Quiet Inspiration: Academy football team defines family

LITTLE RIVER-ACADEMY, Texas (KWTX) Marcus Stepney has been innocent since birth, but hasn't felt that way until recently.

"My parents would hit me with anything, really," Stepney said. "Fists, objects, knives, anything."

He remembers the violence starting when he was four years old. Dealing with it for more than a decade, his decision to fight back cost him consciousness, permanently wiped away whatever trust he had with his mother and father -- if there was any left -- and landed him at the Bell County Juvenile Detention Center.

"If you think about it, it's kind of a trap," Stepney said. "If I don't (fight back), then they'd just keep beating me up.

"I had enough. I wasn't just going to let them keep hitting on me. I just can't do that."

Each day at the supervised facility meant more time for those watching him to believe his innocence.

A quiet, respectful 15-year old deserved a mother and father. Instead, his biological parents knocked him out and called police, who handcuffed the young man guilted into thinking he was the aggressor.

His stay at the detention center lasted nearly nine months, much longer than anyone anticipated, but only because there was no place for him to make permanent.

LifeWorks Austin was his new source of living arrangements. It led him to a family in Salado, which turned into only a nine-week stay and eventual return to the state capital.

He then found a place in Little River-Academy. Hopeful it was the last move he'd make, his sixth home in a year was also originally disguised as false hope.

His foster family made a call to Academy head football coach Mike Nichols, initially informing him that Marcus would not be participating in the team's Green & Gold spring scrimmage, but the senior cornerback ended up playing in what was all but guaranteed to be his last appearance at the school.

However, after making an impression on Mike Nichols and his two oldest sons -- Zach, an assistant coach on the staff, and Jake, a senior on the Bumblebees football team -- Marcus earned something he thought was impossible to experience.

He had a family.

"Jake was the first one I talked to. I asked, 'Is this going to be okay with you? He's going to stay in your room and y'all are going to be together,'" Mike said. "He said, 'Dad, all of us love Marcus.'"

Less than 48 hours after the spring game, Mike and his wife, Emily, headed to court and legally made Marcus a part of their family, also joining their youngest biological son, Aaron, as well as two adopted children -- Gracie and Hunter.

"I appreciate everything that he, his wife and sons, and his whole family (have done), really, because I'm grateful for the little things in life," Stepney said. "You can't take anything for granted. Nothing is promised."

That's why Marcus is also always working on homework, so he can maintain his A-student status, hopefully land an admission into the University of Texas to study pre-med, and eventually become a neurosurgeon.

Stepney isn't the only A-student on the team with an unusual life away from school. He and fellow senior Sean Delapaz, who has spent his entire life in central Texas, have formed a friendship since Marcus first arrived on campus.

"I tried to be a friend when I felt like he had none when he first came in," Academy senior Sean Delapaz said. "(I) never wanted to force anything on him because he kept to himself."

Delapaz's situation is different than that of Stepney's, moving from one parent's house to the other's before most recently being kicked out of both residences.

Following a mind-clearing vacation to Arkansas, he thought moving in with family in Vallejo, California, was the answer, but still having to deal with his father every now and then simply wasn't an option.

Thanks to the strong friendships he formed at Academy in years past, Delapaz landed with the Costa family, who has a son, Caden, on the football team.

"I was playing basketball. That's my sport," said Delapaz, who finished up his first year playing football. "(The Costas) like soccer, so I've thought about playing soccer."

If Stepney and Delapaz were troublemakers, that wouldn't be surprising, given their backgrounds. Yet here they are, months away from graduating high school on time, continuing to impress everyone they're around every day.

"When someone told us this or that happened, my wife and I were taken aback because there haven't been any issues," Nichols said. "We've been around Sean for seven years, and we've been around Marcus for about a year now, and it'll be a year in February. They're stand-up kids and they're phenomenal young men."

Phenomenal young men whose personalities have almost been fully uncovered. Marcus, in particular.

"We started spring ball in May. He made a play on a ball and everybody went nuts. The next thing you know, he's talking trash," said Nichols, who gave a high-five to one of his assistant coaches after witnessing Stepney's never-before-seen personality. "We all looked around and said, 'Did that just happen?'"

The comfort trait that was hidden for so long was brought out by a love that should've always been there.

"He said maybe five words to people for the initial 2-3 months he was here," Nichols said.

Stepney's biggest inspiration, Dr. Ben Carson, once said, "Success is determined not by whether or not you face obstacles, but by your reaction to them."

Like that pre-trash talk interception, Marcus saw something he didn't like, and did something about it.

Does that sound familiar?