Rarely, if ever, has success been set on a tee for Jerry Stepps III to smash out of the ballpark. Rather, it’s been quite the opposite in some cases. It’s not that people who grow up in the school district surrounding Hazelwood East High School can’t succeed, it’s that sometimes they must overcome the kinds of temptations that drag people into a life mired by drugs and even criminal activity.
Says Stepps III, “My high school had a lot of violence, a lot of gang activity. Definitely with me having dreads, I was assumed to be a thug, a gangster, a weed smoker and a drug dealer. That’s the climate that I went through. It was really easy to get in with the wrong crowd.”
Let’s get one thing straight. Jerry has a mother, Catherine Jackson, who has always been there for him and remains one of his greatest sources of inspiration to this day. She cared and loved him to the point that she wanted to shield him from the tragedy that struck in the early morning hours of July 3, 2006. Just 10 years of age at the time, Jerry had to face the reality that his father, Jerry Stepps Jr., had been murdered.
At this point, Jerry’s father and mother had already split up and remarried. When news of the death of Jerry’s father made its way to the family, the grim circumstances were almost too much. Jerry felt like he had to know how, why. It wasn’t until years later that his grandmother let him in on the type of high-risk lifestyle his father led. It brought more sense to the few grisly details Jerry read in a newspaper article in 2006.
From the July 4, 2006, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Shooting, stabbing leaves man, 28, dead
Jerry Stepps, 28, was shot several times, stabbed and killed about 2 a.m. Monday (July 3, 2006) behind the wheel of his car in the 4300 block of College Avenue, St. Louis police said.
A resident of the area heard six gunshots and saw four young men running away from the car, south on College, police said. Homicide detectives were uncertain of a motive. Stepps lived in the 2400 block of North Euclid Avenue.
No one has ever been brought to justice for the murder of Jerry Stepps Jr. Perhaps motivated to find a better way, young Jerry has resisted following down a path that could lead to such a brutal ending. Just last week, the graduate of Hazelwood East (northern St. Louis) finished off what some may have called an improbable unbeaten run through GPAC dual competition. After three years of being buried behind more highly regarded teammates at 125 pounds, Stepps III has seized the opportunity he’s been given with the Concordia wrestling program.
When everyone else around him zigged, Stepps III zagged. Now he’s on track to become one of few in his family to earn a college degree. Said Stepps III, “It will mean a lot. There are only four people in my family that I can think of that graduated. There have been times when I’ve wanted to give up, but I knew I couldn’t. I would regret it every day of my life.”
Stepps III is the type of young man who makes a mother proud. He doesn’t make excuses about the challenges he’s faced. He’s been dealt plenty. Even at a time when he should have been able to bask in his perfect 8-0 GPAC dual run, Stepps III had a heavy heart. He didn’t wrestle his best on Feb. 8 at Morningside, but he found a way to win.
Just minutes before his match began, Stepps III received two calls – one from his uncle and one from his mother. Both brought news of the passing of his great grandmother, Della Jackson, who had often cooked his favorite meal, black-eyed peas and cornbread. Jerry decided to keep this to himself as he attempted to focus on wrestling.
Said Stepps III, “I didn’t want to tell the team because I didn’t want the team to get discouraged or worried about me. I knew I had a job out there to do. No matter what, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. I have to take care of my second family. I did it for my great grandma. I remember telling myself in the middle of the match, ‘I’m not going to lose.’ I knew that history was on the line for me.”
You see, Jerry’s never been about taking the path of least resistance. The way he puts it, “If everybody goes left, I’m going right.” There may have been a tendency for some to decline to wrestle that night, but not Jerry. As his former high school coach and teacher Richard Bly put it, Jerry has learned how to deal with a “little bit more than your normal family drama.”
Bly knows Jerry almost as well as a family member. Bly describes Jerry as easy going and calm, but as someone who “just never stops.” After Jerry and his family moved during his senior year, Bly often gave Jerry rides home after practice. Bly and other coaches at Hazelwood East like Bill Henricks, Curtis Bledsoe and Matt Rudd, who introduced Jerry to wrestling, were the type of mentors Jerry needed considering his family’s lack of interest in sports.
Bly says that he and other coaches advised Jerry to relocate for college to a place where he could leave some of the distractions of his hometown behind. Enter Concordia and a journey completely opposite of the route taken by twin brother Jamez, who continues to live in St. Louis. (Jerry first remembers being contacted by Concordia via a graduate assistant coach). Throughout the process, Bly has connected with Jerry. During times of struggle, Bly has lent his support.
“He’s called me before thinking he just wants to be done,” Bly said. “You just kind of talk him off that edge. Whether it was classes stressing him out at the time or wrestling, you just talk him back in. We’re extremely proud that he’s going to be finishing up with wrestling and then getting a degree.”
Somehow Jerry has found a formula that works. He’s a master juggler, sometimes working the night shift at Walmart and then still making it to class and practice. Fridays are when Jerry actually has a chance to catch up on sleep.
Said head wrestling coach Andrew Nicola, “I’m not sure how he manages it. It is not uncommon for me to get to morning practice and for him to be sleeping in his car. Sometimes you have to knock on his window and wake him up. I truly don’t know how he does it, how he balances work and school. School is going the best it ever has for him. Something clicked in that young man’s head. He was ready for his opportunity.”
The night of Feb. 1 was a special one for Jerry, who won by major decision over his opponent from Northwestern as his mom and step dad watched nearby. It was the first time that Catherine saw her son wrestle in person as a collegiate competitor. It didn’t matter whether they knew what a takedown was, Jerry could feel the love. Says Jerry, “That was one of the highlights of my career, just seeing my mom and my step dad there to support me. That was just really important to see that they came.”
The emotions are likely to be even more raw when Jerry walks across the stage and receives his degree from Concordia. Jerry is not one to show his feelings outwardly, but that may change in December when his family will be in town to see him graduate.
Tears will seem appropriate for the young man who beat the odds, prevailing despite enduring that tragic July day in 2006, despite biding his time as a backup for three years and despite the temptations that could have sidetracked him and prevented him from ever going to college in the first place. Jerry has come so far and broken down so many barriers that it seems like anything is possible. He talks of wanting to become a cook and owning his own restaurant, being a personal trainer, working on cars and going to the service.
Jerry’s never had a problem with dreaming big. By next December, Jerry hopes another dream will come true. This won’t be your ordinary walk across the stage.
Says Jerry, “I’m going to cry when I do. I’m going to cry and then go out to eat and eat a lot – and cry again. Everybody’s going to make it. It’s going to be one big feast. I’m going to eat all the cake that I can because I love cake. Cake is my weakness.”