Above photo of Jerry Cephus by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- Jerry Cephus still remembers sitting on those bleachers, watching the action play out on the field, and like any kid, he wanted to be a part of it. The fourth-grader had watched the team of elementary school football players for three days now. Nobody had seemed to notice him. That was, until a man, evidently one of the team’s coaches, walked towards the bleachers and gave him an offer that Cephus could not turn down.
“Would you like to play with us?,” Cory Stricklin asked.
“I didn’t second guess it at all,” Cephus remembers. “I said, ‘Yes’, and went out there. They had me at safety and the very first play I intercepted the quarterback. It was pretty awesome.”
Stricklin remembers that day especially well too. He saw early on that Cephus possessed a feel for the sport. But looking back, neither Cephus, nor Stricklin knew what that humble offer, and Cephus’ acceptance, would lead to down the road.
Cephus has been a star in the Central Texas area for six years now, having made his name on the gridiron and basketball court of Academy High School, where he doubled as the starting quarterback of a playoff football team, and starting shooting guard on a basketball team that reached the state semifinals his senior year. His list of accolades is remarkable, including District MVP honors in football, and multiple all-district honors in both football and basketball. But what seems to be noted most about Cephus is his pure work ethic and effort.
“He was our scout team receiver that was always in my huddle,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said of Cephus as a freshman in 2021. “So even though I was only the DC, I got to see Jerry everyday. Jerry has a lot of ability, a lot of talent, and he made our defensive backs better because of the effort he gave.”
That talent, an all-encompassing word that only partially captures Cephus’ agility, speed, and overall football IQ, was an attribute Stricklin saw early on in the Tucson, Arizona native, who had not been in Texas for even a year when he stepped onto the field. At first, he was put at defensive back, and made a few plays. Once he tried offense, things seemed to click even more. And he had a smile on his face.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you come down here and we’ll see what you got,’” Stricklin recalls of his first conversation with the now 5’10, 180 lb receiver who started his first collegiate game on Saturday. “When we put him on offense, he made some plays. I said, ‘I tell you what, we’ll make a spot for you on the team. Let’s go talk to your parents.’
“He said, ‘Well if it costs money, I can’t do it.’ I said, ‘Well, don’t worry about that. Let’s just go talk to them.’”
The short drive over to his home was one that would change the lives of Stricklin, Cephus, and Stricklin’s son, Brock, who quickly became one of Jerry’s closest friends, on and off the field.
“We got in the truck and drove over to where he was living, and the conditions weren’t ideal,” Stricklin said. “So Jerry ended up going home with us that night, and he’s been with us every day since, for the last 12 years.”
Cephus has not wanted to leave. In fact, the proximity to his family in Academy played a significant role in his decision to continue his collegiate career with the Cru.
“UMHB was close to home,” Cephus said of his college decision, “and it felt like home.”
He has been a Crusader for just two years, and this fall is his first on the varsity roster. But his impact has been felt. In the season opener against Muhlenberg, his first collegiate game with UMHB’s varsity unit, Cephus finished with four catches for 77 yards and a touchdown. In week two, he added a fifth reception to his season total, joining seniors Brandon Jordan and K.J. Miller as the only receivers to have caught at least one pass in each of the Cru’s first two games of 2022.
“It’s no surprise the kind of game that he had,” Harmon said of Cephus after the Muhlenberg win. “We know who he is. And that’s why he’s on varsity. To be in our top seven at wide receiver is really saying something.”
Then consider the fact that Cephus has only been a full-time receiver since spring practice and the significance of his quick start becomes that much more notable. He came to UMHB as a quarterback, but even through his success under center for the junior varsity squad in 2021, the coaching staff already saw his potential as a pass-catcher, in addition to being an exceptional pass-thrower. So when the coaches spoke with him on the first day of spring workouts about a position switch, Cephus was all ears.
“Playing receiver on the scout team [came about because] we had a lot of quarterbacks,” Cephus said. “I was like, ‘I’ll go help them somewhere else.’ I ran full speed and it kind of came natural to me.”
