By Dan McDonald
Written for the LSWA
Hundreds of athletes and prominent sports figures have been enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in its 60 years of existence.
None of them found out about their upcoming induction in the manner than Brandon Stokley did. But that shouldn’t be a surprise, since normal and typical have never been terms associated with one of the top receivers in Louisiana history.
That word on his 2018 induction came last September while Stokley was on-air, taking care of normal business on his weekday radio show on Denver’s 104.3 The Fan along with co-host Zach Bye. It was after two hours of the normal noon-3 p.m. broadcast that Stokley’s former coach and long-time friend Gerald Broussard walked into the studio, grabbed a microphone and told Stokley that his next on-air call was going to be a little different.
That call came from Hall of Fame chairman Doug Ireland, informing Stokley of his selection by the 30-member Hall of Fame committee. Two other Lafayette-based committee members followed up with on-air chats, and the next hour was filled with calls from colleagues such as college teammate and fellow NFL veteran and Hall of Famer Jake Delhomme, fellow 2018 inductee Reggie Wayne, and future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning among others.
“I didn’t quite know what was happening for a while,” Stokley said. “It kind of came out of the blue. It wasn’t anything I ever expected.”
Wife Lana also walked into the studio that day with sons Carson and Cameron, and she had also arranged for Stokley’s beloved grandfather Causby Hamic to be a part of the celebration by phone from his Crowley home. The radio station then honored Stokley with a reception after he wrapped up one of his most memorable shows – one that is still available on YouTube.
That day became even more poignant when Hamic passed away at age 96 last January. Stokley had previously lost his mother Jane during his senior year at then-Southwestern Louisiana in 1988, and his father, long-time Ragin’ Cajun head football coach Nelson Stokley, in 2010 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Just the way it all came together made it special,” Stokley said. “With everyone that called in, my family there, it was a special, special day. It’s a memorable day to begin with, to think that someone considers you to be among the many great athletes and sports figures that have come out of Louisiana, but the way I found out made it even more special.”
While normal and typical may never have been used in descriptions, the word “special” keeps popping up any time someone who knows him talks about the man who has been the underdog all his life.
“There are some that I would have gone to see and tell about that kind of honor,” said Broussard, who flew from Lafayette to Denver to break the news. “For him, I would have gone anywhere.”
Broussard and many more Stokley admirers will be at the Natchitoches Events Center on Saturday evening, June 30, to see the induction ceremony for the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2018.
Broussard was an assistant coach under Stokley’s father for many years with the Ragin’ Cajuns, and coached wide receivers for part of that time when Stokley was on his way to becoming the most prolific receiver in Cajun history.
“Athletically, he was gifted when it came to quickness,” Broussard said, “but it’s the other part. He was just tough, mentally and physically. He never checked up as far as blocking somebody or getting up after a hit, and I never saw him short-arm a ball in his life. The mentality to go across the middle, that’s not something that most people have.
“He played his whole life that way, knowing he was going to get hit, and he didn’t care. He just went up and got the football. It takes a special person to do that, knowing the collisions you’re going to take.”
Those collisions were frequent given Stokley’s style of play, leading to more than his share of injuries during both his collegiate and professional career. One of those came in the fourth game of his junior season at USL, when he suffered a torn ACL against Texas A&M and missed the remainder of the season.
Stokley had only 20 catches for 248 yards and one score in that shortened season, one that left him with doubts about his football future after college.
“You kind of dream about being able to do that,” Stokley said of the NFL, “and I started thinking about that going into my junior year. At the same time, it’s the NFL. For me, it was can I really play and do it at that level, a different level than what I was playing at, so I was never quite sure. I didn’t know how NFL scouts and the front office folks viewed me.
“After I got hurt, at that time it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that you come back from an ACL injury like it is now. Back then, it was ‘will I ever be the same’ and ‘can I come back from that.’ A lot was up in the air, whether I could be the same player or not. There were some serious doubts.”
But Stokley had an ace in the hole on that front.
