Posted to Twitter, the news made its rounds locally at a Jamestown Area Midget Football League game last Saturday afternoon.
“Stephen Carlson has two touchdowns,” John O’Brien, longtime Jamestown High School football statistician, told me as he stood near one end zone at Persell Middle School watching the action in a West Side-South Side varsity contest.
As O’Brien spoke, a grin stretched across his face. Ear to ear.
Of course, everyone smiles when Carlson’s name is mentioned. It’s hard not to.
In the latest chapter of his own version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the Princeton University junior wide receiver ended up catching three TD passes in the Tigers’ 27-17 victory over San Diego in their season opener.
For perspective, the last time a Princeton player did that in a game was in 1991, more than a quarter century ago.
“It feels great just knowing all the work I’ve put in to get myself better through spring ball and (summer) camp (has paid off),” Carlson said Wednesday night from the Princeton campus. “I believe in myself and I think all my teammates and coaches believe in me. It was an awesome first game and, hopefully, a pretty good season for me and the team as a whole.”
But this column isn’t about replaying his six-catch, 94-yard breakout in detail, because that highlight-reel performance — which earned him a game ball — has been played and replayed on social media for nearly a week. Besides, it only tells a very small fraction of what the 20-year-old is all about anyway.
Said his older brother, Chris: “He does his best and does not get discouraged.”
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It’s been three years since Carlson last wore the Red & Green at JHS, a senior year in which he helped the Red Raiders win a state football championship at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. He then jumped seamlessly onto the basketball court where he was part of a special collection of hoopsters who came within a couple of baskets from making a second straight appearance in the state Final Four.
Along the way, Carlson’s athletic honors in 2014-15 included: first-team all-state wide receiver for the second straight year; recipient of the Connolly Cup, which recognizes the outstanding player in Western New York; All-Football Weekly co-Player of the Year; All-Football Weekly first-team wide receiver; All-WNY first-team wide receiver; Class AA South Defensive Player of the Year; Class AA South first-team linebacker; and Class AA state semifinal Offensive Player of the Game.
Furthermore, Carlson, ranked sixth in his class, was the recipient of the John Urschel Scholar-Athlete of the Year, which was presented at the WNY High School Sports football banquet. And, for good measure, the Football Coaches Association of New York awarded Carlson its Player of the Year and The Post-Journal bestowed its Player of the Year honors on him as well.
Heady stuff for any kid, but Carlson has always been able to keep his feet planted firmly on the ground while still reaching for the stars.
“How do you pick just one story about this kid?” asked JHS assistant coach Dave Munella.
Several people will give it a try below.
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Cameron Hurst has plenty of Carlson stories. The former editor of “The Rowdy Raider” blog, Hurst, now a sophomore at St. Bonaventure University, had a front-row seat to all of Carlson’s successes, both inside and outside of school during 2014-15.
Following is Hurst’s favorite:
“In the midst of covering that fall 2014 state title run by the Red Raiders, I had the opportunity to experience Steve on and off the field,” Hurst said. “Though he graduated a year ahead of me, I was a classmate of his in Barbi Price’s public speaking course. In most of Mrs. Price’s courses, the class always ends up leaving with a sense of camaraderie and new-found friendship. That just speaks to the kind of teacher she is. But this class was arguably one of the most fun I had the chance to take at JHS.”
According to Hurst, the JCC Uncommoners — the theatrical group at the college — performed the Broadway classic Les Miserables in November 2014. Price planned a class trip that included dinner at nearby pizzeria and the show at the Scharmann Theater afterward.
“I’m pretty sure Steve wasn’t able to join us for dinner,” Hurst said, “because of (football) practice, but he came to the show immediately afterward. While I didn’t sit next to him, one of our classmates told me at intermission that he was literally singing along to the entire show.
“The next day while we were preparing to practice poetry on stage in the high school auditorium, Steve made his way up to center stage where there was a microphone and a spotlight preset and started belting out the character, Javert’s, big solo, ‘Stars.’ And it was pretty good, too.”
