Six years ago, Rhamondre Stevenson was working at Wal-Mart.
Stevenson had developed a reputation as one of the most talented running back prospects in the Las Vegas area, but his poor grades left him academically ineligible to play at the college level. So, instead of pursuing the next step in his football career after high school graduation, Stevenson started working at his neighborhood Wal-Mart as a stocker.
“There were really no options left for me,” Stevenson recalled.
For a year, Stevenson took a break from the sport he loved. He earned a $10 hourly wage, both at Wal-Mart and behind the counter of the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s. His NFL aspirations seemed more and more distant by the day.
Stevenson’s parents, Robert and Juran, questioned what the future held. Maybe football wasn’t in the cards. Stable employment seemed more realistic.
“My husband and I, we talked about it a lot,” said Juran. “If that was us, we probably would have given up. Because he had to do a lot of work. I mean, it was a lot of work.”
But Robert and Juran never let their son see their doubts.
“They believed in me more than I believed in myself,” Stevenson said. “Them always pushing me to be great, telling me I could actually do it, and putting that thought in my head, it made me believe it at one point.”
After his year away, Stevenson decided to follow a group of his friends and enroll in junior college. That decision proved to be the first of several key steps in reviving his football dreams.
Now, six years, two schools, and numerous obstacles later, the 24-year-old Stevenson has established himself as a dynamic, productive running back for the Patriots.
“I have a very special story, I feel like,” he said. “Thinking about it is kind of crazy, because of all the hardships I’ve been through. Some of it was just my fault, but it’s crazy being where I am now compared to where I came from.”
Size made him stand out
When Stevenson was growing up, his house was a popular hangout spot, because Juran had seven children and figured what’s one or two more? Even though space was tight, she’d regularly open her home for gatherings and sleepovers.
Stevenson, along with his friends and six siblings, loved spending time outside, playing basketball, skateboarding, dirt biking, or racing in the backyard.
But his favorite activity by far was football.
Stevenson took up the sport when he was 6 years old. Even then, his big physique was a talking point.
“One of the parents asked me, ‘Do you have him doing weights?’ ” Juran recalled. “I’m like, ‘No.’ That was just how he was. He’s never been overweight, but he’s just always had this muscle tone. In preschool, it looked like he had been doing weights.”
Throughout grade school, Stevenson’s size advantage was noticeable, as were his speed and explosiveness. That combination made him hard to miss on the football field.
“He started off as always being the biggest kid, and kids would catch up,” said Ben Arave, Stevenson’s longtime mentor. “Next thing you know, he’d have a little growth spurt and jump ahead of them and he’d be the biggest kid again for a while. Then they’d catch up and then he’d shoot up again.”
Stevenson initially played football only in the fall, but Juran eventually had to find him a year-round program because he would mope around the house whenever the sport wasn’t in season. Once Stevenson reached middle school and the buzz surrounding him picked up steam, Juran started to think there might be a future for him in football.
“They would never take him off the field,” she recalled. “I used to complain to my husband, ‘He needs to get out.’ I’m like, ‘He’s too tired. He needs a rest. He needs to sit down. He needs to drink some water.’ But he was that good on offense and defense.
“That’s when I started thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, we might really have something here.’ It was just like a natural-born talent for him.”
The eligibility hurdle
Centennial High School should have provided an opportunity for Stevenson to show out and collect offers to play Division 1 college football at a Power Five conference school.
Stevenson posted big numbers as a junior — 171 carries for 1,457 yards and 19 touchdowns — en route to first-team All-State and Las Vegas Sun High School Player of the Year honors. The play design for his coaches was simple: hand off the ball to him or isolate him one-on-one on a linebacker because he will surely win the matchup.
The stage seemed set for a productive collegiate career.
However, there was one problem: Stevenson didn’t meet the NCAA’s academic requirements. So he was automatically ineligible.
In hopes of becoming eligible, Stevenson and a small group of other students facing a similar predicament lived with Arave the summer between their junior and senior years. While there was never a question about whether Stevenson would graduate high school, he needed to boost his GPA if he wanted to secure a college football scholarship.
Stevenson enrolled in nine adult education classes that summer, taking a variety of math, science, and other core curriculum courses. Arave incorporated a few excursions, including a trip to Yellowstone National Park and a day of horseback riding in Idaho, but the group’s schedule was fairly straightforward during that three-month period — study and train, study and train — all with the goal of playing college football.
“We would wake up, eat breakfast, work out for the longest time, then we would go to our classes, do our summer school, go back to the house, study, and work out again,” recalled Stevenson.
Arave also took the group to a football camp at Boise State, where he remembers coaches wanted to offer Stevenson a scholarship on the spot. Soon after, Utah State started poking around, too. None of the interest materialized into anything because, despite the last-ditch effort, Stevenson was unable to raise his GPA. He remained academically ineligible.
“It wasn’t a talent situation,” Arave said. “Everybody could see the potential, the size, the speed, the quickness.”
The disappointment only grew as a senior, when Stevenson broke his foot three games into the season. The injury sidelined him for the remainder of the year. He held out hope that he could still become a late academic qualifier but eventually learned once again that his grades had come up short.
“That’s when the doubts really started coming,” Stevenson said. “When I couldn’t get my GPA up to standard, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ I didn’t really know about JUCOs or things like that, so, at that time, I thought it was over for me.”
Added Arave, “It put Rhamondre in limbo that year. He was kind of a fish out of water.”
After graduating high school, Stevenson began working his part-time jobs. He also logged plenty of hours playing the EA Sports video game “Madden NFL” while wishing he were playing the actual sport instead.
