Sports Editor’s Note: On this Father’s Day, after all that Roswell and Chaves County has been through in the first half of the year, we at RDR Sports continue to try and bring our readers positive and uplifting stories about the men, women, athletes, coaches and parents in our community.
We found this one by accident. Our special sports story is about an athletic director that showed how the value of sports, high standards and tough coaches caring about him can change a life.
Former Goddard all-state athlete and current Gateway Christian athletic director Justin Stephens shares the impact of family and community. He described himself as a wild kid. The significance of coaches and faith enabled him to switch careers and to never give up on kids. From RDR Sports: Happy Father’s Day.
RDR Sports covered a Gateway Christian basketball game against Elida in 2018. It was a nip and tuck game for the better part of three quarters. Elida had just taken the lead after the Warriors had just turned the ball over for the third time in a row.
Gateway Christian took a time out, and right before the players walked back onto the court, a bald man with a goatee and glasses walked to the baseline and yelled in a loud and booming voice, “It’s time to get going.”
Justin’s face was red. He was unashamed and unapologetic for being so passionate about his team and his son. For Justin, it didn’t matter that he was the athletic director of Gateway Christian, or, that his son, Jaydon, was playing on the team — he was only doing what he learned from his dad, Michael, growing up, that one of the most important parts of parenting is to be there.
Later during the season, Justin’s intensity turned to compassion as he hugged and held every player in the corridor of Bernalillo High School after they lost to Quemado, 59-45, to end their playoff season and his son’s career.
As a kid growing up, Justin loved sports. He wanted to play football and wrestle for Goddard. After that, he dreamed of doing two things with his life: one was being a police officer, and the second, a coach.
“My goal in life was to be a police officer for 20 years,” Justin said, “and then become a coach and teacher. Those were my two dreams in life.”
As an athlete, Justin can remember getting up early in the mornings and going to Goddard to work out and pull the railroad ties. He remembers lifting weights and running to get in shape.
When Goddard coach Sam Jernigan named him starting defensive end in his junior and senior years, Justin felt satisfaction in being able to follow his brother, Jason Stephens as a Rocket.
Justin felt the butterflies in his stomach before games. He knew the uniqueness of being a Rocket on the Wool Bowl field. Justin felt the electricity in his body as he ran through the banners toward the sidelines before the start of the game.
“Growing up and seeing my brother, Jason, wearing the blue,” Justin said, “that was my dream, as well, to play for Goddard. When Jernigan told me I would be the starting defensive end, it made me so happy. I felt it was worth all the hard work I had put in. I loved being a Rocket.”
Justin can never forget how the Rockets were picked to finish last in the district in his junior year. Goddard ended up knocking off the No. 1 team in the state, Eldorado, and beating Clovis at Clovis to win the state title. He never forgot how great he felt to beat Clovis and win the Blue Trophy in 1993, his junior season.
As joyous as those wins were, Justin understands the agony of defeat. He would lose to Clovis in his senior year at the Wool Bowl. He ended up making all-state as a 5-foot-9, 155-pound defensive end his senior year.
Justin played well enough to be selected to the North-South All-Star game as a senior. In that game, he caught the attention of Eastern New Mexico football coach Harold “Bud” Elliott.
Elliott offered Justin the opportunity to come to Eastern as a walk-on. Justin realized another dream as he had the chance to play with his brother at ENMU his freshman season.
As a wrestler, Justin wrestled at 142-pounds for Jamie Martinez. He started wrestling as an eighth-grader and by the time his junior year came around, he would be 20-2, and in his senior year, he went undefeated to his last match. Justin would finish his senior year, 32-1, and runner-up at state. He won every tournament and was good enough to wrestle at nationals in Pittsburg.
“I loved Jamie Martinez,” Justin said, “and how much he cared for his wrestlers. He was a big supporter of mine and made wrestling a lot of fun. I have a lot of great memories of wrestling.”
“When I first saw him,” Martinez said, “I thought he was a wild kid and a knothead. I didn’t know how this kid was going to make it. Justin would do things that made you shake your head.
“I am proud of him because he turned his life around and has become an incredibly good man. He did well for me in his junior and senior years. He was an extremely hard worker and had a chance to win it all both years.”
