(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
As Stephon McCray steps on the field for senior day on Thursday – his final home game at Sun Devil Stadium – one underlying theme has been carried with him throughout his career at Arizona State: perseverance.
His journey shows that there is perhaps no Sun Devil football player who has exemplified more persistence on the field than he has.
A lot of seniors find themselves in solidified starting positions heading into their final year of college. For McCray, that was not the case. His breakthrough onto the scene has come this season, in his encore in Tempe. Whether it’s playing right guard or right tackle, McCray has been a trooper, and in turn has started all nine games for ASU in 2016.
Without a doubt it is a big jump going from one of the most important reserve offensive lineman to a full-time starter, but it is something that he has handled seamlessly because of his work ethic.
“It didn’t seem like there was any other choice for me,” McCray said on persevering. “I’ve been playing football pretty much all my life. I love the sport and I think what’s special when you’re in it is that it’s a lot more than just you. Things might not always go your way, but you’re there for your teammates and you’re there for the program. It’s not always the best thing, but it works out.”
Outside of one start his sophomore year, McCray has taken a backseat to the action in his first four seasons. Chris Thomsen, the Sun Devils’ offensive line coach, quickly took note of how McCray acted last season, providing a big boost when the offensive line was faced with injuries.
Thomsen had expectations for McCray when he started coaching him and is impressed with how he has lived up to them.
“He worked and progressed and became a better player each year,” Thomsen said. “When he got an opportunity to become a full-time starter this year he did a lot of really good things. I’m proud of the way he has come along.”
Now, McCray finds himself on the other side of the injury spectrum, his status for Thursday’s game against Utah an unknown after suffering a right foot on the first play of scrimmage against Oregon.
That hasn’t put a damper on the five years he has had in Tempe, something McCray wouldn’t change for the world.
“It’s been a great experience,” he said. “I have definitely changed over the years and experienced some different things, moving around positions, playing time, things like that. I wouldn’t change it. This is an experience that will make you who you are.”
McCray wanted to make sure he thanked his teammates as well, expressing his love for each and every one of them.
The bond that he has formed with Thomsen has been an instrumental part of his continuous success.
McCray mentioned that of all the coaches, it has been his position coach that has taken him under his wing and made him into the best person and player he can be.
“Coach Thomsen has definitely helped me out in steering through this whole process,” he said. “Whether it be school or moving around a lot within positions, he has always encouraged me.”
Thomsen added on to that, saying that encouragement throughout all aspects of his career. However, most of all, he pointed out how McCray has excelled off the field too.
His academic prowess is part of what has molded him into the all-around athlete and person he is. McCray isn’t just a success story on the field, but in the classroom as well.
“He’s already got his degree,” Thomsen said. “He’s got nine hours towards his masters with a 4.0 (GPA) working on his fourth class this semester.”
The backseat that he took to other offensive linemen in his freshman through junior years allowed him to be mentored by some prestigious players in addition to the lessons learned from Thomsen.
McCray name-checked Jamil Douglas, who graduated two seasons ago, as well as members of last season’s offensive line, Vi Teofilo and Christian Westerman, among those who he still maintains good relationships with to this day.
Their success and the example that they have set have been a big reason why McCray has experienced the abundance of success.
He has paid it forward as a senior, providing tutelage to fellow offensive linemen such as underclassmen Sam Jones and Quinn Bailey.
“We have always been real tight,” he said of his relationship with them. “I try and not look at it as me taking them under my wing, just me helping out someone.”
McCray doesn’t want to be grouped into the all-too-common “senior leader” stereotype. Instead, he just wants to lead by acting like himself.
“Everyone is a leader in their own right,” he said. “You can inspire people to work harder and do things right by you doing your things right initially, and I think attempting to do that is part of the process and that allows you to, when you do get into a position. You may be a one-year starter like I am, to come out and give your best because that is what you have been attempting to do your whole time here.”
Nevertheless, his resilience during his tenure as a Sun Devil has reflected positively on many people across the program, including first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who has quickly noticed McCray’s impact.
“I wasn’t here last year,” he said. “But just getting to know him during bowl prep and during this year, I think he is solid. He is a guy you can count on to go in, he knows the assignments, he knows the calls, he’s not going to bust a lot of assignments.”
After all he has been through, stepping on the field on Thursday night, whether he is suited up to play or not, is going to be an emotional moment for a player who is the embodiment of a Sun Devil.
“Moreso than anything this year, I am just enjoying it,” McCray said. “Taking care of what it is and not necessarily stressing out over what is going to happen after this or what happened before it. I’m really bringing in my close teammates and my brothers and I’m really taking it all in because I know I am not going to be around that much longer.”