Before he walked away from the football team at Brown, before he bailed on a job as a fashion buyer and before he rose through the Vikings front office, Jamaal Stephenson had no plans for a career in football, and he certainly had no idea he would one day play a role in the Vikings drafting college stars such as Teddy Bridgewater and Xavier Rhodes.
Stephenson can only laugh at the winding, stop-and-go journey that led him to the Vikings, who promoted him to director of college scouting in May after Scott Studwell stepped aside to spend more time with family.
“I’m still kind of awed by everything that has happened. Not because I didn’t think I would be successful at whatever I ended up doing. I just never imagined it would have been this,” Stephenson said. “I’m happy that it’s football, something that I’ve grown to love.”
While the Ivy Leaguer never sought out his unlikely career in scouting, Stephenson has shown an ability to identify talent during his time with the Vikings, and his new job title reflects how instrumental he has been in the organization’s recent draft successes.
“We’ve been together for eight years now, and I’ve just seen him progress,” said General Manager Rick Spielman, who joined the staff in 2006. “We felt his work ethic, his passion for what he does, his evaluation skills made him the best candidate for the job.”
Stephenson played many sports, including youth football, growing up in Goldsboro, N.C., a small city an hour southeast of Raleigh. But you were most likely to find him shooting jumpers in the back yard.
“Basketball was really my first love,” he said. “In our area, basketball was king.”
A standout small forward, he was certain his future was on the hardwood. That changed when his high school football coach, Elvin James, cornered him in the gym before his junior year and convinced him that football gave him the best chance at a scholarship.
Stephenson, who became a wide receiver and safety at Goldsboro High School, always had been mesmerized by the tactical aspects of the game. His mother, Brenda Williams-Chavis, used to sneak into his bedroom to turn off his television when he fell asleep watching “Monday Night Football.”
But on-field success did not come quickly, so he didn’t feel the same fervor for football that he did with basketball. Still, the game gave him an opportunity to get an Ivy League education at Brown.
Things did not start as planned there, though. He tore a hamstring during the first day of camp his freshman year. Then there was a coaching change. Frustrated with his role, he told new coach Mark Whipple he wanted to switch to offense. After playing sparingly at fullback as a redshirt freshman, Stephenson quit the team.
“I had a big head. I had gotten a scholarship offer to go play somewhere else [at Buffalo], and I thought it would be a piece of cake,” Stephenson said. “It wasn’t.”
After Stephenson sat out the spring, Whipple welcomed him back. He settled in as a starting cornerback his redshirt junior year. He wasn’t the fastest player — his fellow scouts joke that he was a “box cornerback” — but he roughed up receivers at the line while earning All-Ivy League honors.
More importantly, Stephenson’s love for the game was kindled.
Football takes hold
After four years at Brown, Stephenson was poised to graduate. He had a few job offers lined up, but despite having no interest in fashion, he took a job at the May Company, where he started training to become a buyer for clothing stores such as Filene’s Basement.
“I did it for a week and I realized it wasn’t really for me,” the 38-year-old said.
Stephenson still had a year of eligibility and Whipple and his defensive coordinator, Don Brown, had called him all summer, trying to coax him into using it. He came back for his senior season, picked off six passes and earned all-conference honors again.
His career over for real this time, Stephenson spurned more job offers to follow Whipple and Brown to the University of Massachusetts, where he worked as a coaching assistant while getting his master’s degree in sports management. He helped coach the defensive backs, broke down film and completed quality control reports.
“Jamaal’s choice of career was a complete shock to me,” said his father, Tyrone. “Jamaal never discussed becoming a scout or getting a job in the NFL.”
Stephenson never noticed a scout on campus at Brown and had little knowledge of what they did. But after conversations with UMass alumni Marc Ross, now the vice president of player evaluation for the Giants, and Scott Cohen, now a senior personnel adviser for the Buccaneers, Stephenson was hooked.
“He always knew who the good players were and which guys you could lean on,” Brown said. “You knew he was going to be good, and it doesn’t surprise me that he has found himself a nice niche in pro football.”
In 1999, Cohen helped Stephenson land an internship with the Redskins. After a stint with the Texans, Stevenson joined the Vikings as an area scout in 2002. He moved back to the Washington D.C. area — where he still lives with his wife, Emily, and children, Noah and Gabrielle — to scout the East Coast.
“It wasn’t natural to me at first. … I was just a young guy throwing stuff on paper based on my experiences at Brown,” Stephenson said. “It took some time, but once I got under the wing of Frank Gilliam and Scott Studwell, it became clear that I had a pretty good eye for talent.”
He values getting a feel for a player’s passion, too. Asked if his past has something to do with that, Stephenson chuckled. It does.
“How much they love the game, that’s a big part of it,” he said.
Stephenson, who had been assistant director of college scouting since 2009, was recognized by the Fritz Pollard Alliance as the NFC Scout of the Year for 2012. More recently, his evaluations have helped the Vikings home in on prospects such as Bridgewater, Rhodes, Cordarrelle Patterson and Sharrif Floyd.
He will work more closely with Spielman, who still has final say during the draft, to coordinate the team’s scouting efforts. Both he and the Vikings expect it to be a seamless transition, especially with Studwell remaining with the Vikings to serve as a mentor to Stephenson while scouting the Midwest.
But despite the addition of important administrative duties, Stephenson said “scouting will still be my baby,” and his focus will be on the whole nation now.
“The thrill of putting a team together and being part of that process and watching it come to fruition on Sundays, to me that is the exciting part,” Stephenson said. “Hopefully we can build on this and continue to draft well and play well on Sundays.”