Realizing he was witnessing something rather remarkable, Hurst pulled out his phone and started recording it for Snapchat.
“Luckily, I saved that video that day and I’ve been able to laugh about it whenever someone brings it up,” Hurst said. “I think this story proves the well-rounded nature that Steve embodies. Not only was he a phenomenal athlete and a pretty solid musician, but he was just a good kid. Always respectful when commenting for a story after the game. Always respectful to faculty and staff at JHS. He really is the poster boy for what a parent could hope their kid grows up to be through the incredible programs at Jamestown Public Schools.”
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Munella calls Carlson “one of the finest young men I have ever met in my life,” someone who is just as excited about giving back as he is scoring a touchdown.
“We do numerous volunteer activities in the community and he always was one of the first ones to sign up,” Munella said.
And, it was always with a smile.
“I’ve always been taught to give back to the community,” Carlson said. ” … The main goal in your life is to give back more than you take. It makes me feel good to give back knowing I can help some people out.”
“What most people do not know about him is his sense of humor,” Munella said. “Though a quiet and unassuming young man he was not afraid to put himself out there.”
In addition to his Les Miserables vocal solo, Carlson choreographed a TD celebration during preseason camp that Munella called the “funniest one I have seen to date”; and pulled out his saxophone and played tunes in the locker room for his teammates.
“You had to be there to really appreciate it,” Munella said.
But the reverence for Carlson isn’t reserved only for his coaches, his teachers or his peers.
After the Red Raiders’ state championship season of 2014, head coach Tom Langworthy gathered up the jerseys and game pants, brought them to his home, washed them and then put them in large laundry basket for offseason storage in the team’s equipment room at Jefferson Middle School.
“At the time, my 2-year-old son, Noah, asked me to put a jersey and pants on him so he could be a football player,” Langworthy recalled. “I happily obliged and dressed him in Red Raider gear. I also handed him a football we had in the house. He ran around our living room holding the ball and laughing. This was a great moment for me as a father and a football coach.”
With wife/mom, Amy, enjoying that moment as well, Noah piped up, “I am Stephen. I am Stephen.”
“This was also a special moment for me, as Noah picked to imitate one of the finest young men I have ever had the opportunity to coach,” Langworthy said. “Stephen is genuine, honest, trustworthy, polite, humble and, of course, talented. He embodies the best of Jamestown and JHS. Coaching him has been one of the highlights of my coaching career. For my own son to pick Stephen as someone to imitate was a special moment for Amy and I. I like to think that even though Noah was only 2 years old at the time, there was something about Stephen that he could recognize as extraordinary.”
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Princeton, the defending Ivy League champion, plays at Lafayette on Saturday. Carlson, wearing jersey No. 84, will be one of the starting wide receivers.
Brother Chris is pretty proud.
“At Princeton, he barely played at wide receiver his freshman and sophomore seasons, but he never complained,” Chris said. “Instead, he paid his dues and put in the work to get to the next level and help the team on the field to the best of his ability.”
To that end, the Carlson brothers worked out at Washington Middle School for the two weeks they were in Jamestown this summer.
“Steve ran ‘gassers’ from sideline to sideline, ran routes, and performed his drills in order to stay in football shape before training camp,” Chris said. “He is relentless in his craft.”
Supported by his brother; his mom, Sue; his dad, John; and his grandmother, Sally DePetro, Carlson’s hard work as a Tiger is paying dividends, both on the field and in the classroom.
“Steve doesn’t take much of a break from his studies either,” Chris said. “After school ended (in the spring), he stayed in New Jersey for most of the summer. He qualified for a school grant to perform funded laboratory research on oceanography and water oxygen levels.”
Carlson will graduate in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology.
“I think a big factor is the people around me, the support system,” Carlson said of what he likes most about Princeton. “My friends, my professors, my tutors, they know how to let me go on my own, give me my independence, allow me to make mistakes and to let me come in and help me fix them.
“My overall mindset toward academics is trying not to do anything less than my best. That’s what Princeton is all about — being the best.”
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