MARPLE — The first time Larry Stephenson Jr. was worked up about a Hero Bowl, he was just trying to show how hard he could hit.
The second time, he was there to see his son, Larry III, try to hit even harder.
On Thursday night at 6:30, that will be Larry Jr. in the stands at Cardinal O’Hara High for the 45th renewal of the Delaware County high school All-Star football game to benefit the children of first responders.
“This one is the big enchilada,” he said. “A Hollywood script.”
Stephenson has attended nearly every Hero Bowl since he represented Chester as a ferocious defensive back in 1985. But Thursday, he will be there to watch Kimir Stephenson, his grandson and the son of Larry III, patrol the secondary for Team Red and represent Ridley.
Father. Son. Grandson.
“I’m living a dream,” Stephenson said. “It’s like, ‘Somebody wake me up.’”
Now 56, Stephenson is a school administrator in Chester. He was known as The Hitman while playing college ball at West Chester, where his defense was crackling enough to win tryouts for the CFL Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, along with attention from the Buffalo Bills.
“They say it’s a small world and that there’s about six degrees of separation,” he said. “Ted Cottrell was the defensive coordinator for the Bills at the time. (Bills Hall of Fame receiver) Andre Reed was a senior at Kutztown State when I was a freshman. Ted asked Andre who the hardest hitting defensive back was in the NFL. He said, ‘Forget that. There was a little guy from West Chester named Larry Stephenson, and he was the hardest hitting guy I ever played against.’
“Ted Cottrell said, ‘Hold up. I know a Larry Stephenson. I went to school with a Larry Stephenson.’ And he did. He went to school and played with my dad in 1966. So Ted Cottrell called me up and wanted to bring me in for a tryout. But they had a 90-man restriction. Still, it’s crazy, man.”
It’s the way it is in a family that values education and football, going back one, two, three Hero Bowl generations. For Larry Jr., his experience was in the 1985 game at Sun Valley. Larry III played in the 2004 game at Academy Park. Both played for the East team, largely comprised of Del Val League stars.
“I should have won the MVP,” said Larry III, 36. “I had 4½ sacks, five tackles and two knockdowns. I just think I didn’t win because I was not committed to a college at that time. But we lost in overtime. I know I was proud of my father and what he did.”
The pride is thick. The verbal jousting is, too.
“I always tell them I had the most talent, because I played three sports – football, basketball and baseball,” Larry III said. “But give props to my father. Without him, none of us would be here.”
As for that friendly competition, Kimir has his own score sheet.
“I’m better than them all,” the second-team coaches’ All-State cornerback said. “I tell them that all the time. None of them were All-State like me. The way I look it it, it is me, then my grandfather, then my dad.”
It could be a matter of taste, a matter of eras, a matter of style. Or it could be that they all had similar games, beginning with a willingness to be physical.
“We have films and we watch them,” said Kimir, who will follow his grandfather to West Chester. “I know my dad and grandfather liked to hit.”
According to legend, the greatest Stephenson of all may have been Kimir’s great grandfather and Ted Cottrell’s teammate, Larry, a running back known at Chester as Juice. The 76-year-old’s career predated the Hero Bowl – so but for that and another reason, there may have been a four-generation reunion Thursday.
“He’s been incarcerated for 50 years,” Larry Jr. said, sharing the well-documented family history. “He is at Graterford. He has been a major influence on us. There have been articles done on him about raising me and my brother while being in prison. When we would go to visit him at 5 or 6 years old, he would set up high school GED tests for us to set us on an academic trail. I have two master’s degrees. My brother (Darren) has a master’s in school counseling and is a guidance counselor in Maryland.
“We stress being students before being athletes. That came from my father and that’s a big thing I will pass down to Kimir.”
The older Stephensons will pass down plenty, from their athletic genes to their classroom commitments. As for their football equipment, that will remain guarded. So proud was Larry Jr. of his participation that he wore his Hero Bowl jersey underneath his uniform for every game of his college career. Eventually, it became so threadbare that he recently ordered the replica he will rock Thursday. Larry III will sit next to him and sporting his 2004 model. Kimir will be the Stephenson in a jersey and a helmet, too.
“I love the Hero Bowl,” Larry Jr. said. “It’s a tradition every year. And it always has been for me and my family.”
Some years, thee times more than others.