Delona Pennington has a problem and his name is John Stephens Jr. – yes, the same name as that of the running back who became one of the greatest in Northwestern State history before a six-year stint in the NFL mostly with the Patriots.
John Stephens Jr. is the son of the late John Stephens, who is the ex-husband of Pennington. The younger Stephens is a standout defensive end/wide receiver for the Logansport Tigers, who are a win away from playing for the LHSAA Class 1A state title next weekend in New Orleans.
And, athletically at least, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The problem Pennington faces when she isn’t working at International Paper is keeping her sprouting son in food and clothes. The teenager has blossomed from a 5-foot-6, 140-pound freshman to a 6-4 ½, 210-pound junior with a 7-foot wing span.
“Oh, my goodness. It seems like there’s a hole in his stomach, because I can never fill him up,” Pennington said chuckling. “John likes his vegetables – beans, greens – and he likes chicken – baked or fried – and shrimp etouffee. But gumbo is his favorite.”
Shoes and clothes are another matter entirely.
“I usually have to order his shoes, since hardly anyone carries size 14s, and his pants are about 38 length,” Pennington said.
Logansport coach Kevin Magee has enjoyed observing the transformation.
“We watch him grow almost daily,” Magee said. “I’ve never seen someone grow as much as he has in such a short period.”
Stephens Jr. was 8 years old when his father was killed in a one-vehicle accident on La. Hwy. 169 just outside of Shreveport in 2009. The 1998 NFL Rookie of the Year with the Patriots after rushing for 1,168 yards, the Springhill Lumberjack broke the NSU career rushing mark of Joe Delaney, who also died an untimely death, by 10 yards with 3,057 yards.
Pennington was a standout track performer at NSU competing in the 400 and running the anchor leg on the school record 4×400 relay team. She also went to the state track meet four times as a Logansport Lady Tiger. Her uncle, Pete Barnes, played for the Patriots, Oilers and Chargers, and her daughter, Daisha Stephens, runs the 400 at NSU.
All of that athletic talent is blended into Stephens Jr., a young man of few words but who is one of the top players on one of the best Logansport teams in school history. He said he never saw his father play, but has heard a lot about him. He also isn’t involved in many activities outside of football.
“I ride my horses every couple of days. I have two, Obama and Ribler,” Stephens said. “I also like helping out in the community with summer youth camps. And we visited some kids at the Shriner’s Hospital this past summer.”
Part of Stephens’ reticence comes from a speech impediment that he worked to overcome for several years, according to his mother. When he was younger, doctors told Pennington her son could be disabled and receive a disability check, but she would have none of it.
“I said I wasn’t accepting that, so I got him in classes. Now, he’s grown out of it a lot. John’s not all the way there yet, and that has created some insecurities for him,” Pennington said.
Magee said Stephens may not be as talkative as some of his athletes, but that doesn’t matter much on the football field. He doesn’t have to talk to deliver a hit most wide receivers will remember.
“John eats up a lot of space out there defensively,” Magee said. “And offensively he’s a tough matchup for a lot of defensive backs. He can go up 11-12 feet with that wing span and get a ball, so it doesn’t have to be a pinpoint pass. He can catch it at the high point.
“Plus, he’s a very physical blocker.”
Stephens Jr. is “phenomenal” in the weight room, according to his coach, who said the youngster is always respectful.
“John never gets in trouble, makes good grades and is very coachable. I’m glad he’s just a junior,” Magee said.
Delona Pennington continues watch her son grow and mature, while catching glimpses of his father in him.
“I’d have to say they have a lot of the same mentality – that when they’re on the football field they feel like they own it,” she said. “John had no fear of anything when he played. With John-John, he’s not quite there, but I’m seeing more of that as he gets older.”