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Vigor coach Kerry Stevenson knows first-hand players' need for understanding

MOBILE, Alabama -- When Kerry Stevenson played football at Huffman High School, he was habitually late to practice.

It wasn't because he didn't care, and he wasn't testing the coach's authority. Stevenson's mother suffered a nervous breakdown when he was in elementary school and dealt with severe anxiety issues for years afterward. He had to drive her regularly to doctor's appointments, which often made him late to practice.

"I would have to run for being late every day," Stevenson said. "I thought, 'Why am I being punished?'"

Little did he know he was being prepared for the situations he'd face practically every day more than 20 years later, long after he'd traded in his cleats for a whistle. Now entering his ninth year as the head football coach at Vigor, many of the students he sees on his practice field and in his mathematics classroom face their own sets of challenges.

"I'm going to work around their schedule. There's no bad time to go to work," Stevenson said. "These kids have a whole lot more to deal with than I ever had to think about growing up. What I want them to do is communicate -- let me know what's going on. I can work with you if you just let me know.

"As long as we've got an open line of communication, I ain't punishing you for being late."

It hasn't stopped Stevenson from fielding successful teams. His Wolves have posted a 79-39 record, including a 15-0 record and 5A state championship in 2008.

Stevenson will be honored with the Lefty Anderson Service Through Coaching Award on May 26 at the 17th annual DEX Imaging Football Preview.

The event, which begins at 6 p.m. at the Mitchell Center, will feature speakers including Alabama head coach Nick Saban, Auburn assistant coach Trooper Taylor, South Alabama head coach Joey Jones, Alabama radio commentator Phil Savage, Press-Register sports editor Randy Kennedy and radio talk-show host Paul Finebaum.

Stevenson never would have been in this position if it hadn't been for another coach -- former Huffman basketball coach Wayne Bracy, who started picking him up for basketball practice when he was an eighth-grader.

"It was just something to keep me from running the streets," said Stevenson, a married father of two who now often does the same for his players. "That was something positive in my life that kept me from getting too wild."

He played basketball and football through high school, helping Huffman's football team to a 6A state championship appearance against Northview in 1985. After suffering a knee injury, however, he decided not to continue playing competitive sports in college, going to Alabama A&M on an academic scholarship with plans to become an engineer.

Instead, he left A&M with a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's in math education and took a teaching job at Mariner High School in Cape Coral, Fla. He didn't think about coaching, however, until he was asked by the principal.

"I played. I guess I can," Stevenson remembered answering. "That's how I got into it."

Since then, he's coached at his alma mater, Huffman, as an assistant; at Alma Bryant as a head basketball coach; and at Vigor, where he's served as both an assistant and head coach. Since taking over the program when James Perine retired after the 2002 season, he's not only led Vigor to its first state title since 1988, but he's helped many Wolves go on to the next level and get a college education.

"That's probably what makes it so special for me: I'm able to give back. It took a whole village to raise me," he said. "I've been here nine years and had 125 kids go to college on scholarships and another 100 just go to college. They've been assets to their community rather than just hanging around.

"Now, it's the norm for athletes in this school to want to go to college."

Among them was Ellis Lankster, who overcame what was at one time a 1.5 grade-point average to get into junior college, then to West Virginia. Now in the NFL with the New York Jets, Lankster has said Stevenson's example has made him want to get into coaching when his playing days are over.

"He never quit on me," Lankster said in a 2008 interview. "After coach Stevenson got me a chance to go play junior-college ball, I just wanted to start helping people."

Another former Vigor standout, Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, said Stevenson is a tough teacher and an understanding coach. Players knew and respected that he was willing to work with them if they had issues, Marks said.

"That all goes back to Stevenson being able to interact with the kids," Marks said. "He understands."

Stevenson said winning the Lefty Anderson award means that much more to him because its first recipient was another coach who understood -- former Blount coach Ben Harris.

"I look at it as a ministry, and it's one that I don't take lightly," Stevenson said of his coaching career. "I tell all my coaches: I was hired to take care of kids. ... I have to teach them what it takes to be successful in life -- hard work, dedication, drive."

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