James Stovall, Justin Houston and Patrick Benson fulfilled previous verbal commitments by putting their names on the dotted line while family, friends, coaches and administrators looked on in the BCHS Library.
Stovall is not only going to play football on the NCAA Division I level, but serve our country as well, as he inked an agreement with the United States Naval Academy.
Houston and Benson are remaining teammates as they accepted scholarship offers from Tennessee’s first college — Tusculum (established in 1794).
“I’m very proud of these guys,” proclaimed Bradley head coach Damon Floyd. “These guys have worked hard not only on the athletic fields, but in the classroom as well. They will represent Bradley well everywhere they go.”
“The difference in our program from the time they got here to now is night and day,” expressed Floyd who took over a team that had won just once in its previous 20 games and turned it into one that has earned back-to-back TSSAA playoff berths.
“These guys have been leaders in our turnaround,” he continued. “They set the example for others with their hard work and dedication both on and off the field.”
Although Tucker Bolton (Eastern Kentucky) and Chandler Bennett (Cumberland) both signed last February, Wednesday’s event marked the first time in more than 30 years that three Bear football players earned scholarships in the same season. The last time that happened was 1981 when Chris White (Tennessee), Dale Jones (TMI then Tennessee) and Tim Long (Memphis State) each agreed to play at the next level.
Bradley’s largest football signing class came in 1959 when five Bears — Rex Dockery, Louie Alford, Bill White, Charlie Snyder and Gary Kelly — got the chance to continue their gridiron careers.
A two-time Associated Press all-state selection, Stovall gained 1,727 yards on 117 catches, including 17 touchdowns in his three seasons with the Bears. A week after his final high school game, he committed to play for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga but in mid-January decided instead to accept Navy’s invitation.
“I liked everything at UTC and they did nothing wrong, but Navy came in with such a great offer for football and beyond, I couldn’t turn it down,” explained the 6-foot-3, 185-pound wide receiver with 4.6 speed in the 40 yard dash and a 38-inch vertical leap. “I come from a military family and the chance to not only play DI football against great teams like Notre Dame and Penn State, but to get to study at such a prestigious school as the Naval Academy and serve my country was too much to pass up.”
Stovall’s parents, Fanaafi and Michael Stovall, met while serving in the U.S. Army. “My mom is from American Samoa and my dad from a little town in Middle Tennessee and they met while both of them were serving together,” Stovall related. “My grandfather, who just passed away last fall, was in the Navy and my older brother is still in the Army Reserves.”
When asked about making the nine-year commitment required to become a naval officer, Stovall said he “had no hesitation.”
“Growing up in a military family has been a strong influence on me,” he added. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Stovall holds a state single-game record with 19 catches for 181 yards in a 2010 second-round game playoff game against Oak Ridge.
A three-sport standout with a 3.5 GPA, Stovall had to miss the current basketball season due to a shoulder injury which was operated on last month at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville.
“The surgery went great and I’m doing rehab twice a week now while it heals,” he remarked. “I go back to the doctor tomorrow to see how it is progressing.”
Whether or not he’ll be able to run track in the spring is still up in the air. Stovall participated in the TSSAA State Track Meet last May in the decathlon as well as with the 4x200-meter relay.
Houston was also on that relay team that finished sixth in the state, plus is a starting guard on Coach Kent Smith’s basketball squad.
Helping the football Bears post a 21-12 record in his three years as a starter, the speedy Houston scored on a 92-yard run on his first varsity carry and finished with more than 4,000 all-purpose yards.
The 5-foot-8, 160-pounder averaged 11.8 yards a carry while gaining 1,006 on the ground this past season, plus averaged 20.4 yards per catch for 490 more yards.
Named the District 5-AAA Running Back of the Year, Houston scored 13 touchdowns, despite missing a game and a half with an injury this past fall.
“He is one of the most amazing ball carriers I’ve ever seen,” proclaimed Floyd. “It’s not just speed with Justin. He sees things other people don’t see and has the ability to make moves and changes directions in an instant, making him difficult to tackle.”
“Tusculum runs a spread offense that Justin will fit right into,” the Bear coach added. “Seven of the last eight guys to play the position for them have made All-American.”
“They want me to be a slot guy, so they can get me the ball with some space to use my running back and receiver skills,” Houston expressed. “Their system fits me real well.”
Houston was at the upper East Tennessee school in December while preparing to play in the Toyota East-West All-Star Game. “I loved the facilities up there, and the coaches,” said the 3.9 GPA student who hopes to go into sports medicine.
“It feels great to have this (the signing) done,” Houston declared. “It takes a lot of pressure off. I’m glad to be signing at the same time as James (Stovall) and Patrick (Benson). We’ve been more than just teammates and have gone through so much together.”
A 6-foot-5, 300-plus pound offensive tackle, Benson will be under the direction of offensive line coach Spencer Riley, who played center for Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team.
“I’m excited to get the chance to play football on the next level,” commented Benson, the reigning state heavyweight wrestling champion. Virginia Tech had expressed interest in his wrestling skills but Benson said he’d rather stay on the gridiron.
“It feels good to know that I have college set and a good future ahead of me,” Benson stated. “College is going to be tough but I’m looking forward to it.”
Benson admittedly had mixed emotions on the day as he shared it with his uncle and aunt, Johnny and Denise Graham, who he has lived with since his mother, Angela Guffey passed away in 2009.
“They (his aunt and uncle) have improved my life and got me going in the right direction,” he commented.
“My mom told me before she died she just wanted me to be successful in life,” related Benson. “She told me she wanted me to graduate, be a good father and adult.”
Benson said he told his mom that he would “make her proud.”
All three of the former Bears had praise for coach Floyd and his staff.
“Coach Floyd and the other coaches have made us better athletes on the field and better men off of it,” proclaimed Stovall. “They believe football is more than wins and losses. They are a big part of the reason I am who I am today. We always know they’ve got our back and we’ve got theirs.”
The Bears recruiting class for next season has already begun with junior offensive tackle Austin Sanders having committed to play for Tennessee last summer.
“When you have a winning program, you attract the attention of college recruiters,” expressed Floyd. “They want winners, so they come to see why you are winning and what players are having the biggest effect on that.”