Penguins fan Don Stevens’ journey to the Steel Valley

Don Stevens observes the Penguins during a practice at the WATTS. Stevens rarely misses practices and has only missed four games since 1997. He has not worked or left the Valley since he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in September of 1996. Photo by Joe Catullo Jr. /The Jambar.

At every home game and nearly every football practice, there’s a man who paces the sidelines or sits in the stands, quietly observing the team. He’s not the coach, and he’s too far past his prime to be stepping on the field.

“He’s here every day,” freshman receiver Adam Charles said. “He’s a true fan. He’s always in the front row. He knows everybody. I don’t know how he knows everybody.”

Don Stevens, born in 1960 in Nashville, Tenn., has attended all but four home games in the past 14 seasons.

Before Stevens began attending Youngstown State University’s football games, he lived in Nashville. While visiting a cousin in Warren during September 1996, Stevens’ life changed.

Stevens said he was not feeling well, so he went to Trumbull Memorial Hospital on Sept. 18. After several tests, Stevens was told that he had non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer that attacks white blood cells. According to the National Cancer Institute, there were 66,360 new cases last year and 19,320 deaths.

“They said the chemo would probably wipe most of it out if you’re lucky,” he said. “They gave it to me up until around April of ’97. It’s been sitting in there ever since.”

The doctors caught the cancer early, so it never fully developed. The average survival rate for 10 or more years with the cancer is 51 percent.

Stevens said he’s had a “slew” of other diseases in his hernia, gallbladder and right hand.

His right hand is visibly swollen to the size of a grapefruit, and doctors still have not diagnosed the cause, Stevens said.

“This swelled up on me this past summer,” he said.

Since the cancer struck, Stevens has not worked or left Youngstown. That’s when he started to attend YSU football games, walking to Stambaugh Stadium from his apartment on the South Side.  

Stevens said the FCS Championship in 1997 against McNeese State University is his favorite memory.

His least favorite, however, came last month when the Penguins lost 37-35 to Indiana State University.

“That stunk,” Stevens said. “That’s a game they should have won.”

Stevens usually wears a different sports hat and YSU football coat. He also carries a black book bag filled with snacks and a cassette player.

Stevens said he would love to return to Orlando, Fla., where he lived in the mid-1980s, but he doesn’t have the money to move.

He does whatever he can to help the Penguins while stuck in Ohio.

“He’s a good guy,” Charles said. “He loves watching football. That’s the kind of people we need around here. He’s like a part of our team now. He’s there at every practice and game, day or night, rain or shine. He’s just like another member of the team for us.”