When Deon Stafford Jr. was growing up two walls in his bedroom were devoted to his favorite player, Sammy Sosa. He had posters, a signed helmet and several other items of the former Chicago Cubs’ slugger.
Maybe someday in the not-too-distant future youngsters will have collections of Stafford photos, baseball cards and whatever else prominent in their rooms.
Should that day arrive it would be in their best interests to know as much about the person as his accomplishments on the baseball field. They would be wise to understand how faith, dedication and hard work led Stafford, a sophomore catcher at Saint Joseph’s, to overcome odds that were stacked against him at a young age.
Both Stafford’s parents struggled with drug addiction and at age five he was taken in by his grandparents on his mother’s side. His grandfather, James Shirey, lost a lengthy battle with cancer when Stafford was 15. That left him and his grandmother, Jane, to care for each other in a two-bedroom apartment in Hummelstown, Pa., about 10 miles outside Harrisburg.
“When he passed away we literally had zero money,” recalled Stafford. “We lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Hummelstown. My grandmother is my world and I had to step up and be the man in the apartment. It really humbled me and taught me to be a man.”
It would have been too easy for a youngster like Stafford to go astray after having endured so much by the time he was old enough to drive. Instead, he immersed himself in Christianity while continuing to give it all he had in baseball, a sport he ultimately chose over football.
“I became a Christian in high school and ever since then everything I do, the glory goes to God,” said Stafford. “That’s what drives me. Every single day I live for Christ. I came from a rough background and being a Christian really helped me forgive and helped me move forward in life.”
Stafford has more than moved forward. A First Team All-Pennsylvania selection as a senior at Lower Dauphin High, Stafford chose St. Joe’s over Michigan so that he could be close to Jane; it is about a 90-minute drive from Philadelphia to Hummelstown.
The marketing major had an exceptional freshman season leading the Hawks with a .341 average and 19 doubles while committing only one error in 193 chances. His effort resulted in several postseason accolades, including Second Team All-Atlantic 10 and a spot on Louisville Slugger’s all-freshman team. He entered this season on the watch list for the 2016 Johnny Bench Award, presented to the top catcher in Division I.
“My goal was to get in the lineup and help the team as much as I could,” he said of last season. “It is very tough for a freshman to come in here and have an impact, which I was lucky to do.”
Stafford, who speaks to youth groups about his faith and volunteers to support the fight against cancer, played in the New England Collegiate Baseball League last summer. He was a member of the Laconia (N.H.) Muskrats and was named the 12-team league’s rookie of the year after hitting .329 with six homers in 158 at-bats. While he excelled at the plate he primarily wanted to work on his skills behind it.
“I am still a little raw, not where I want to be,” he said. “I still have a lot of room for improvement. My main goal last summer (in the NECBL) was to get better behind the plate. I think I did, but I still have room to grow.”
Stafford quickly grew into a leader on the Hawks, who have benefitted from his presence on and off the field.
“He has worked very hard and does not take anything for granted,” said Saint Joseph’s coach Fritz Hamburg, in his eighth season on Hawk Hill.
“He is certainly a leader within our group and he leads by example. Whatever sport it is when it comes to guys like Deon, not only from a talent standpoint, but from a leadership standpoint and a personal standpoint, to have guys like that on your team is a blessing.”
Yet, Stafford is the one who feels blessed. Waking up in the morning, lifting, throwing, running, attending class and going to practice or a game is all a gift. It is a gift he shares with the youth groups.
“No matter what you have been through in life there are really no excuses,” he said of the message he imparts. “We have an opportunity and every single day we wake up God has given us another 24 hours. We need to take advantage of that, live our passion and have big dreams. There really isn’t anything to hold you back.”
Above and middle: Deon Stafford Jr. has been a blessing on and off the field, says Saint Joseph’s coach Fritz Hamburg. (Courtesy Saint Joseph’s University Athletics)