Being Stephen

Little boys across the state will flock to stadiums this fall, dreaming of becoming Friday night heroes. But the boys from one Oklahoma community in particular have an extraordinary football role model, one who will inspire you, too.

By Jason Kersey, Photos By John Clanton

KONAWA — It was a typical game night in small-town Oklahoma, complete with grade-school boys on the sideline mimicking their Friday night idols.

But the way these boys played was anything but typical. They took turns carrying the ball, but in a unique way.

One boy tucked the ball into his chest with one arm and put the other behind his back.

“Now it's my turn to be Stephen,” he said.

The Konawa coach's wife witnessed the small, yet powerful, tribute to Stephen Cully, the Tigers' fullback and linebacker who has a disability some might think would rule out sports entirely.

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“Stephen doesn't even know the impact he has had on these kids,” Tammy Daniel said, echoing a sentiment heard all around the small town about 20 miles from Ada.

On this, the first Friday night of the high school football season, two different sets of dreamers will play out their fantasies side by side before crowds across the state.

On the field, teenagers live out their dreams of glory by scoring touchdowns and making tackles.

And on the sideline, young boys pretend to be their heroes, dreaming of one day putting on those school colors.

It was here that Tammy Daniel saw the impact that one remarkable young man has had on his community.

“Being” Stephen Cully goes well beyond the football field. And if those children grow up to be like him, they will know that life isn't about the cards you're dealt, but how you play the hand.

Stephen Cully runs drills with his teammates during practice at Konawa High School in Konawa, Okla., on Monday, Aug. 29, 2011.

Stephen Cully runs drills with his teammates during practice.

MAKING HIS OWN WAY

Stephen Cully was born without his right arm fully developed. It extends slightly past his elbow, but there is no right hand.

Mike, Stephen's father, said the family has never been given an official diagnosis, but that his research has led him to believe that Stephen's condition is Amniotic Band Syndrome (ABS).

Stephen Cully runs drills with his teammates during practice at Konawa High School in Konawa, Okla., on Monday, Aug. 29, 2011. Photo by John Clanton, The Oklahoman
Stephen Cully runs drills with his teammates during practice.

The precise cause of ABS is unknown, according to WebMD.com.

“That's what it looks like to me, because it describes perfectly the way his arm looks,” Mike Cully said. “If you look at it, it looks like he's got a little hand there but it's not fully developed.”

But Stephen came to love sports the same way many young boys do — out of adulation toward his older brother.

“He beat me up a lot,” Stephen said with a laugh. “He told me to quit crying, to get up.

“I owe a lot to him. He made me tough, really.”

But Chris Cully, four years older than Stephen, taught his brother an even more important life lesson, even if it was unintentional.

Playing sports with Chris and other older relatives forced Stephen to develop his own methods to accomplish the same feats they did.

To swing a baseball bat, for example, Stephen grips it with his left hand, presses his right arm against the handle and uses his upper-body strength to forcefully swing.

And yes, he can hit home runs that way.

This ability to find unique methods to complete normal tasks explains how he does all the same exercises his teammates do in the weight room — including bench pressing.

With a spotter — and equal weight — on each side of the bar, Stephen lays down on the bench. He grips with his left hand, balances his right nub on the bar and gets to work.

The spotters help him lift the weight off the rack, but after that Stephen is on his own. He recently maxed out on the bench at 250 pounds.

But it's also the little, everyday things that impress his teammates.

“Just watching him get dressed,” junior running back Alex Yellowfish said. “Sometimes it's hard for me to put my socks and my football pants on. But he just does it on his own.”

GETTING ON THE FIELD

Stephen Cully and his teammates get dressed before practice in the locker room at Konawa High School in Konawa, Okla., on Monday, Aug. 29, 2011.

Stephen Cully and his teammates get dressed before practice in the locker room.

Stephen Cully first played organized football in the fifth grade, when his dad signed him up for flag football in Ada. The next year, he played his first season of tackle football in middle school.

Cully played for Ada schools through his sophomore year in high school.

Opposing players and teammates sometimes took it easy on Stephen early in his playing career.

