the edge and smothered the punt, pushing it back toward the end zone. The sophomore got up, sprinted after it and smothered it, scoring the touchdown that put the game out of reach.
And at that point he joined the company of those who have made highlight-reel plays in the Apple Cup, cementing their places in Husky immortality.
"We hate Wazzu, so I'd call that the biggest play of my career," he said.
It has been a career full of ups and downs, as well as big plays. From the blocked punt in that WSU game to fumble recovery for a touchdown against Arizona last year, Stevens has been the special teams leader all four of his years at UW.
In 2007 he was recognized as the KJR Special Teams Player of the Year.
"It's cool to be recognized for my play," he said. "It would be better if it translated into more wins, but for it to be special teams tells me that I have been working hard."
That work ethic is what got Stevens on the field in the first place and he understands both the importance of special teams and the opportunity it affords younger players to get on the field.
"I'm an older guy that's here to help younger guys out," he said. "I know the system and I know what they need to do to get on the field. If they want to get on that travelling bus then special teams is the way to do it."
Stevens figured that out the hard way. He was an undersized, but a lightning quick tailback coming out of a small high school in Mojave, Calif. When he was moved from tailback to linebacker/defensive end he didn't get any bigger and at 218 pounds is still small for both positions.
However, his five sacks and nine tackles-for-loss are solid for a player who hasn't played full-time. And he has come a long way both from that small high school and one of his lower points earlier in that same fateful 2006 season.
"We all come from high school as all-stars," he said. "We're used to scoring touchdowns and making big plays and now I'm a role player. It's hard to adjust, but you do what you can to help the team win."
While he did that in that Apple Cup, just two games earlier that season he made a play at Autzen Stadium in Eugene that likely made some UW fans smile, but almost had then-special teams coach Bob Simmons jump down his throat.
Also on a punt, Stevens came flying down the sideline like he always does, intent on crushing the returner. The only problem was that he got there a couple seconds early and just before the ball landed in the returner's hands, Stevens flattened him. The guy had no idea it was coming and Stevens was flagged for a 15-yard penalty. Simmons was none-too-happy with his sophomore, but in an otherwise tough game for the Huskies it was a moment of all-out play by one of the young guys.
"I am undersized so all I have is my speed and a desire to go," he said. "Sometimes it will get me in trouble, but more times than not, it's a big benefit."
Stevens' parents show that same desire to support their son, having never missed a game since he came to college four years ago. "I really don't understand it," he said. "They come up for a weekend and we spend maybe two hours together. But it's what they like to do and they've always been really supportive of me, so it's nice."
They'll be in Pullman in November, too, where Stevens and his teammates hope to be cementing a birth in a bowl game for the first time in his career.
"That would be amazing, the biggest thing in my career." So, surely, would be another big play. Talk about making him legendary.