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Four years ago next month, Sports Illustrated’s Bleacher Report published a document entitled “The 50 Greatest Players in Nebraska Cornhusker History”. The No. 43-ranked player in that document was Dana Stephenson, a right cornerback and safety. “Don’t let the fact that this author couldn’t find a photograph of Dana Stephenson make you skip to the next slide,” correspondent Michael Huckstep wrote. “A member of Athlon Sports’ Nebraska All-Time Team, Dana Stephenson’s name is scattered throughout the record books.” That’s still true today, and let the record show that despite a hard life that ended Stephenson’s 66 years of mostly troubled times, he remained positive to the end. “Every year since I’ve known Dana, he thought Nebraska was going to win the national championship, and he was thinking the same thing late last week before he died,” Neal McQuistan told me Tuesday. “He had a very tough life, but I was glad to see his sister make peace with him at the end and see him make peace with God. He was ready to go.”
Stephenson’s friends knew he could not change his past, and even though he spent the last two years of his life at a nursing home in Auburn, Neb., he kept his spirits up and showed some of the traits that earned him the highest achievements as a Husker player…three straight First-Team All-Big Eight Conference honors…Nebraska’s all-time career leader in interceptions with 14, including a school-record three interceptions in his last game at Memorial Stadium that helped the Huskers upset Colorado. He was a second-team All-American and a co-captain with Mike Green for a team that steamrolled Georgia, 45-6, in the Sun Bowl, one year before the Huskers won their first National Championship against LSU in the Orange Bowl. There was the Guy Chamberlin Trophy, a Senior Bowl opportunity and being the eighth-round draft choice of the Chicago Bears.
The Triumphs of Stephenson’s Life Became Tragedies
We could go on, but we should probably balance Stephenson’s incredible accomplishments with acknowledgements of his biggest failures…a marriage that dissolved…business mistakes…prison time at Leavenworth for drugs. He had alcohol problems and parole violations, even homelessness. It was one failure after another, but never, ever blaming anyone but himself. Dana Stephenson was handsome, smart, funny, and a true leader before demons took control of his life. He told Omaha World-Herald Columnist Michael Kelly four years ago that he blamed only himself for his problems and was grateful for those who helped him live the last years of his life.
Tom Osborne, who has seen his share of players who succeed mightily and fail miserably, has said many times that countless people are one bad choice away from the bottom that Stephenson hit and never really recovered from. McQuistan, a Pender, Neb., native and resident who had power of attorney for Stephenson’s medical issues, wasn’t the only one who stayed true to the end. All-America Linebacker Jerry Murtaugh, who captained Nebraska’s 1970 National Championship Team a year after Stephenson completed his eligibility, went to see his former teammate the night before he died.
Murtaugh: Even When He Was Down, He Was Positive
“He was lucid and knew everything we were talking about,” Murtaugh said. “He was so appreciative we were there and wanted to walk us to the door when we left. He was a great player and a great leader when he had all his faculties. He could run, he could hit and he could motivate everyone around him. He just couldn’t beat some of his demons. Even when he was down, he was positive. He had a heart.” A former altar boy and Lincoln Pius X graduate, Stephenson told Kelly that he was irresponsible and narcissistic. He said he had great chances in life, but somehow almost always managed to make bad choices.
Paul Rogers, who kicked four field goals in that lopsided 1969 Sun Bowl win over Georgia, went with Murtaugh and Frank Stanek last week to see Stephenson. The week before, former Husker teammates Al Larson and Tom Penney went to Auburn to encourage Stephenson and to let him know they loved him despite the mistakes he made throughout his life. “There was a time when Dana shunned everybody who tried to help him,” Rogers said. “Some of us made a vow that he would not die alone. He knows he burned the candle at both ends. He had lung problems and it finally got to the point where he couldn’t get through it all.”
Friends Choose to Remember Stephenson at His Best
Murtaugh, Rogers and Stanek remember their friend’s dynamic personality and the great leadership he showed when he was healthy and drug free. They regret the reputation Stephenson developed, but will never forget the character he showed when he was right. Sadly, that is not the way Dana Stephenson will be remembered by most. But most certainly, that is the way those who knew him best choose to remember him.
