Derek Stingley Jr. stood a few yards ahead of his opposing receiver, crouched in his pre-snap position.
It’s Nov. 18, 2017, and on this particular Friday night, Division III playoff high school football captures the attention of many Baton Rouge, Louisiana, inhabitants. Stingley, a cornerback for The Dunham School, squared off against rival Riverside Academy in the second round of the playoffs.
Riverside Academy, known as the Rebels, drove with ease into the red zone. On the offense’s mind, scoring a touchdown. On Stingley’s, securing an interception.
As the Riverside offense prepared to snap the ball, Stingley’s gaze on the receiver he covered never wavered. Separation existed between the corner and receiver. Stingley massaged both of his hands before he hung them in front of his knees. The calm before the ball is snapped provided seconds for Stingley to lock into coverage.
This close to the end zone, the play could unfold in a few ways. With that much separation between the receiver and Stingley, he could run in a straight line for a curl route. A crossing route, with the receiver running straight and then to the right, is a possibility. Or a quick slant, with the space to allow the receiver to catch the ball in the end zone.
The offense elects the slant option. Once the receiver stutter-steps, Stingley knows he’s slanting right. The cornerback pounces with his quick feet, snatching the ball out of the air for the interception.
As teammates and personnel cheered on the sideline, Stingley pointed to someone in the crowd. That person was his father, Derek, who was a draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies before transitioning to a career in professional football, both as a player and coach. According to Stingley’s teammate and close friend Kobe Semien, who now plays sprint football at West Point, the father and son discussed handling that particular slant route in the red zone.
“They worked on that play in practice,” Semien said. “It was a slant and he broke on the ball and intercepted it. They worked on that slant all practice before the game. That’s why he pointed to his dad. It shows their relationship and the tight close bond.”
Fast-forward four years and the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Stingley is in his junior year at LSU, playing cornerback for the Tigers. He won a national championship his freshman year and is likely a top-10 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. The accolades, the headlines, the accomplishments don’t linger too long with Stingley. A reserved person by nature, the 20-year-old obsesses over football, focusing on the next practice, the next play, the next game, rather than worrying about the future.
The connection between Stingley and his dad during that playoff game symbolizes a deep bond among family members, born from a love and passion for the sport.
‘When he came into the world, he was always around it’
Stingley Sr. doesn’t recall a time when his son didn’t have a football in his hands. When he was an infant, football became a part of his life.
“When he came into the world, he was always around it,” Stingley Sr. said.
Growing up in Baton Rouge, the Stingley family had a corner house on their street. On the lawn and backyard, the spacious grounds provided Stingley Sr. the opportunity to teach his son football. His experiences playing cornerback in the Arena Football League with the Albany Firebirds, Chicago Rush, Arizona Rattlers, Carolina Cobras and Dallas Desperados, as well as the New York Jets practice squad, all shaped his instruction.
“We’d do it all: catching punts, catching kickoffs, running routes, how to tackle,” Stingley Sr. said. “Every week, we’d do something new but do it for the whole week. And then circle back to it. It became second nature to the point where it was as simple as walking or speaking words.”
Being a cornerback isn’t natural. Most players prefer the motion of running forward. Running backward while jumping to deflect and catch balls is a challenge. The Stingley father and son duo spent countless days and hours practicing routes, learning the intricacies of being a cornerback. In those practice sessions as a child, Stingley began showcasing his natural speed.
“I saw him do the things that a corner should do,” his dad said. “Remember, he’s 3 or 4 years old, so he didn’t have perfect movements. But I knew other 3- or 4-year-olds weren’t doing what he’s doing. He always had a leg up over everybody.”
Growing up in Louisiana, football is entrenched in daily life. For the Stingleys, a daily occurrence. Stingley’s grandfather Darryl (Stingley Sr.’s father) played wide receiver for the New England Patriots. Stingley watched old videotapes of his grandfather playing, which turned into watching games with his dad. Whenever the two studied football games, they’d dissect it with Stingley Sr. asking his son questions about a particular play.
“When I’m watching with him, I’ll pause the tape and say, ‘What do you think they’re going to do in this very next moment?’ ” Stingley Sr. said. “He said he would ‘cut this way’ or ‘look for this guy.’ He came up with his own answers, allowing him to have a football IQ and to understand the game.”
The backyard drills and watching games transitioned to Stingley accompanying his father from 2005 to 2013 as he coached in the Arena Football League. The youngster watched games, lingered in the locker room and participated in noncontact and footwork drills during practice. As Stingley Sr. remembers, Stingley was even better than some of his players at the drills.
Beyond the physical aspect, Stingley developed intangible qualities during his time shadowing his dad. Preparation, watching film, being accountable for his teammates, doing what’s expected, ultimately laid the groundwork for Stingley to be the player he is today.
A leader on and off the field
As Stingley grew into a teenager, he needed to find a school where he could continue his football and education. The Baton Rouge area has a plethora of football schools that prepare kids for top NCAA institutions. But many of the city schools didn’t have spots for Stingley.
One of Stingley Sr.’s coaching friends in the Arena Football League became the defensive coordinator at The Dunham School. He knew of Stingley’s talent and recommended Dunham. A private school in Baton Rouge, it wasn’t well known for its athletics compared with others in the area. When Stingley Sr. and Stingley met with Neil Weiner, the head coach of the football program, they liked what they heard. Stingley Sr. and his wife Natasha appreciated how the school cared about education and family. Stingley passed the entrance exam, allowing him to enroll at Dunham.
