The first time high school basketball coach John Herron laid eyes on Ed Stinson he mistook him for a college athlete.
“Here was this kid, about 6-2, 200 pounds with a rope tied around his waist attached to a tire with two 20 pound-weights inside of it, running in the rain on an outdoor basketball court outside the Police Athletic League gym in Homestead,” Herron recalled Sunday. “I walked up to him and said, ‘What college do you play for?’ He said, ‘Coach, I’m in the eighth grade.’ ”
Eight years later, the bond between Alabama’s 6-4, 282-pound starting strong side defensive end and his former South Dade basketball coach — one the handful of people who helped Stinson survive a tough upbringing — remains as tight as ever.
On Monday night, Stinson — who used to work the concession stands at Sun Life Stadium every NFL Sunday selling Dolphins gear throughout his four years of high school — will be on the field, playing for his third national championship in four years when the Crimson Tide (12-1) take on top-ranked Notre Dame (12-0) for the BCS title.
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And the boy who grew up dreaming of being a Miami Dolphin will have his coach, stepmother, father and five others there to cheer him on — a wish come true for a family who grows prouder of Stinson’s success by the minute.
“All I’ve wanted him to do all season is come home and play,” said Betty Grant, Stinson’s stepmother, who took him in when he was 11 years old, right after his biological mother gave up custody as she battled drug addiction.
“We couldn’t go up to the [championship] game in Louisiana last year to cheer Ed on. Now we will be there. I know I didn’t have him, but I feel like I had him. We’re so close.
“Me, his sister, and her baby all bonded, pushed each other through the tough times. That’s my boy. That’s my son.”
Stinson, who started all 13 games for the nation’s No. 1 run defense and No. 2 scoring defense, was raised by Grant pretty much on her own. His father, Jerome Gamble, went to prison for his own involvement with drugs about a month after his son moved in with Grant and was incarcerated until the summer before Stinson’s senior year at South Dade.
Herron, who grew up in the housing projects known as Homestead Gardens (down the street from Stinson) and survived the tough neighborhood to graduate from the University of Florida and become a high school coach, stepped in and helped Stinson out as much as he could.
“Ed wasn’t the type to tell anybody what he was going through, he was always a shy, quiet kid,” Herron said. “But I knew the situation. Me and my assistant coach Cedric Brown would help him with haircuts, lunch money, shoes if he needed him. We were always around him, looking out for him.”
Stinson’s father now works cutting grass in Florida City and has a successful barbecue stand that can be found on the corner of Homestead’s famous Lucy Street on the weekends. His stepmom — a former bus driver — works in the Keys.
It was Herron who ultimately convinced Stinson to give football a try. He finally gave in his junior year and was an instant hit, producing 19 sacks after coaches moved him over from tight end.
“He went to a couple combines after that and the offers started rolling in,” Herron said.
At first, Stinson committed to Florida State. But Herron said Stinson ultimately would choose between LSU and Alabama because they had “better support systems” for his learning disability. Stinson, Herron said, scored low on his reading level exams.
“You always hear how a lot of guys go to college, but don’t make it because they don’t do what they need to do,” Herron said. “Not Ed. He’s never missed a tutoring session. He takes his academics seriously.
“I’m proud to see how he and three of his basketball teammates at South Dade have all made something of themselves four years later. Dontravious Floyd was a tight end at UCF this past year. Josh Brinson played receiver at Pittsburgh. And Vincent Williams is the starting point guard this year at Georgia. I always told my kids use sports to get what you need.”
Stinson said he’s about five classes shy from graduating from Alabama with a degree in sports management.
“If I don’t make it to the league, I’ll probably use it to coach or something,” said Stinson, who has used his pickup truck to go home and visit his parents while Alabama has been in South Florida preparing for Monday’s game.
Although he became a first-time father last month (his daughter Sydney was born on Dec. 12), Stinson said he plans on coming back to Alabama for his senior season. His longtime girlfriend, Herron said, “already graduated from Alabama and has a good job. So there’s no pressure.”
Listed as the 15th-best defensive end in the 2014 class by NFLDraftScout.com, Stinson said he still has a lot to work on after his first full season as a starter. A converted linebacker, Stinson has 29 tackles, three sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss (second most on the team).
Teammate Damion Square said Stinson’s speed and athleticism could prove vital in chasing down Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson, whose elusiveness and ability to buy time in the pocket could be one of the biggest keys in the game.
Stinson, who said he hopes to be drafted by the Dolphins in 2014, laughed when he was asked whether he might have any special celebrations setup for the home crowd if he gets a sack or touchdown.
“Coach [Nick] Saban may get mad at me, but you only get once chance in life to do it,” Stinson said. “It’s going to be crazy to get on that field and play, a dream come true.”