When teachers are out sick or taking a day off, or teacher-coaches have to leave Craig to coach their teams on the road, Moffat County High School has been able to rely on Steve Stephenson to help fill those classrooms with an instructor for the better part of a decade.
Stephenson, a transplant to Craig from Texas and a host of other places, has been substitute teaching at the high school for the past nine years — a job that he came to realize he loved after splitting time doing that and other work in Craig in past years.
“I’d say 99 percent of the kids here are great,” Stephenson said. “I love working with them and they’re good to me. I had some freshman last week (the first week of school) and I always tell them, they have to act like young adults now, and I expect them to treat me like young adults should.”
The majority of Stephenson’s part-time students enjoy having him lead a class when he’s needed. But even the students who have enjoyed his company during the past four years aren’t aware of Stephenson’s time before Craig, a colorful life of stories to match just about anyone’s that he is not quick to discuss, saying it all “was such a long time ago.”
Stephenson was born and raised in Texas, growing up in Garland before attending East Texas State University. He was a hugely successful athlete, playing on an NAIA national championship team his junior year before entering the Marine Corps after graduating. He calls that time “the proudest time of my life.”
While in the Marines, Stephenson played on a Marine football team in Okinawa, Japan, then made the Marine all-star team, which led to him getting picked up as a bench wide receiver for the Los Angeles Rams after coming back to the U.S.
He spent time with the Rams and then the Dallas Cowboys when that organization formed in 1960 and trained with some of the famous players of the era, such as Norm Van Brocklin, Eddie LeBaron and Bob Hayes.
“Norm Van Brocklin, he kind of took me under his wing,” he said. “He would make me stay after practice for the Rams for a couple hours and he would throw me pass after pass.”
Stephenson was never a star in professional football, so he moved on after a few years and eventually played for the Dallas Rockets, of the Continental Football League, as a defensive end. He also played semi-professional baseball for the El Paso Diablos.
Eventually, he moved on from the sporting life and became a regional sales manager for Ocean Pacific, a beach clothing company that took off in the 1980s while Stephenson was there.
“Financially, that was probably the highlight of my life,” Stephenson said. “It’s kind of like Under Armour, because everywhere I look is Under Armour. Everywhere you looked then was OP. It was phenomenal.”
Later in life, Stephenson’s brother convinced him to move from Texas to Craig to start a restaurant, which would become the Tin Cup Grill at Yampa Valley Golf Course.
“During that time I met Brett Etzler and we clicked immediately,” he said. “After I finished up at the Tin Cup I worked for him on the golf side and did whatever he asked me.”
Etzler, now the owner of Carelli’s, was the assistant golf pro at the time and became the head pro. He fondly remembers working together at the course.
“He was kind of my right-hand man out there at the golf course for sure,” Etzler said. “He was a jack of all trades out there.”
Since then, Stephenson and Etzler have both moved on, but have remained close.
“I don’t know if he’s like a brother to me or more of a second father, but he’s definitely a good friend,” Etzler said. “He’s probably like my dad now, since my dad’s passed away. I take care of him like my dad.”
Stephenson has called Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles home, but Craig claims that title now. It was a point of contention when he first moved, but not a decision he regrets.
“My daughter was not happy about it and my wife was not happy about it, and to this day I have not lived that down,” he said. “But anyway, you make decisions, right or wrong. You can’t just hedge.”
After a medical scare a year ago nearly claimed his life, Stephenson is happy just to have his strength and to spend time with his students.
“My strength has come back to where I feel like me again,” he said. “I have a whole different outlook right now on being here. I think I got a second chance and my attitude at the school is not much different, but I appreciate being there more.”
Nate Waggenspack can be reached at 970-875-1795 or firstname.lastname@example.org