BY Lenny Megliola
Mom moves behind scenes
Yolanda Neville would not allow her undersized son, Stephan, to play football. "She was worried I'd get hurt,'' said Stephan. "She wanted me to play something else.''
He settled for basketball and baseball and was good at both. It was not enough to separate Stephan from his football dreams, but Mom ruled.
But it was Yolanda who steered her son to a professional football contract. Ironic?
After a record-setting career as a kick returner and cornerback at Division 2 Stonehill, Stephan was preparing for pro days at Boston College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
He knew he would be a long shot.
What he did not know was that his mother worked with Pat Kirby at the Citizens School in Boston.
Kirby, a Canadian, is a big fan of the Canadian Football League, and he had a few contacts in the league.
Yolanda gave Kirby her son's highlight film. He sent it to Montreal Alouettes general manager Pat Popp, who was very impressed.
"He called and offered me a contract over the phone,'' said Stephan. "It happened real quick.''
Stephan describes the call late last month as "stunning and celebratory at once.''
He is the first Stonehill student-athlete to sign a professional contract.
He grew up in Atlanta and moved to Foxborough in 2005, where he finally got his chance to play football at the high school for coach Jack Martinelli.
How did he get his Mom's approval? "I was older and bigger by then,'' Stephan said. "My dad [Steven] and I convinced her, but she was still a little hesitant. Now she loves the game. She knows injuries are an inherent part of football.''
In his sophomore year at Stonehill, Stephan was an all-Northeast-10 pick on both sides of the ball, returner and cornerback.
He finished his career with a Division 2-record 10 kickoff returns for touchdowns, and he averaged 29.8 yards per return this season.
"So many times you'd think he was stopped, or down, but he keeps on fighting, keeps his legs going,'' said Stonehill coach Robert Talley. "Then he'd turn on the after-burners. He has a desire to get to the end zone.''
At 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, Stephan tied the all divisions record of 11 returns for scores (10 kicks, 1 punt) in the season finale against Assumption.
"Our whole team celebrated in the end zone,'' Stephan said.
A flag was thrown for excessive celebration. "It was worth it,'' he said.
Stephan followed that up by returning a punt for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
"There's no more exciting feeling,'' he said. "It gets the crowd going. When it's going good, the game slows down for me.''
In 2010, he became the program's first All-American in football. The 21-year-old has stayed level-headed, Talley said.
"He doesn't get caught up in things. He's been mature since day one.''
"Two years ago he had a slight meniscus tear in his knee,'' said Talley. "He never missed a game. He'd have the knee drained on Monday, take Tuesday off, practice the rest of the week, and play Saturday.''
This year, turf toe forced Stephan to miss one game, the only miss of his career.
At Foxborough, Martinelli recalls Stephan as "wiry, but very strong,'' he said.
As a sophomore, he played on the junior varsity and on special teams for the varsity. "The next year he was bound and determined to make the [varsity],'' added the coach.
As a senior, he led the team in interceptions and returned punts.
"But I didn't use him on kickoff returns,'' said Martinelli. "Shows you what I know.''
Stephan will graduate May 20; a week later, he heads to Alouettes camp.
"I've been reading everything I can find on the Internet about the league and the Alouettes,'' Stephan said.
"They play 18 games, June to November. I'm ecstatic. Can't wait to get up there.''
The Alouettes have been in eight Grey Cups (the CFL's Super Bowl) in the last 10 years, winning three.
"I'm a big Patriots fan,'' Stephan said. "I see a lot of parallels between the two teams.''
He majored in business management.
"It's an enormous relief knowing I have a job, especially in these economic times. I was getting ready for my [pro camp] workouts and sending out resumes.''
The Alouettes job is not guaranteed. "I still have to make the team,'' Stephan said. "They can cut you at any time, like the NFL. But they've shown interest in me. I'm just going to give it everything I have.''
It got him this far.
"I told him, 'All you need is a chance,' '' Martinelli said.