Standing just 5-foot-9 and weighing only 170 pounds, Tampa Bay Storm defensive back Paul Stephens is typically the smallest player on the field when he lines up.
His contributions to the Storm over the past two weeks, however, have been massive.
In Tampa Bay’s victory at Baltimore on May 7, Stephens recovered two fumbles and returned one for a touchdown in the Storm’s seven-point win.
And again last week at Washington, Stephens came up big at an opportune time. With less than a minute remaining and the Valor driving down to the one-yard line for the game-tying score, Stephens came out of a pileup with the football on a fumbled quarterback-center exchange to preserve the Storm’s 41-33 victory and third-consecutive win.
At 4-1, the Storm are off to their best start since the 2001 season.
“It was such a fight,” Stephens recalled about the game-clinching recovery in Washington. “There was so much going on under there. It took a lot to even keep that ball in my hands. But I did and we got out of there with a victory.
“It was amazing.”
On the decisive play, Washington quarterback Erik Meyer batted the ball up and behind him while trying to botching the snap under center. Stephens raced to the ball near the 13-yard line first but had to outfight a pair of offensive lineman weighing in the 300-pound range to keep possession. The dogpile lasted longer than normal too as officials struggled to drag bodies off the pile one by one until eventually finding Stephens at the bottom with his entire body wrapped around the ball.
“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the fight in the dog,” Tampa Bay head coach Ron James said. “He got in there and scrapped for the football against some real big guys, and that’s just kind of the tenacity he brings to the game. You never underestimate a guy like that.”
Since joining the Storm on May 2, Stephens has proven to be maybe the most impactful mid-season addition for Tampa Bay. With fellow defensive backs Cortez Stubbs and Arthur Hobbs injured and unable to play, Stephens has stepped into the Storm backfield and provided a steadying, veteran presence while also displaying a penchant for coming up with a massive play at the right time.
“He’s a very opportunistic player,” James said. “When you look at his career, he’s had a lot of interceptions, which tells you he’s around the football quite a bit. And now the fumble recoveries, that’s the same type of deal. He’s been around the ball a lot, he just hasn’t had the interceptions. We’ll take it any way we can get it.”
Coming into this season, Stephens, a six-year veteran of the Arena Football League, had recorded four career fumble recoveries. He now has three in just two games with the Storm.
“I’m just coming in doing what I can,” Stephens said. “I’m just filling in for other good players they had in here before me. People go down, I get called in. I’m just doing my job, and I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time.”
Stephens is plenty familiar with the Storm despite having never played for them prior to this season. The last two years, Stephens played for War on I-4 rival Orlando. Last season, he picked off six passes and was credited with 12 passes broken up for the Predators.
Stephens admitted he “hated” Tampa Bay when he played for Orlando. But now that he’s a member of the Storm, he has a newfound appreciation for the organization.
“They treat me like family, and I love every bit of this organization now that I got to know the Storm,” he said. “They made it an easy adjustment for me even though I came in late and didn’t go through training camp with the team. From day one, these guys have treated me like family. They made it pretty simple for me.”
Stephens has rewarded the Storm with two impressive performances in back-to-back weeks on the road. Stephens ranks fourth on the Storm for tackles (9.5), and his three fumble recoveries are one more than the rest of the team combined (2).
“A veteran player like him, he knows the game and he’s always around the football,” James said. “We knew that looking at him in the preseason when we were putting together the team. We were just fortunate to have him at the juncture we have him at. And that goes a long way for us. He’s been making some plays, but we go with that next-man-up mentality. Unfortunately, in the secondary, that next man up has been frequent. But, we’re really happy with what he’s been able to do.”