His future wife was also in the middle of a stellar athletic career of her own. Lana Jimenez was a two-time All-America outfielder for the renowned Ragin’ Cajun softball program and helped lead her team to two Women’s College World Series appearances. Those came on either side of her own serious knee injury.
“When you have that type injury it can wear on you,” Stokley said. “You’re grinding and you don’t see progress. But when you have somebody that has been through that process before, it helps you stay positive. Lana was a big part of me recovering, both then and later on. She played at a high level, and had to go through a knee injury. There’s nothing like sports and the adversity you face when that happens, and when your partner has been there and done that, they know what you’re going through.”
By that time, Stokley had produced two stellar seasons after redshirting in 1994, setting NCAA records for most receptions (75) and receiving yards (1,121) by a freshman in 1995. Those marks stood for years before Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree broke them, but Crabtree had an advantage – he was a starter.
Even with those gaudy numbers, Stokley didn’t start in his first year. Father Nelson, the second-winningest coach in Cajun history with 62 victories, made sure there were no claims of preferential treatment for his son.
“Being the son of a coach, that’s not easy,” Broussard said. “He had to overcome that every day. People may have thought he was playing because he’s the coach’s kid and wondered did he deserve balls thrown to him. He overcame all of that and never said a word, but I heard it from others. I didn’t have to defend him because he defended it by his play. I used to tell people, just watch him, he’s the best player we got.”
Stokley did come back with a standout senior year, notable for a 181-yard, three-TD game against Tulane only days after his mother’s death. Suddenly, the career underdog – he played only one year of high school football, when he led all Louisiana receivers with 80 catches for Comeaux High – was on his way to the NFL as a fourth-round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens in 1999.
Ending his rookie season, he caught a 38-yard touchdown pass from Trent Dilfer for the first score in Super Bowl XXXV to spark a 34-7 win. It was the start of what became a memorable career.
“Just to be able to get there, in my first year, and then have an impact, that was great,” he said.
His best pro years came later after joining the Indianapolis Colts and long-time friend Manning in 2003. One year later, he caught 68 passes for 1,077 yards and 10 scores including Manning’s then-record 49th touchdown pass, as part of the Colts’ record-setting passing attack.
“Brandon is one of my favorite teammates of all time, along with being a close friend,” said Manning, who called Stokley the best slot receiver in the NFL during his stint with the Colts. “For him to keep that desire and that quickness as long as he did, that’s pretty rare for a wide receiver. He was definitely a matchup problem for teams.”
An injury sidelined Stokley for most of the Colts’ Super Bowl XLI winning season in 2006, and the following year he left for Denver – the city that became his permanent home even after stints with the Seattle Seahawks and New York Giants. The last of those came in 2011 when he suffered a torn quadriceps after only two games, and figured his NFL playing days were done.
That was before a February 2012 phone call from Manning, inviting him to join him for some throw-and-catch during Manning’s injury rehabilitation. A few weeks later, Manning slept in the guest room at Stokley’s house while visiting Denver in his free-agency tour. Stokley had no intentions of playing again, but he recruited his friend to join the Broncos.
“I never thought I would be part of the deal. I never asked him for that,” Stokley said. “That’s not why I wanted him to come to Denver. I wanted him to come because I love watching him play and I wanted my sons to go to games and watch Peyton Manning play.”
The Broncos needed a slot receiver, as well as someone to help guide a young receiver corps, and the club didn’t even need to relocate anyone. Stokley wound up catching 45 passes for 544 yards and five scores that year, becoming one of only eight players in NFL history to record 40 catches and five
touchdowns in a season after age 35. His last career TD catch came in a playoff game against the Ravens that year – a typical leaping, toe-tap, fingertip grab.
Ironically, and fittingly, Stokley went to back to his first club, the Ravens, for one final season in 2013 before announcing his retirement in November of that year.
“I never wanted to fail, that’s what drove me,” Stokley said. “I never wanted to lose, even in practice one-on-ones. I never felt like I’d arrived, and I always felt like I had to get better, that I always had to prove I was good enough.”
It was plenty good enough.