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August 29, 2003

LeFors unlikely starter for Cards

From: Louisville Courier Journal, KY - Aug 29, 2003

Louisiana native wasn't recruited in high school

The Courier-Journal

University of Louisville quarterback Stefan LeFors hasn't ever started a college game, but he knows how he'll handle the hostility of 70,000 fans at the University of Kentucky's Commonwealth Stadium on Sunday.

He'll just think of home.

"I've just got to ignore the noise and the crowd," the junior said. "My parents are deaf, so I've got to just turn my ears off and be deaf like them and just play the game."

LeFors has some experience turning his ears off. Growing up as the only hearing member of a deaf family, he essentially had his ears "turned off" from the moment he got home from school each day.

And that's not the only unlikely turn in the life of the 22-year-old Louisiana native, who came to UofL as a recruiting afterthought but has emerged as a team leader.

"Not many people would have predicted me being the starter, that's for sure," he said.

They wouldn't have predicted it when he was a 5-foot-10, 142-pound freshman starter at tiny Christian Life Academy in Baton Rouge.

Nor did it appear likely when he received only one scholarship offer — an academic scholarship from Louisiana-Lafayette — after a senior season in which he won All-State honors and led his team to a fourth straight playoff appearance.

His emergence as a starting quarterback in NCAA Division I-A didn't seem imminent when he, his father and brother were busy crafting a homemade highlight tape of LeFors, which he sent to a dozen schools.

"I felt like I could play," he said. "All I wanted was a chance."

Only one coach who got the tape bothered to offer him a scholarship: UofL's John L. Smith. He didn't have to call LeFors twice. But once he got to UofL, LeFors found himself waiting behind ironman Dave Ragone.

"I knew this school was a great place for quarterbacks," LeFors said. "I felt blessed just to get the chance to come here."

"Blessed" is a word he uses quite a bit. He uses it while talking about his family, his opportunity and his wife, Joy, his high school sweetheart whom he married last May.

"I guess the way I grew up is different from most people," he said. "But it doesn't seem like a big deal to me."

LeFors said that a genetic problem led to his father's deafness and that his mother lost her hearing after a childhood bout with mumps. The same thing happened to his older brother, Eric. Both of his paternal grandparents also are deaf, as are both paternal uncles and an uncle on his mother's side.

"But I came out able to hear fine," LeFors said. "I can't tell you how many times I've asked myself why I was the one who was able to hear. I just believe it must have been for a reason. This is the way God made me, and I thank him for that and for everything that's happened to me every day."

If he's being asked to do things Sunday that generally are the responsibility of players with more experience, it isn't the first time. Though his parents tried to avoid it, as a child he often was an interpreter for family members at the store, on the street or on the phone.

"There was a stage — and I wouldn't say `embarrassed' is the word — but having to interpret for them every day got to me at times," he said. "But the older I got the more I accepted that as my job and my duty, and I was so happy that God put me there so that I could do that.

"I wouldn't change my life for anything. I have a great family, great parents, grandparents, everybody. They just can't hear. So we talk with our hands. It's not a big deal to me. I guess for a while I was kind of shy around people, because I never really talked to people much when I was a little one. But my parents are such good people, and I've learned so much from them that I feel very lucky."

Larry LeFors said his son always has had the ability to stay cool under pressure and has developed the confidence to be successful. Neither of LeFors' parents will be at Sunday's game, opting instead to watch on television, but they will attend some games in Louisville this year.

Even with their obstacles, football has been a big part of life for the LeFors family. Larry met his future wife, Susan, when he was playing for Louisiana School for the Deaf against Texas School for the Deaf. Susan was a cheerleader for the Texas squad.

Eric LeFors set national deaf school passing records while playing at Louisiana School for the Deaf and went on to play two seasons at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

"It's a very special family," said Joy LeFors, a recent UofL communications graduate who spends her days job hunting while Stefan works on football. They had dated for six years, and the 6-foot LeFors credits her cooking, in part, for helping him to boost his playing weight to 200 pounds.

"At first it was very different to be around the family, but then I took a sign-language class and got to know everybody better," Joy LeFors said. "Stefan definitely wouldn't have gotten to this point without their support."

Now where does he go from here? Will he be a place-holder until a younger, more highly touted quarterback takes his place? Or will he grab the position and make it his own?

Coach Bobby Petrino named LeFors the starter without reservations.

"You're going to see a guy with a quick release," Petrino said. "He gets back very quickly in the pocket and gets the ball out of his hands, which helps our protection a lot. I think he's been a very accurate passer. He's put the ball in areas where our receivers can catch it, away from the defensive players. And he's made good decisions as far as taking care of the football, and I think that's critical in this game."

LeFors' teammates are comfortable with him.

"Everybody respects him, and we want to be out there working hard to make him look good," sophomore receiver Broderick Clark said. "He's not as experienced as some of the other guys, but he's tough and he's a leader."

What was Petrino's advice to LeFors after naming him the starter?

Don't change anything.

"He doesn't have to do anything more than he's been doing," Petrino said. "If he just keeps playing the way he has and leading the team the way he has, we'll be fine."

LeFors watched Ragone take a beating last season and found himself getting ready for action numerous times, only to see Ragone go back out to the field and gut it out. He said he expects the Wildcats to come after him early.

"Me being a little guy, they're probably going to try to rip my head off and see if I can take a hit," he said. "I really haven't taken a good shot since I've been on scout team, when Dewayne White and those guys got a couple of good hits on me. But other than that, I haven't taken a shot, so I'm sure they're going to see how I react."

He's eager to see that himself.

"I'm sure I'm going to be nervous," he said. "But this is the chance I've been waiting for. A lot of people probably didn't expect me to get to this point, and I don't know what they expect now. But I expect to go out and do my job and play well. I've got a lot of great players around me and a great system. I'm looking forward to it."

Copyright 2002 The Courier-Journal.