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Voices from Across the Nation
Great story on Dana Stephenson. I played football, basketball and baseball with him at Pius X and never had a better teammate on the field. Dana was upbeat and positive and taking everybody with him. You could hear him laughing during games when good things happened and I don’t mean taunting. He was simply happy to be competing and seeing his team and teammates doing well. He was very motivating, fun and unique….quite a guy, and I was always happy to see him! I have coached a long time and have felt different about players who got into trouble when there wasn’t necessarily a victim per se…nobody beat up…nobody violated…nothing stolen…you get it. I never saw Dana victimize anyone but himself. Godspeed. Joe Glenn, Head Football Coach, University of South Dakota, Vermillion, South Dakota
I was an athletic junior high kid when Dana was a star athlete at Pius X, so he was a hero to me and most of us at that young, influential age. Getting to play American Legion baseball for him was special because he was already a great Husker. He was a fun-loving guy and made playing baseball fun, even though none of us were blessed with his athletic talent. Like most of us, he made decisions that haunted him for the rest of his life, but those of us who knew him in the early years will choose only to remember the good times, as it should be. Patrick Sullivan, Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Dana was one of several outstanding leaders and players on the 1969 Cornhuskers team. I feel guys like Dana were responsible for getting things going in the right directions for us to win a National Championship. He had a great sense of humor and was a great football player, too! Jeff Kinney, Castle Rock, Colorado
I moved to Nebraska in 1962 and attended the first sellout against Mizzou in the streak that’s still going. I’ve lived in Arizona since 1974, but remember doing my daily jog a number of years ago in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve a couple of blocks from my home. I was wearing Husker gear and suddenly I hear a “Go Big Red!” from the yard of a resident whose home abutted the preserve. I stopped to chat, and he came out of the yard and up the trail to see me. He introduced himself, and I did the same. I knew his name from the late-1960s teams and was aware of his interception record. During another chat, he told me how proud he was of still having that record. I will never forget taking a few steps back when Dana showed me the red tattoo “N” on his hip. For a couple years, we would chat briefly about the Huskers and one of his laments. I liked Dana. He was always nice to me and treated this fan with respect. Randy Gray, Phoenix, Arizona
I remember Dana as a player at UNL, but more so as the friendly caring man he was at the Good Samaritan Home in Auburn. Dana returned to his faith, attending Catholic Mass each week. He was welcoming and kind to those 30+ years older than he. My 94-year-old mother never knew Dana for his sordid past, but as the kind gentleman that shared the Eucharist. Thanks for sharing his story. Daryl J. Obermeyer, Brownville, Nebraska
Thanks for the article on Dana Stephenson. He was truly a good guy, even though he had his share of troubles. He also had his share of “props” and was always placed somewhat in the limelight growing up. I was two years behind him at St. Patrick’s and Pius X in Lincoln. We played a lot of sandlot football and pickup basketball and baseball. He was always a top athlete. He and Mike Bohaty (1996 recruit who broke his neck when he ran into Ben Gregory head-on, ending his NU career) were always the sports leaders in grade school, junior high, and high school. We were all altar boys at St Patrick’s and all proud of Dana’s success. Unfortunately, much of the easy path got to his head and cost him dearly. I had not seen or talked to Dana for nearly 30 years when he was a guest on Jerry Murtaugh’s radio show some months back. I called in to the show and he immediately related back to our days at St Patrick’s. He truly was a good guy to the end. Thanks for the article. Mike Eskey, St. Simons Island, Georgia
Very good article. You caught the essence of Dana Stephenson’s life, his tragedies and his successes. He was one of my heroes in high school and college. I was two years behind him in high school and marveled at his athleticism and charisma. He was in a senior class at Pius that had three, yes three, NU football scholarship players in the backfield. All were in the same graduating class in ’66: Dana, Mike Bohaty and Kim Wheeler. Paul Schneider, our legendary trainer, called Bohaty the best linebacker ever to play at NU. Mike’s career was ended during Spring Ball when he fractured his neck while tackling Ben Gregory. Tough deal. Kim ending up quitting the football team…Dana accomplished great things at NU from an athletic and scholastic standpoint…sadly, he threw away what could have been a great personal life. John Hyland, Lincoln, Nebraska
Dana was a good friend, a fraternity brother and we played baseball together at Nebraska for one year. He was a great guy and always fun to be around. It is a tragedy what ended up happening to him. Rick Jasa, Blair, Nebraska
I grew up with Dana in a way. I knew him from junior high at St. John’s, through Pius and beyond. He was a good guy who used to come over on his bike in the evenings. I was never as popular as Dana at Pius but he always was respectful to me. I am so sorry for his pain and hopeful that he passed with the dignity he deserved. Sheryl Schrepf, Bradenton, Florida