Playing for the People He Loves

CHAMPAIGN - Justin Staples doesn't take football or his college experience for granted.

Serving a one-game suspension to start the season for an offseason arrest reinforced that notion.

"I learned it's never good to gamble with anything," he said. "It's not good to put hard work on the line. It was a great experience to learn from and move on from."

He has a never-quit attitude when attacking the opposition, consistently giving 100 percent effort and delivering tough hits.

That's what fans see on Saturdays from Staples. However, it's the struggles that he has encountered away from the football field that molded the person he is today.

His journey to Champaign began in Lakewood, Ohio, after years and years of trying to convince his loving mother to let him enroll in the sport.

"When I first started playing football, it was actually a really big debate between my mother and I," the 6-4, 240-pound senior said. "She didn't want me to follow football and just be the dumb jock. She felt that school had to come first. So for years I had to try and convince her, starting at like 4th grade I would try to hide little flyers talking about the local football team, but she wouldn't let me play."

Justin's mother stressed the importance of education because she wanted her son to have options in life. She took on three jobs to send Justin to a high school that would prepare him for the rigors of college classrooms.

"She was an international flight attendant, a social worker, and she sold Mary Kay," he said. You can feel the appreciation in his voice as he talks about his mother. Tuition wasn't cheap at St. Edward -- a Catholic private school -- and scholarships didn't cover the total amount. "I always saw how she worked so tirelessly in order to give me a life better than she was able to get," Staples said. "When I'm having a day at practice and I'm not really feeling the best, I think about how she would have to fly to China, or just coming back from a trip from Germany, and she would be extremely tired. I don't let fatigue get to me, because I saw her get through it."

Justin attributes his success in football to the ethics and values that he learned from his mother. He proudly calls her his best friend, and knows that she is there for him no matter the time or the place. They end each telephone call with an ‘I love you,' and strive to talk everyday despite the hectic nature of their schedules.

His perseverant mother finally allowed him to play football in the eighth grade, a season in which he was named team MVP. Early success came as no surprise. His late father, Lenson, played at both Northwestern and Missouri, and signed with the Seattle Seahawks for a short period of time.

"I had an extremely, extremely close relationship with my father," Staples said. "He was always there for me. He taught me about football, but he also taught me how to be a man. Whenever I had a great game, he was my biggest critic, telling me things that I could do better, and whenever I had my worst game he would be my biggest fan telling me that it wasn't as bad as I thought. He really kept me going."

Justin's father passed away three years ago during his sophomore year in college.

"That was the last year we played Mizzou, his alma mater," he remembers "I didn't get to look up at the 30-yard line and see him. He wasn't there that year."

Staples keeps photos of his family on his computer, within close proximity at all times. There's his dad in his Mizzou uniform. Another of his father at a church function. Others show them hugging, smiling, and laughing -- lots of laughing.

"We look exactly alike," says Staples, giggling and shaking his head. "Even the way we play the game, its eerie. We run the same, we walk the same, talk the same. He even played defensive end."

If he could speak to his father today, Staples says he would keep it simple.

"I would tell him that I miss him. I know that he's proud of me."

Justin's father was agreed with his wife -- education came first. He harped on the importance of a college diploma, a goal Justin achieved last semester, receiving his degree in sociology.

Graduating was just another landmark in Staples growth during his time at Illinois. He's an active member of Omega Psi Phi Inc., the same organization his dad, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, and Steve McNair are notable former members of.

"I always wanted to pride myself on not being the stereotypical person. When I came to college, I always knew that I wanted to be a member of my fraternity, and I wanted to be an influential person on campus, but not just as an athlete. I wanted to find another way where people can see me for the person I am, and I think I have achieved that"

When Staples steps onto Memorial Stadium on Saturdays, he thinks about his father. He thinks about the unbelievable work his mother put in for him to be able to wear that Illini football jersey. He thinks about his younger sister that just began college, and his little brother that recently said he wanted to play football and be just like him. He sees the tattoos on his arm honoring the women in his family, and the mark he has etched on his shoulder commemorating his fraternity.

When Justin Staples plays football, he plays for more than just himself. He plays for the history he carries. He plays for the people he loves.

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