Stevens stood tall for Jefferson
Eighth of a series...
By CHRIS LARICK
Chuck Stevens hoped to make it to the state basketball tournament as a member of a strong Jefferson High School team his senior year.
He dreamed of getting to the Major Leagues as a pitcher.
An arm injury squashed that aspiration.
Despite those setbacks, along with other disappointments along the way, Stevens, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation's Hall of Fame on April 6, remains philosophical.
"It was just one of those things," he said.
Part of Stevens' capacity for acceptance comes from his faith.
"(When I was in high school), I didn't have Jesus Christ as my personal savior," Stevens told the Star Beacon back in 1998 while being interviewed as one of the Star Beacon's Grand Players (basketball players who scored at least 1,000 points in high school). "Looking back, I think my numbers would have been better if I knew what I know now. For those younger players, I hope they realize that God gave them the ability, but that you have to have the right mindset. I know that it would have been better and a lot more meaningful if I were walking where I'm walking now."
Despite a divorce in the intervening years, Stevens' faith remains strong.
"I still pray every day and do my devotions," he said. "I'm definitely a God-fearing man."
Stevens' status as one of Jefferson's best — possibly its very best — boys basketball player in the school's records remains. He scored 1,056 points in a Jefferson uniform, but that was only part of his game. Only fellow ACBF Hall of Famer Chuck Naso has scored more points in Jefferson boys basketball history. Naso scored 1,210 points in a career that started in 1953-54 and concluded in 1955-56.
Stevens started as a freshman for Jefferson under coach Al Graper in 1975-76 and the Falcons finished 9-10.
In his sophomore season, Jefferson improved to 12-8.
In Stevens' junior campaign, he led Graper's Falcons to a 15-5 record and the Grand River Conference championship, the school's first boys basketball league title since the 1962-63 Falcons won the Western Reserve League championship.
Graper, despite being named league coach of the year that season, was non-renewed and he was replaced by Rick Nemet.
As a senior in 1978-79, the 6-foot-5 Stevens averaged 20.7 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.5 steals. He shot 49 percent from the floor and 76 percent from the line.
"I practiced a lot," Stevens said. "We had a very good team. I thought maybe we could go to state, but we never quite made it. I gave it all I had.
"I played the power forward, but I could bring the ball up or make a pass. I was a very rugged player, came out of games with some blood on me. I was a banger but I could handle the ball. I could mix it up inside or shoot the long ball, whatever it took."
Stevens' sidekick on that Falcons team was 6-4 Nate Wilson, who averaged 22.1 points and 10.1 rebounds. Together, they formed what is believed to be the only 20-point, 10-rebound tandem (in a single season) in Ashtabula County boys basketball history.
Jefferson had even more height in 6-6 Kevin Justice, to go with point guard Ken Crandall and forward Steve Parsons.
"The senior year was the best," Stevens said. "We were pretty big, but I think we lacked the discipline to go far. We won the sectional, but we never put it all together.
"Really, I never worried about scoring. I just wanted to make it to state. I never knew how much I scored, as long as we won."
In one game that season, a contest against Edgewood, Stevens scored 34 points and snagged 27 rebounds, while recording 10 assists and six steals.
"Everything I did worked," he said. "It was a pretty good game."
Coached by Rick Nemet, those 1978-79 Falcons finished second in the GRC race to a powerful Southington squad, which would go on to reach the Class A regional championship game.
Entering Class AA tournament play, Jefferson defeated Girard in an opening-round game then knocked off Champion in overtime at Warren Western Reserve High School to claim only Jefferson's second championship in school history — the first being in the 1946-47 season. The Falcons have since won only two others, both under the direction on coach Steve Locy, in 2001-02 and 2003-04. Ironically, Locy was a sophomore in the Jefferson program in that 1978-79 season.
The win against Champion thrust Stevens & Co. into the district semifinals against Lakeview. Despite holding a 14-point first-half lead, the Falcons fell apart down the stretch and lost, 74-70.
Jefferson finished 16-5. No Falcon boys team has won more than 14 games in a single season since.
The disappointment in not making it to the state tournament capped a high school athletic career fraught with frustration.
In football, he played offensive end as a junior. But he separated his shoulder his senior year and had to stay out of the middle of the action.
"All I could do was punt," he said.
For the Jefferson baseball team, Stevens played first base, though he considered himself a good pitcher.
"I didn't get to pitch in high school," he said. "I was a righty with speed, but also had a knuckleball and curve. Dennis Czayka, who was three years older than I was, taught me how to throw the knuckleball. It took me 2 1/2 years to perfect it. I had good control of it and could throw in thelow 90s."
Still, he was relegated to first base.
"I only threw in three high school games," he said. "They said I was too wild. I threw in on people. I wasn't afraid to do that. It was just one of those things. They had other pitchers. I played first base and kept my mouth shut."
That summer, John Nelson recruited Stevens to play for the Ashtabula Rubber Company American Legion baseball team and taught him the finer points of pitching. His success with ARC earned him a tryout with the Detroit Tigers.
"I really enjoyed playing for John," Stevens said. "He helped me out a lot."
The bid by the Tigers made Stevens' decision on whether or not to go to college easier.
"I thought at one time I was going to college," he said, citing the possibility of attending Baron College in Pennsylvania in basketball or Rio Grande College or Marietta for baseball, "no great big colleges."
A pro baseball career was not in the cards, however. The Tigers paid for his transportation and rooming, but he threw out his arm and became one of the final cuts.
"That was the only time I had arm trouble," he said."I know I could have made it to the big time."
Stevens returned to Jefferson and has worked for the local Laborer's Union (245) for 27 years.
"There's always work for general contractors," he said. For the past nine years he's worked for the John G. Johnson Company out of Chagrin Falls, building schools, fire stations, and starting in two weeks, the Bible Church on Route 45.
"We work 52 weeks a year," Stevens said. "We shovel snow, put up walls and plywood, lay block. We keep on truckin'."
Stevens and his first wife, Diane, gave birth to three children: Jason, now 33; Chad, 19; and Dayna, 16. Jason works as a trader, traveling all over the country, buying and selling. Chad, 19, is a Jefferson High School graduate. Though 6-6, 225, Chad never played sports. He'll enter the United States Marines soon.
Dayna, 16, is a sophomore at Jefferson, where she runs cross country and track. Chuck remarried (to Rema) a little more than a year ago, and has a stepdaughter, Leah Richardson, who also is a sophomore at Jefferson. Dayna and Leah have become fast friends, Chuck said.
Of his selection to the ACBF Hall of Fame, Stevens said, "It's quite an honor. It brings back a lot of memories."
Larick is a freelance writer from Geneva.