by Jordan Roy-Byrne
Jerome Stevens is a meathead.
Which is to say, the 6-foot-3, 295-pound defensive lineman has a head for meat, acquired from years of working in the family barbecue business in Ventura, Calif.
"I've been working in their business since I was a little kid," he says. "I know the ins and outs of the restaurant business. I remember barbecuing outside of grocery stores as a little kid."
As a result of his early involvement in the business, Stevens learned at an early age the values of selflessness and hard work.
"It taught me to take pride and my work," he says. "No matter what you do - whether it is football, school or work - you have to work hard."
Whether through years of hard work, or years of barbecue, by the time Stevens arrived at Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard, Calif., he cut an imposing figure well-suited for defense. After tallying a reported 135 tackles and four sacks to earn All-CIF honors as a senior, Stevens sought to leave California and experience a different part of the country.
When questions arose about his academic eligibility, many schools bailed out of the recruiting process, but the Huskies remained committed to Stevens.
"Washington stuck with me through the whole process," he says. "I visited here and saw that there was a real family atmosphere within the team. I liked the guys and knew I would get along with them."
Stevens' desire and hard work was evident early in his Husky career. Unlike most interior linemen, Stevens came to college as a linebacker.
"I loved being a linebacker," he says. "You can roam around and make plays. There's more freedom to the position."
When he showed up to spring camp in 2000 a few steaks heavier than his high school playing weight, the coaching staff quickly moved him Stevens to the defensive line. Stevens relished the move and thrived immediately, rapidly rising to second on the depth chart at defensive tackle.
"I was thrown into the mix immediately," he says. "I found out early that there is so much technique involved when playing as a defensive lineman. I had to play off instinct for a while, until I learned the technique."
Going up against Washington's offensive line - which at an average of 314 pounds per man was larger than all but nine NFL lines - taught Stevens quickly that this wasn't high school anymore.
"Playing against those guys was difficult," he says, "but they taught me what's it like to be a real Husky. That's something I'm trying to preach to the young guys."
Those young players could learn much simply from mimicing Stevens on the field. In 2000, the true freshman appeared in nine games, helping the Huskies' defensive line total 21.5 sacks during the team's run to the 2001 Rose Bowl title.In so doing, Stevens found himself reminded of a lesson learned around the barbecue spit years before.
"The Rose Bowl was fun," says Stevens. "Larry Tripplett and those guys really helped me learn how hard you had to work to be successful in college football."
Stevens applied those lessons in 2001, starting seven games and finishing with a career-high 20 tackles. The following year, the Huskies rush defense dominated, ranking 11th in the nation. The ranking did not correspond to wins, however, as the team finished with a 7-6 record and a loss to Purdue in the 2002 Sun Bowl.
"It was tough; it was a disappointment," Stevens says of the 2002 season. "This year we are fighting for each other. What it boils down to is that we have to stick together as one unit."
Thus far, Stevens has done his part. Through seven games, the senior is on pace to shatter his season-highs for tackles and tackles for loss. Still, he says he and the defense need to do more to fire up the crowd on game days.
"Husky football is all about the defense," Stevens says. "I love hearing the crowd go wild. It's our job as a defense to get the crowd in the game."
The comment is true to Stevens' spirit - he is eternally grateful for the support he has been given by fans, professors and other student-athletes, and wants only to give back to those who have helped him.
"All the people I've met have been great," he says. "I especially owe a lot to Larry Tripplett, Curtis Williams and Jeremiah Pharms. They instilled the Husky tradition in me, and taught me that if you don't get better, then you are not working hard enough. I'm trying to pass that down to the younger guys. It's up to them keep the program and its tradition alive."
Having made his mark in another corner of the country, Stevens is ready to return home and apply his work ethic to the family business.
"I want to help my family open up more restaurants," he says. "That is our goal. In addition to helping my family, I want to do this to create jobs available for people that really need work, particularly minorities."
If Stevens can stuff guests' stomachs like he can stuff the run, then the family restaurants should warrant more than a few visits from the Husky faithful.