“He was really down in the dumps,” Juran said. “Because he really wanted to play football.”
Schools and coaches had expressed interest in Stevenson since the ninth grade. He and his family always thought a college football scholarship would come. When that didn’t happen, he wasn’t sure what was next.
“This is when my parents believe in me more than I believed in myself,” he said. “I thought it was over. I’m not in college. I wasn’t a qualifier. What am I going to do?”
A second chance
Everything changed when two of Stevenson’s close friends and high school teammates, Tishawn Barnaby and Juan Rodriguez, elected to enroll at Cerritos College, a two-year institution in northern California. The pair encouraged Stevenson to join them, telling him they could share an apartment and play football together, just as they did growing up.
A few other former teammates planned to do the same, so Stevenson opted in.
With that decision came several costs. Not only did Stevenson have to find the money for his portion of the rent and other bills, he also had to cover out-of-state tuition because junior colleges are not permitted to offer athletic scholarships.
To help her son, Juran worked two jobs: one at the Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada and the other at Summerlin Hospital. Monday through Friday, Juran worked a typical 40-hour week at CCCN. Then, starting Friday evenings, she reported to the hospital and worked three night shifts over the weekend. On Sundays, after returning home at 4 a.m. earlier that day, she picked up an additional half-shift.
“My husband and I were not rich,” Juran said. “We have seven children. We’re not wealthy, but we’re not able to get any kind of public assistance or any kind of grants or anything like that. Because our income — my husband makes good money, I make good money — but when you have seven children, it’s barely nothing.”
Stevenson offered to get a job at Target to help, but his mother told him no. She wanted him to focus on school and football.
By the end of Stevenson’s time at Cerritos, his parents had to pull money out of their retirement accounts to pay the final invoices so he could have access to his transcript.
“We just made it work,” Juran said. “And I’d do it all over again for any of my children.”
The finances to attend Cerritos ended up being only half the battle.
Stevenson didn’t play much his first season, stuck at the bottom of the depth chart behind three older backs, and contributed primarily on the kickoff team. Although he logged only 68 carries that year, he made the most of those snaps, registering three touchdowns and an average of 7.4 yards per carry.
Still, even with the limited action, Stevenson didn’t get discouraged.
“As soon as I enrolled in a school, I knew I had the talent to progress and get to the next level,” he said. “When I actually enrolled in Cerritos, I gained more confidence.”
Stevenson continued to stick it out despite the limited playing time.
He stayed in a two-bedroom apartment with as many as six other guys, sleeping on the sofa many nights. His primary mode of transportation was his bicycle, because the car he drove in Las Vegas would not have made it to California, so, each day, he biked 20 minutes to and from practice.
“Now, looking back on it, it was one of the most fun parts of my life,” Stevenson said. “But going through it, it was very tough. You had to be mentally tough, extremely mentally tough, to get through two years of doing that.”
The grind paid off in Stevenson’s second year at Cerritos, when he stepped up into a much more meaningful role. He put up monster stats, rushing for 2,111 yards and 16 touchdowns with an average of 9.4 yards per carry. His film started to garner attention from Division 1 recruiters, including Oklahoma’s Jay Boulware, the Sooners’ running backs coach for seven seasons.
“The film jumped out at us,” Boulware said. “Then I saw him physically and was like, ‘Oh, he’s a big boy.’ I was really, really pleased when I saw him move in person, that he moved better than I thought from watching film.
“That’s when it hit me. This guy is more than just a physical presence. He’s got the feet to be elite, to be able to play on Sundays.”
Southern Cal, Texas, and Utah all showed interest, but Boulware, in need of a big-bodied back, was determined to land Stevenson.
“I tried to put a big ol’ circle around him,” Boulware said. “I did not let it try to go further than the University of Oklahoma.”
Dean’s List and the draft
After committing to Oklahoma, Stevenson joined the program late because he had to take an additional class to finish his associate’s degree.
“In this day and age, when most junior college students leave mid-semester in December, he missed the entire spring,” Boulware said. “He didn’t come until the summer. When he got there, he was already behind.”
Once in the mix, Stevenson contributed primarily on kickoff coverage his first season. Then, his second season got off to a delayed start because he was one of three Sooners to receive a six-game suspension for a positive marijuana test.
When he returned to the field, the production reached impressive levels. In six games, Stevenson rushed for 665 yards and seven touchdowns. His explosiveness, strength, and nimbleness were undeniable.
“When he hits the hole and he gets underneath people and he pushes the pile, you see it,” Boulware said. “It’s just different. It was daily.”
Not only was Stevenson’s camp pleased with his performance on the field, they also were proud to learn he had made the Dean’s List for the 2020 spring semester, meaning he earned a GPA of at least 3.50.
After two years, even though he could have returned for another season, Stevenson decided to declare for the 2021 NFL Draft. He had to wait to hear his name called until Day 3, when the Patriots ended up selecting him in the fourth round.
Stevenson’s parents, six siblings, and extended family all were in Las Vegas to celebrate the accomplishment, a culmination of his long, winding journey to the pros.
“He’s been through so many obstacles and he never gave up,” Juran said. “I’m just smiling ear-to-ear now just remembering that day. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
With Stevenson now in his second NFL season, the experience is surreal for all involved.
“To this day, I’ll still go to practice and be like, ‘Wow, I’m in the NFL,’ ” Stevenson said. “To this day, I promise you.”
Nicole Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow her on Twitter @nicolecyang.