July 5, 2013 9:26:07 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
Park Stevens wasn't someone who flaunted his good fortune.
The former Oak Hill Academy and New Hope High school football player also wasn't someone who let others go without a friend or love. It just wasn't in his nature.
Instead, Stevens wanted to share his loving family and his generosity with everyone.
"When he came to our school he was immediately a uniter," former New Hope High football coach Michael Bradley said of Stevens. "If I wanted to get a message out to the football team, I would call Park Stevens' house because I knew there would be 15-20 kids there, and I wasn't wrong many times. The Stevens family was loving all of them, and Park shared in that. He brought unity to our team. I will never forget the things he taught me about how to love people. He taught us all that."
Stevens, 20, the son of Dean and Gail Stevens, of Columbus, died Wednesday afternoon after his pickup collided into the rear of an 18-wheeler at Egypt Road and U.S. Highway 45A in Chickasaw County. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Stevens played football as a sophomore and as a junior at Oak Hill Academy in West Point, where he started at defensive tackle. He transferred to New Hope High School in Columbus for the final parts of his last two years in high school. He was a guard and a tackle on the 2010 New Hope football team that went 8-5 and lost in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs. Stevens participated in the Max Emfinger All-American Bowl and the Mississippi-Louisiana All-Star game after his senior year.
Bradley said other people were drawn to Stevens in part because he was always having fun. He said Stevens' ability to share a loving, caring, and compassionate family with friends and people he just met endeared him to many. He said Stevens understood the situation he was born into and that it was important to treat people the right way.
"A lot of people take (the situation they're born into) for granted and are selfish and prideful about it," Bradley said. "He wasn't any of those. He wanted to share his good fortune and the love he received. He and his dad were best friends, and he wanted to share that with other people.
"Kids were drawn to him. ... It seemed like every day when I would be ready to go out to practice and I would walk through the locker room it was almost like he was holding court because there would be a bunch of people around his locker. Like I said, he was the kind of guy people wanted to be around. He was never the kind of person who would have fun at others' expense. He didn't believe in mistreating people or humiliating people. He saw the big picture, and that is life is something meant to be enjoyable and fun. He was a great ambassador for his family, for our school, for our community, and for our team. He also was an ambassador for Christianity. When you were down, he was there to lift you up."
Bob Reeves also coached Stevens at New Hope High and saw all of those qualities in a young man whose heart was just as big as his body.
"I have seen a lot of messages on Facebook and Twitter, and one thing you hear multiple people say is Park was one who never really met a stranger. That was very true," Reeves said. "He was a kid who seemed to treat everybody the same. He was one who would strike up a conversation with anybody who was around and it would be like they were friends for a long time."
Reeves played football at New Hope with Park Stevens' brother, Terry Dale Cruse. He said he was upset when the Stevens family moved away prior to Stevens' freshman year in high school because he knew Park was a quality young man. He was pleasantly surprised to see Stevens return in time to play one season with the New Hope High football team.
"He was a kid who really wanted to do good," Reeves said. "A lot of times guys his size have been told for so long growing up they're bigger than everybody and can't play as rough. With kids that size, you have to fight a lot of programming. He was just a kid who wanted to do his job and was very coachable. He was going to do his job to the best of his ability from snap to whistle. That is all a coach can ask from a kid.
"It is a tragic situation. If you see the outpouring of support on the different social media sites you can tell this was a guy who was loved by just about everybody he came in contact with."
Stevens moved on to East Central Community College in Decatur, where he played two seasons for football coach Brian Anderson. He redshirted in 2011 and was the team's starting right guard in 2012.
"When you lose somebody you are close to, that you spend so much time with, it leaves a void," Anderson told the Meridian Star. "It's in your mind, and you can't really wrap your brain around what has happened.
"He wasn't just a player. Park added a lot as a person to our program. He was a good player. He was 6-7, 340 pounds, but he was as kind as he was large."
Anderson also told the Meridian Star that Stevens made an impact in the dormitory as much as anywhere. He said Stevens' "glass was always half full, and it didn't matter where he was or what he was doing -- he was going to have fun."
Said Anderson, "That's just the type of man he was. There was always an open door, always an open arm. He was a friend to everybody."
Stevens transferred to Ole Miss in January and joined coach Hugh Freeze's Rebels for spring drills. He planned to redshirt his first year in Oxford. It was his dream to play football in the Southeastern Conference.
"Our team is hurting with the loss of Park," Freeze. "He was a tremendous young man that was loved by his teammates and coaches, and Rebel Nation will never forget him. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Stevens' family, his friends, our team and all those he touched during his life."
Funeral services will be at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Mt Vernon Church at 200 Mt Vernon Road in Columbus. Park's Rebel teammates and coaches will serve as honorary pallbearers.
Visitation will be from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Mt Vernon Church.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.