He also noted the level of trust that is found between the players and the coaching staff. Cephus has joined a group of notable Crusaders, including safety Tommy Bowden and running back Kenneth Cormier Jr., who switched positions after arriving in Belton. Part of what makes that happen is the trust that the coaching staff is putting each player in the best position to help both the team and the individual succeed.
“You don’t meet many coaches like Coach Harmon,” Cephus added. “He genuinely cares about you. You can see that he’s passionate about everything he does. If he asks you to do something, we’re going to do it, without thinking twice. If he asks me to play receiver, I’ll do it. If he asked me to play kicker, I’d go do it. It’s really about the trust we have in Coach Harmon.”
But he did not make the transition on his own. New UMHB receivers coach Jeremy Harness played a pivotal role in Cephus’ development, as did Brock, who is also the inspiration behind why Cephus wears No. 11 for the Cru.
“Recently, I had been struggling with blocking,” Cephus said. “[Brock] texted me the other day about it and has helped me with playing receiver, because that was his position.”
March 22, 2019 is another day in his life that Cephus will never forget. Brock had begun experiencing painful headaches, headaches that would not go away. Once examined by doctors, it was found that the headaches were the symptom of a serious brain tumor.
“We took him in, and the doctor looked at his eyes for seconds, before saying ‘We’ve got to get him an MRI,’” Stricklin remembers. “She made it happen that day, and 16 hours later, we were in emergency surgery, removing the tumor. When they came in to tell us he had the tumor, they told us to say our goodbyes, because he wouldn’t make it.”
Cephus still gets emotional thinking back to when he heard that piece of news. Since Jerry had come to live with them, he and Brock had developed an incredible bond, pushing each other to improve, and being each other’s biggest supporter. It was Cephus who threw Brock the first touchdown of his high school career.
“They went to the hospital without me, because I was still in class,” Cephus recalls. “It came out of nowhere. We had no idea that was a problem. They texted me and I went right to the hospital to be with him. That was one of the scariest things for me and my dad.”
“Jerry was naturally gifted, but at a young age, didn’t have much drive at all,” Stricklin recalls. “And Brock had all the drive. Early–morning workouts, to mid-day workouts, to evenings, and this is even before junior high. He just loved the game so much. It motivated Jerry.”
And just as Brock had continued to exceed expectations as he and Cephus made their marks on the gridiron, he overcame a hurdle the doctors thought was impossible.
“[Brock] said, ‘I didn’t come this far to only come this far,’” Stricklin said. “He said, ‘I’ll make it out of surgery. I’ll be back.’”
He did that, and more on the road to recovery. A year of rehab followed, and during each session, the therapist would ask him to do 10 reps of various exercises or movements. But Brock refused to do 10. Instead, he did 11, because as he said, ‘That’s one day sooner that I get to go home.’
“It inspired me,” Cephus said. “To see him get up and work as he could when he had the odds against him, to keep doing one extra rep every time, inspired me to work harder in everything I do. Whenever I take the field, I know I’m going to go as hard as I can every snap, because that’s exactly what he would do.”
Watching that hard-nosed mentality play out in addition to his versatile skill set, it is surprising to think that in ninth grade, Cephus considered quitting football altogether. It was not that he did not love sport anymore. He did. But as an all-round athlete with his skill set, basketball was calling, and it seemed he might have more potential on the court, than the field.
“I actually was going to quit football my ninth grade year,” Cephus remembers. “I stuck it out and chose the football route. But basketball definitely was a thought at first.”
Thankfully for UMHB, he stuck with football. But his prowess on the court continued through high school, as he helped lead Academy to a perfect 12-0 district record, the 3A Region III Championship, and a trip to the state semifinals.
“That was like a movie,” Cephus said of the incredible season. “That team was a family. We bonded together. That was one of my favorite experiences ever in high school. It was awesome, and hard to explain. We really played for each other.”
He hopes he can play a role in another kind of championship for the Cru: a championship game known as the Stagg Bowl.
“The feeling of playing on this team is amazing,” Cephus said towards the conclusion of his interview with True To The Cru. “The people you meet, the guys you encounter; it’s an amazing feeling.”