“My junior high years,” Stephen said, “I just kept going hard and kept telling them, ‘Don't go easy on me.' Eventually they knew. They found out not to go easy on me.”

Mike said: “They ended up figuring out that's a bad idea.”

But people taking it easy on him were the least of Stephen's problems.

Mike and Stephen won't name names or get too specific about it, but they feel like Stephen didn't always get a fair shake at playing time from some coaches.

“It was a little bit difficult to watch, but there wasn't a whole lot I could do,” Mike said. “And there wasn't a whole lot he could do.

“It was more their actions; some of the things they did made it more difficult for him to win the position, made it more difficult for him to get on the field.”

After Stephen's sophomore year at Ada, the family moved to Byng, which doesn't have a football team. He spent his junior year there, and then the family moved to Konawa, Mike's hometown.

Living in Konawa made an easier daily drive for Mike, who was working in Seminole. But that wasn't the only reason for the move.

“It was a little bit for work, but also it was for him, wanting to have a little more playing time,” Mike said.

When the family got to Konawa, and the school reviewed his records, they determined that he needed to repeat his junior year.

It was around that time that Mike and Stephen went to visit football coach Brent Daniel.

“The first thing he said to me when he got here was, ‘Coach, I just want a chance to play football,'” Daniel said. “I told him, ‘Stephen, you'll get your chance, but you will earn your position like everyone else.'

“That first week, he started earning his position. And he earned it and has been a starter ever since.”

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Stephen Cully and his teammates listen to instructions from a coach at Konawa High School in Konawa, Okla., on Monday, Aug. 29, 2011.
Stephen Cully and his teammates listen to instructions from a coach.
Stephen Cully (#40) practices with his teammates at Konawa High School in Konawa, Okla., on Monday, Aug. 29, 2011.
Stephen Cully (#40) practices with his teammates.
Konawa High School Head Football Coach Brent Damiel talks with his team before practice in Konawa, Okla., on Monday, Aug. 29, 2011.
Konawa High School Head Football Coach Brent Damiel talks with his team before practice

Stephen Cully's teammates will admit their skepticism when they first met him.

“My first impression was, ‘Man, this guy is going to come out and give 100 percent,' but you still have to look at his difficulty,” said Hiawatha Honsinger, a sophomore slot. “But he came out and showed me and everybody else that he can do just as much if not more than everybody on the field.”

Cully won over his teammates quickly, and then won starting positions at both fullback and linebacker.

But doubt from outsiders remained, and his teammates have overheard offensive comments from opponents.

Yellowfish remembers one game last season when he heard opposing players making fun of his friend.

“I can't remember who we were playing,” Yellowfish said. “They were saying, ‘Hey, they've got a one-armed fullback, so they're gonna be easy this year.'”

The Tigers lost the game, but Cully rushed for over 100 yards.

He led the 2010 Tigers in tackles, and also rushed for over 600 yards.

A COMMUNITY'S INSPIRATION

Stephen Cully doesn't see himself as being any different.

“I just go out there and do what I have to do,” Stephen said. “I really don't see it like this. It's just normal.”

Sometimes the stares from people in public get irritating — especially when they it comes from adults — but Stephen takes it in stride.

“If a little kid stares, it doesn't bother him,” Mike said. “In fact, a lot of times he'll go up to them and let them feel it, and then they're good.”

On the practice field, Stephen is a quiet, unassuming leader. No plays are taken off.

When he stands with his teammates during a water break, he sometimes drapes a towel over his nub or hangs his helmet on it, making it completely unnoticeable.

His teammates and his coach, though, see the impact his perseverance has had all around them.

“He's a little humble, but his teammates are inspired by Stephen and what he does,” Brent Daniel said.

“It doesn't matter if it's shooting a basketball, hitting a home run, catching the football, returning a kickoff or playing middle linebacker, he just goes out and does it. He inspires all of them.”

That inspiration applies to the Konawa community as a whole, which brings us back to those little boys paying homage to Stephen.

Stephen Cully has persevered through toil that would cause many to give up — or never try in the first place — Konawa superintendent Joe Sharber said.

“He gets out and does everything that the other boys do,” Sharber said.

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