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Where Are They Now

Where Are They Now: Bruce Stephens

Catch Up with the Jets Legend from Columbia

Wide receiver/kick returner Bruce Stephens, 1978.StephensBsidelineI

Bruce Stephens walked on to the Columbia University campus in 1974 intending to earn a degree in chemistry to become a pharmacist. And play a little football.

He walked off four years later with a degree in economics after they closed the pharmacy school his sophomore year. And having been named as the team's MVP his senior season.

The Jets noticed his gridiron accomplishments and made the short drive to check him out.

"It'd always been my dream to play pro football," Stephens said. "And before the draft, I got a letter from the 49ers and the Raiders and couple other teams, but the Jets sent someone to clock me in the 40. I think I ran a 4.3 at the time, and they said, 'Yeah, we'll be on the lookout for you.'

"And the day of the draft, going into the final round, I got a call from the Jets and they told me to sit tight. They think they want to take me in the last round. But the last round came about they picked up (Florida punter Alan Williams). Then they sent a car and took me out to their headquarters on Long Island, and signed me as a free agent right there."

After the team gathered for the 1978 training camp at Hofstra, Stephens' speed may have been why he was moved from running back, which he played in college, to wide receiver. And may have also been when head coach Walt Michaels told the punt- and kick-returners to stay after practice, he made a point of telling Stephens to be there.

"He asked me if I had returned punts in college. I said, 'No, I didn't, but I can sure try,'" Stephens said. "And when I turned around and looked back at all the punt-returners and kick-returners who had stayed after, it was only Ken Schroy and Bruce Harper. I think they needed someone else. So on kickoffs, Bruce Harper and I were the returners, and I backed up Wesley Walker at wideout."

Used to playing in front of 1,500 to 2,000 at Baker Field at 128th and Broadway while at Columbia, Stephens' first game as a Jet was in the season-opening 33-20 win over Miami before 49,598 fans at Shea Stadium.

"The thing that hit me the most was the stadium, 50,000 people, and especially during the preseason when I had to return punts. You had 40,000-something people looking at you. You had the other team looking at you and hoping you'd drop the ball. It put a lot of pressure on me. I wasn't exposed to that kind of pressure before. But once you get in the game, you don't think about it. You just play," Stephens said.

Stephens played against Seattle in Week 3 and had a 68-yard kick return which was wiped out by a holding penalty. And if that wasn't bad enough, unfortunately, the play was also the beginning of the end of his career.

"I remember that I broke a tackle and went down the sideline, and that's when I felt something," Stephens said. "I got hit on the knee and that was the onset. I couldn't get my leg up. I couldn't accelerate. I tried to shake it off, but I couldn't get to that fifth gear.

"I went to the doctors and they x-rayed it, and it was the anterior cruciate (ligament) inside my knee. I didn't tear it, but I stretched it, and surgery wouldn't really do it any good. So I went and tried to build up my quadricep muscles to compensate for it. But the speed never came back. And with my size, you need the speed if you're not that big."

Because of the injury, the 5-9, 170-pound Stephens was only able to play in six games before being put on the injured reserve list. And, unfortunately, his knee wouldn't allow him to be able to take the field again. Granted, Stephens didn't play in the league as long as he would have hoped, but to even make it to that level as an undrafted free agent was a remarkable accomplishment.

"Columbia was different. We didn't put an emphasis on football. Some days I didn't even go to practice because I had classes," Stephens said. "But I appreciate, looking back in hindsight, the fact that I did get my degree. I would have loved to gotten back in there and try to play a few more years. But I did what I wanted to do and what I thought I could do. So let me just move on and put my degree to use and get on with my life."

With he and his wife, Michele, owning Cherished Memories Plus in Williamstown, NJ, Stephens' life for the past 18 years has focused on photography.

"I coached youth football in Marlton for about 15, 16 years, and one of my players had a bar mitzvah. My wife was doing scrapbooks back then, and I would take my little point-and-shoot, and like everybody else, I enjoyed the camera. So I took some pictures and she put together a scrapbook, and we gave it to the mother as a gift," Stephens said.

"She said, 'I paid a photographer $3,000, and what you guys did is way better than what he did. Even in terms of the quality.' And so we did that for another event, and my father-in-law said, 'You guys should open up a business.' So I started taking some classes, went to some training, seminars, and found I had another passion."

Stephens discovered that the biggest part of that passion is photographing weddings.

"We've got a system in place where we make sure we've crossed the t's and dotted the i's," he said. "We have consultations with the bride and groom prior to the wedding, so that we know exactly what they're expecting and they know what we're expecting from them. There are no surprises. And we do one thing that a lot of people don't do, we make sure we go to the rehearsal because I don't like to walk into a place that I'm not familiar with and don't know what's coming up next.

"All that's from my old football days. You've got to be prepared. Expect the unexpected. And know where you need to be to get a shot because you know what's going to take place next. So I love weddings. A lot of photographers out there say they don't like it because of the fact that you only get one shot at certain moments. But that's what drives me.

"Capturing memories (is what I enjoy most about photographing weddings). When they look at the cost of their wedding, a lot of times they put a lot of emphasis on the decorations and all of those things, and we kind of remind them that those things are only going to last for a day or two. The flowers are going to probably be dead within a couple of weeks. People eat at the reception and in a couple of days they don't remember what they ate.

"So I always tell them, 'Don't skimp on the photography. We may not be your photographer, you may use somebody else, but make sure you convey what you're trying to capture at your wedding so that these are the things you can look back on in 15, 20, 30, 40 years from now.' And that's what I like about that aspect of photography."

Among other things Stephens – who will soon be inducted into his alma mater, Central High School's Red Devil Hall of Fame in Phenix City, AL – photographs are corporate and private events, banquets, and portraits. And in the past, he was hired to shoot a ball at President Barack Obama's second inauguration. And the Tuskegee Airmen's 75th anniversary festivities.