Dreams come true
1 John 4:18 — There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made in perfect love.
Justin knows as a believer that faith and fear cannot co-exist. Yet, after graduating from college, he fulfilled his dreams. He married his soul mate, Stephanie, and went to work for New Mexico State Police, starting in Santa Rosa and eventually working as an accident reconstructionist.
While doing the job he loved, Justin felt the job changing and hardening him at times. He saw parts of the job he did not expect to see. At times, Justin saw the best in people, and other times he saw the worst in humanity.
“The biggest thing for me in law enforcement,” Justin said, “was it put a lot of fear in me about my kids being hurt or injured. I saw a lot of bad things. Almost too much because I lived in fear about them traveling. I’ve had to come to grips about letting my kids do certain things. Over the years, I’ve kind of relaxed with that.”
While still a police officer, Justin started volunteering at Gateway in 1999 as a coach. There was a pull to Gateway and he couldn’t figure out what it was. On the job, Justin was fine, but when he was home and he had time to reflect, he would become fearful and overprotective of his family. He understood what he saw happening to other families that it could very well be his own. Justin was determined not to let that happen.
“I loved law enforcement,” Justin said. “I did it for seven, eight years. I was a really passionate person and went all out for it. The job was fulfilling and rewarding, but it changed me as a person. There was pressure in doing the job correctly and it put a strain on our family.”
Through prayer and guidance, Justin made the decision to quit being an officer. He would feel guilty like he let the other officers down that he worked with. He made some of the best friends he would ever have as a police officer, yet he felt the call of God on his life. He wanted to impact his children and be there for them, as well as other children.
“I loved the state police,” Justin said. “I still have a lot of friends in it. It was time to make a change for my family.”
Justin felt like his father, Michael, was a good dad and man. His dad wasn’t drafted to go to Vietnam but volunteered. The thing he took away from his father was that he was always there.
“My dad was a servant,” Justin said. “He taught me to never give up, and not make excuses in life. He instilled in me to work and serve. He also taught me to take responsibility for my actions. My dad held me to a higher standard. My dad wasn’t a vocal person, but the best thing he ever did for me was always be there.”
He would be in the stands and attend his football games, wrestling matches and track meets. On the way home is when the real teaching began. Not so much about Xs and Os, but about life. His father would tell him what he did right during the game and what he did wrong. When Justin played college football, his dad would travel to see him play at ENMU.
Once Justin was rooted in at Gateway, his heart was to try and teach kids and help them learn from all of the mistakes he has made. He learned from his father-in-law, Rick Rapp.
“I think that by me making the transition,” Justin said, “and getting my focus back on God, and being in this environment, it saved my marriage and my family. You will see a lot of bad things as an officer.”
Being a dad
When Jaydon was born and he held him for the first time, Justin felt excitement for his future. He felt blessed to have the opportunity to be his dad. One of the favorite memories with Jaydon was winning the state title in baseball. To share that with him and his grandfather meant a lot to the family.
With Kaylee, they do a lot of daddy-daughter dates. One of Justin’s favorite was when they went to Albuquerque to attend the state track meet. They spent a lot of time together. Last year, they went to dinner and just hung out. He helped her after she tore her ACL, and Justin helped her work through the injury to come back to play.
Ashlynn (MJ) loves to play volleyball and loves traveling. She is the baby of the family. “She’s my baby. I love spending time with her,” Justin said. She is more like Justin than any of his other kids.
“We’re a very close family,” Justin said. “We do a lot of movie nights. We like to spend time together and do things as a family.”
As a father, Justin has tried to impart to his kids that everyone has struggles and everyone gets knocked down in life. He believes it’s not a sin to get knocked down, it’s only a sin to not get back up. Justin thinks it’s important to be around people that will help you get back up, and get back in the fight.
“My biggest thing as a dad and man is not to make excuses for anything,” Justin said. “I welcome adversity for my kids because it makes them stronger. That is huge for me. I don’t care who you are, things are going to come against you. There is a right way and a wrong way to handle things. I try to teach my kids to be above reproach and get back in the fight and do the right thing. Things are going to happen in your life, and you have to fight through them the right way, with the right heart and spirit. Those are the things I hope to have instilled in my kids when I’m gone.”
Sports editor J.T. Keith can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 304, or firstname.lastname@example.org.