ORONO — Andrea Anderson was scanning a summer activities catalog to find something to keep her fifth-grade son busy.
“She said ‘What about football?,’” recalled her son, University of Maine sophomore linebacker Deshawn Stevens.
“I said ‘Sure, why not,’” Stevens said. “But after the first or second day, I told my mom I wasn’t really feeling football.”
“She said ‘OK, but if you don’t go to football, there’s no more TV in your life.’ I said ‘Never mind, I’m going to practice,’” Stevens said with a chuckle.
And the UMaine football program certainly owes Anderson a debt of gratitude.
Her son currently leads the Black Bears in tackles with 17 through their first two games, wins over New Hampshire (35-7) and Football Bowl Subdivision team Western Kentucky (31-28). He has also recovered two fumbles and returned one 50 yards for a tying touchdown against Western Kentucky last Saturday.
He has two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss.
“I would hate to be a running back or a quarterback going against him. Or anybody on the opposite side of the field,” UMaine senior safety Jeff DeVaughan said. “He is an animal. He’s a leader on defense. I’m happy he’s on my team. He makes every last play. He loves the game of football. He’s an outstanding player.”
The 6-foot-1, 250-pound Stevens was the team’s fifth-leading tackler a year ago with 50 in 10 games including 4.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks.
His on-field intensity comes naturally to him.
“Football gives me an opportunity to express myself, to get out the frustrations I have. It also gives me something to enjoy. I have fun with it,” Stevens said.
Stevens is from Toronto but played at the Kent School in Connecticut. That is where former UMaine All-Colonial Athletic Association first-team linebacker Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga played his high school football.
Mulumba-Tshimanga, who is from Montreal and is now playing for the Edmonton Eskimos in the Canadian Football League, had a big influence on Stevens in the one year they were together at UMaine.
“He was like a big brother to me,” Stevens said. “I followed his lead. He showed me how to approach a game, how to prepare yourself, watching film after hours and spending time with the coaches.
“That has been my approach. I’ve spent as much time as I can learning. I keep my head down, work hard, prepare and try to be as good a teammate as I can.”
He considers himself a student of the game and feels he has improved every season.
He received a lot of valuable playing time a year ago filling in for the injured Taji Lowe and moved into a starting role for the UNH opener last month.
Starting linebacker Jaron Grayer was slowed by a hamstring injury, but head coach Joe Harasymiak said Stevens’ impressive play during camp earned him the start.
“He was playing so well we just couldn’t not start him against New Hampshire,” Harasymiak said. “And he has taken it and run with it. He has played great. He is so intense. You can see it in his eyes how much it means to him. What he and [Sheffield] have done on third down is pretty special.”
UMaine has limited its two opponents to an 8-for-31 showing on third-down conversions thanks to the two linebackers. Sheffield forced the fumble that Stevens scooped up and returned for the touchdown.
“He does a lot of stuff for us,” UMaine defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman said. “He can play defensive end and bring a rush off the end or be a middle linebacker. He’s a big, physical football player.”
Stevens met Harasymiak for the first time at a football camp at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
He was impressed on his recruiting visit to Orono where Mulumba-Tshimanga was his host.
“When I saw the environment first-hand, I knew I could fit in here, I could be part of this,” Stevens said. “I love it here.”
He said he will always be grateful to his mother for her ultimatum his fifth-grade summer because of all the benefits and opportunities he has received through football.
“The benefits have been far more than she ever expected for me,” he said.
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