The school had a football team for seventh and eighth graders. Stingley started there, but it became clear his abilities surpassed those in middle school football.
“Derek was 13 years old when he enrolled,” Weiner said. “The first time I saw Derek was running drills and doing summer conditioning. He was working out with the high school kids. He was a little guy but he was just a different type of 13-year-old.”
Weiner said he put Stingley on the high school team as an eighth grader so he could get “real competition.” Despite his height and young age, Stingley displayed an attack-first mentality on the field, covering receivers and making catches. He developed a competitive nature that made him a likable teammate. And he didn’t like to lose.
When Dunham School faced Northeast High School, it was one of the first games Stingley played in, filling in as a slot receiver. The ball was thrown in Stingley’s direction. He had a play on the ball but dropped it. As Stingley Sr. recounts, it was a difficult catch to make. Even hours after the game, Stingley remained upset.
“He was devastated,” Weiner said. “It didn’t matter that he was 13 years old, that he was going against guys four to five years older than him. In his mind, he should’ve made that catch. Seeing that made me notice that he’s built different. Most guys would’ve been like, ‘Hey, it’s cool. I got to play a high school game.’ And Derek’s crushed because he didn’t make the catch at the end which was nearly impossible.”
As Stingley progressed in his high school career, his work ethic grew stronger. Weiner remembers how Stingley practiced with the team before going to do another session with his dad. He and Stingley Sr. traveled to college campuses, where he practiced with their programs. Stingley never faltered. He demonstrated his athleticism while maintaining his even-keeled temperament.
It’s Stingley’s humility that his teammates such as Semien and Jordan Dupré admired. While he didn’t talk much, the times when Stingley spoke to the team and the younger players, it resonated.
“He’s a quiet guy, so whenever he did talk, everybody listened,” Dupré said. “Whenever people talked about his accolades, he didn’t let any of that get to his head. He’s a great mentor and friend.”
One of Stingley’s most memorable moments at Dunham came when Christian Briggs, a former practice squad player with the Indianapolis Colts, came to prepare with the team before its quarterfinal game. Given his position as a receiver, that meant Stingley had the assignment of covering him. At first, the teenager failed. Disappointed at himself for not fulfilling the coverage, Stingley and his father spent that night creating a plan to stymie the receiver.
The next day, Stingley not only succeeded in coverage but also picked off a pass intended for the NFL receiver.
For Stingley Sr., it speaks to Stingley’s continued willingness to improve. Those moments shared between father and son, talking the language of football, provide the link to their unbreakable bond.
An All-AMERICAN AS A FRESHMAN
As Semien notes, it felt like in every high school game Stingley played in, he made an impactful play.
The young cornerback posted 27 interceptions, and as a senior, he was a five-star recruit and the top player in his class, according to Rivals. He became the most popular student at Dunham, with students always wanting to chat and interact with the star football player.
“It was literally a famous person at school,” Semien said of Stingley. “Students in lower grades would five him and when parents picked up their kids from school, they would try and snap a photo with Derek and their child.”
As one of the nationally recognized recruits, Stingley elected to stay close to home and play for the LSU Tigers.
He arrived on campus at the right time, as the program embarked on one of the greatest seasons in its history. Quarterback Joe Burrow, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, put up historic offensive numbers, but it was Stingley who anchored the defense.
As a freshman.
Semien remembers the SEC championship when LSU played Georgia. Stingley had two interceptions in that game, en route to LSU’s 37-10 win.
“It’s fun to watch as an LSU fan and to see your friend do well,” Semien said.
Stingley’s freshman season consisted of six interceptions, 38 tackles (31 solo) and 15 passes defended. This led the SEC and earned Stingley consensus All-American honors and first-team nods from several outlets, including the Associated Press and ESPN.
“What he did in his first year, it’s pretty hard for a freshman to do,” Stingley Sr. said.
When LSU defeated Clemson 42-25 in the national title game, Stingley embraced the moment. However, he quickly turned his focus to the next season, in line with his inclination to not get too high on the successes or too low with the failures.
Take Stingley’s sophomore season. Played amid the coronavirus pandemic, LSU couldn’t replicate its championship season. Stingley missed three games. While his stats didn’t match his numbers as a freshman, Stingley still received first-team All-SEC honors.
In his junior year, with the spotlight of being a top NFL draft prospect, Stingley isn’t caught up in the hype. As he sports the No. 7, worn by several LSU football alumni such as Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson, Stingley remains a force in the secondary. No opposing team wants to throw the ball in his direction and risk a potential interception. His speed and vertical jump make him the standout cornerback of this draft class.
As his father proclaims, not until he retires will Stingley ever take off, a byproduct of his family’s football legacy.
“It’s cool to hear that stuff,” Stingley said during SEC media day when hearing about the possibility of being a top draft pick. “But I like to focus on the team and what we can do as a group.”
Despite the heightened attention, Stingley remains the same kid from Baton Rouge. He keeps in touch with Semien. They talk almost every day, and there are always tickets waiting for his friend to attend LSU games. Recently, Stingley went back to Dunham, where the school retired his jersey. He had a conversation with Dupré, now a senior, where the former cornerback expressed his best wishes.
The fame, the attention, the awareness don’t concern Stingley. At his core, he’s the player who will make amazing catches, run down receivers and point to his dad in the crowd with euphoria.