By Kevin Saleeba
Entering the 1988 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots had to do something to address their anemic rushing attack that averaged 3.2 yards per carry during the previous two season, including a franchise low 2.9 average in 1986.
The answer came when the Patriots drafted 6-foot-1, 215 pound power running back John Stephens from Northwestern Louisiana in the first round (17th overall). It was a risky pick for the Patriots because they failed by drafting a running back the previous year selecting Reggie Dupard in the first round, who proved to be a major bust at number one.
Stephens, however, would prove to be no bust. He would go on to play 6 NFL seasons from 1988-1993, five for the Patriots. As a rookie, New England felt his impact immediately when he rushed for 1,168 yards and was selected to the Pro Bowl and named the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1988.
Sadly this week, Stephens, 43, was killed after his pickup truck ran off a highway and struck some trees, authorities told the associated press on Wednesday. Stephens apparently lost control of his vehicle on a rural stretch of Louisiana Highway 169 near Shreveport on Tuesday evening, the Caddo Parish Sheriff's office said. Stephens wasn't wearing a seatbelt and was thrown after the truck hit some trees head-on, sheriff's spokeswoman Cindy Chadwick said in a statement.
From Jim Nance to Corey Dillon and Curtis Martin, the Patriots team history is littered with great running backs. With Stephens’ untimely death, his contributions to rushing the football in New England should not be forgotten as he ranks among the franchises best backs.
Stephens, a powerful, bruising back who showed flashes of speed and finesse, similar to that of Dillon, broke into the starting lineup in the third game of the 1988 season against Buffalo. He went on to finish the season second behind Eric Dickerson in the AFC in rushing and fifth in the NFL overall with 1,168 yards, while also finishing fifth in the AFC and tied for 12th in the NFL in total yards from the line of scrimmage with 1,266 yards (98 yards receiving).
“For that period of time that he had success as a running back, there was nobody better,” Patriots Hall of Fame linebacker Andre Tippett told Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe this week. “He had good power; he was a good runner, with good balance. It was amazing watching him.”
Stephens at that time was one of only 22 rookies to ever go over the 1,000 yard rushing mark in a season. He led the Patriots in rushing in all but two games and he had five 100 yard games his rookie year.
His best game came during his first start when he rushed for 134 yards on 25 carries at Buffalo in late October, marking the first time in 35 non-strike games that a Patriots runner had 100 plus rushing yards. The Patriots futility on the grown during that time was finally over. He would then follow-up that performance with 130 yards on 35 carries against Chicago at home.
He is the fifth running back in Patriots history to gain 1,000 yards in a season, while only losing one fumble the entire season (handled the ball 311 times – 297 rushes and 14 catches). He ended the season with four touchdowns and he was just three carries away from setting the club record for most rushes in a season.
At season’s end, he was awarded the NFL Rookie of the Year award; he was named the AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year; he won the World Almanac Bert Bell Trophy (NFL's best rookie) and the first annual Gale Sayers Humanitarian Citation for his work on behalf of the Roxbury (Mass.) Comprehensive Community Health Center. He was also the second New England player to make the NFL Pro Bowl as a rookie; the other was cornerback Mike Haynes in 1976.
Stephens finished his Patriots career with seven 100 yard rushing games and led the team in rushing from 1988 to 1990, before injuries finally slowed his production down. He finished his Patriots career ranked seventh on the team’s all-time rushing list with 3,249 rushing yards, averaging 3.6 yards a carry and scoring 17 touchdowns.
“He really kind of shocked everybody when he came into the league,” said Tippett. “He brought it. He was a tough competitor. It was special watching him run.”
Funeral arrangements were pending.