Imagine sitting inside a banquet hall filled with past and the current Heisman Trophy winners and getting the chance to meet 2014 winner Marcus Mariota.
It would be enough to make any college football fan green with envy in what would probably be a once in a lifetime opportunity for him. Well, in this instance, the person afforded that experience in New York City was not a "him" at all. Rather, it was a "her"; Kate Stines, to be exact.
Stines, who with her husband Mitch Stines, lives in Camden with their two daughters and one son, had the evening of her life when she was a guest at the 80th annual Heisman Memorial Trophy Dinner Gala held on Monday, Dec. 15 at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.
Held two nights after Mariota was presented with the Heisman Trophy after the junior led Oregon to the 2014 Pac-12 championship and one of four slots in the NCAA’s playoff series, the evening was like a football fantasy come true for Stines. Capping the day off was getting to spend a few minutes with Mariota and having their picture taken together with the Heisman Trophy.
Some two weeks after the experience, Stines was still smiling, shaking her head and trying to make sure it was not all just a dream.
"I can’t quite even process it all," she said during an interview with her young son Will seated beside her as she recounted the details of her trip. "It was an amazing experience. You just don’t have that kind of opportunity. I still can’t process it all."
If you think for one minute that Stines went to the Big Apple just to be part of the glitz and glamour which comes with brushing elbows with sports celebrities, you might want to squash any of those thoughts. Not only does the avowed Gamecock fan like football, she also coaches it.
For the past two falls, she has been a coach with the Kershaw County Parks and Recreation Department football program with the Eagles of the Pee Wee (8-10 year-olds) league. After having been an assistant coach in 2013, she was elevated to the head coaching post this past fall.
Her love of football was piqued at the age of 12 when a family friend, at the time, former USC tight end Matthew Campbell, who in 1995 would become one of the first 10 members of the then-expansion franchise Carolina Panthers, was playing in the NFL. For Stines and her family, weekends meant football of one variety or another. She got caught up in the game and has never lost that passion.
"On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it was football, football, football," she said. "I was young. You either like what you are doing or, you don’t like what you are doing. I just ended up paying attention. I just loved it."
When her son decided to try out football, Stines joined with him as an assistant coach. When Will decided to focus on baseball, which is coached by his father, Kate Stines decided to not only stay with the Eagles but call the shots last season. "I love the game, the determination of the kids and helping kids to become better," she said of why she coaches and what the design stylist she enjoys about her fall hobby.
Being more comfortable coaching the defense --- "I’m more of a motivator on that side of the ball," she said ---, it was an odd site when players, parents and fans saw Stines working the sidelines. But the head coach thought nothing of being a female in a male-dominated sport.
Not surprisingly, the young boys whom Stines coaches were not fazed by having a woman as their head coach. Like any first-time head coach in any youth sport, though, Stines knew she had to win over the parents. That did not take long once the adults saw that Stines did not get into this as a publicity stunt by any stretch of the imagination.
"It was, I think, intimidating for them at first," she said of the reaction from the Eagle players when they were introduced to their new head coach. "It’s more earning the trust of the parents and the other coaches than it is the boys. I can get a hold of (the players.) They see it, hear it and they are around me more than the parents are.
"People have been pretty supportive. I can get kind of brutal, too," she added with a hearty laugh.
Stines said her circle of friends has been as excited about her coaching football as she is. The group, she said, will come to the games to cheer on the Eagles and their coach. "I will say that my family, at first, was saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re going to do this? You have three kids.’" Stines said when she first broke the news to her family as to her coaching youth football.
More for her own learning and enjoyment of the sport, Stines will tape college games of players and coaches that she likes. She smiles in saying that said that football-watching can "get intense" at her house on the weekends.
"As I study these players and these coaches … it’s not all about the Gamecocks. (Georgia’s) Mark Richt is one of my favorite coaches," she said of what she gets out of watching game films. "These are things I teach my kids; I coach my kids and I want them to understand my love of the game. It’s not that I’m just out there but I have a passionate love for the game of football."
Intense was hardly the word to describe her Heisman experience which started when a friend of the Stines’ had a cousin, who is a Florida State donor, attended the 2013 Heisman Trophy gala and celebrated Seminole quarterback Jameis Winston being awarded college football’s grandest honor. When that family won four tickets, in a lottery, to the 2014 Monday night Heisman dinner, Stines’ best friend was able to make the Saturday night presentation but could not attend the Monday night event. Rather than having an empty seat at the table, she asked Kate Stines if she would like to go in her place.
Stines never hesitated, even though she and her family were in New York City for a pre-holiday trip the previous Wednesday through Friday before the extended Heisman weekend. Once back in Camden, Kate Stines unpacked and then, re-packed her bags for a Monday flight back to New York to be a part of the Heisman experience.
"I knew I was going back," she said of returning to Manhattan. "And I said, ‘Mitch, I have to go back. I know this doesn’t sound normal but it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity’ … which it was."
When prodded, Kate Stines said she was hoping that Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, who along with Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, joined Mariota as the three Heisman finalists, would be the choice of the Heisman Trophy voters. When Mariota’s name was announced and knowing she would have the chance to meet the Ducks’ quarterback in a room along with just 40 other guests in which no cell phones or cameras were allowed, Stines went and did her research.
"I didn’t really know that much about Marcus but when I knew that I was going, I researched him," she said. "Meeting him and his parents, they are just very down to earth. They are a very Christian family. He is very good of what they expect out of the Heisman winner; integrity and character and things like that."
On a night in which she met 2004 Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinhart, had her commemorative Heisman Trophy football signed by 1966 Heisman Trophy winner and USC head coach Steve Spurrier and listened to a speech by former New York Yankees’ head coach Joe Torre, winner of the 2014 Heisman Humanitarian Award, Kate Stines said she was starstruck when it came her turn to meeting the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Mariota and pose with him beside the massive Heisman Trophy.
"You’re speechless," she said while realizing just how tall Mariota was during their few minutes together. "I congratulated him. He’s just very appreciative. He’s very respectful. I didn’t say much."
The formal event on Monday night allowed Mariota some time to meet fans after having spent Saturday night and Sunday fulfilling media obligations.
Kate Stines said he listened to every speech from every athlete honored that evening and said it was nice to hear how people from different backgrounds overcame different hurdles in order to get to where they were in athletics and in life.
"It was surreal," she said of being in the room with some of the most decorated football players in the history of the game. "I don’t think that football fans can put it all into place but just being in a room with people on that level and seeing how all their hard work and determination paid off and how they take a bad situation and make it a better one for themselves or, how the learn to cope with things.
"I just love the game of football and just being able to hear the stories like that."
While she will never win a Heisman Trophy, Kate Stines has her own story to tell. It is one which started with watching football before she was a teenager and how that evolved into working with young people and helping make a difference in their lives, even though she has no family attachment to the Eagles team which she coaches.
"I’m just the type of person who believes if you have a love for something and a passion for something, then do it and don’t let anybody stop you," she said.