ORONO – It is no coincidence Daren Stone wears the coveted No. 4 jersey for the University of Maine football team.
In recent years, All-American linebacker Stephen Cooper and All-Atlantic 10 safety Brandon McGowan, both of whom are playing in the NFL, donned that uniform number.
During the last two seasons, the honor has been bestowed upon Stone. This fall, the senior strong safety is hoping to follow the lead of his predecessors by helping coach Jack Cosgrove’s Black Bears win a conference title and earning himself an opportunity to play in the NFL.
“It’s another challenge I took on,” said Stone, a 6-foot-21/2, 220-pounder from Lockport, N.Y., who will lead the UMaine defense into Saturday’s A-10 game against unbeaten Towson (Md.).
“Hopefully, that good luck [No.] 4 is going to rub off on me,” Stone said.
However, it will be because of Stone’s skill, rather than good fortune, that he ultimately achieves his goals.
Stone has been a versatile performer for the Bears. He was a freshman special teams player in 2003, then became the starting free safety a year later.
Last season, Stone proved himself an outstanding cornerback, making five interceptions en route to all-league, third-team honors. This fall, he has been moved to strong safety.
“They put me where they think it will help the defense more,” Stone said. “I’m willing to do anything for our success.”
Despite missing a game for violating team rules, Stone ranks tied for fifth on the team this season with 15 tackles. He also has made an interception and forced a fumble.
“He’s truly got a safety’s body and a safety’s mentality and he can impact our defense from the middle of the field far greater than he can from a corner position,” said Cosgrove, who pointed to Stone’s development during his career.
“He’s grown as a football player and he now understands not only the physical skills that he’s blessed with, and how they work, but also the mental part of the game and the leadership role that he has to play.”
Stone, who boasts 10 career interceptions, was a three-sport standout at Lockport High School, where he played football, basketball and competed in track and field. He was an accomplished high jumper (6 feet, 81/4 inches).
He even was offered a basketball scholarship by Division I St. Bonaventure.
“My senior year was kind of nerve-wracking. At first I didn’t know what sport I wanted to play,” explained Stone, who came to the attention of UMaine through Lockport football coach Mike Finn.
Stone’s recruiting contacts with the late Jeff Cole, a UMaine assistant, and Cosgrove, ultimately steered him to chose the university.
“I had pretty poor SAT scores, so a lot of teams were pretty iffy with me,” Stone admitted. “I had to take them multiple times, but Maine was still there backing me up.”
Cole’s death from cancer in 2004 left a lasting impression.
“He’s in everybody’s heart still,” Stone said. “We know he’s looking down at us right now, guiding us through the season.”
Once his football career is over, Stone has a definite career goal. The child development major wants to become an elementary school teacher.
He was inspired by his fifth-grade teacher, who helped him make the transition when he moved to New York from his native Jamaica at age 11.
“Mr. Wilson, who was also my fifth-grade basketball coach, helped me through a lot, helped me become more Americanized,” Stone said.
Last summer, Stone worked as a counselor with UMaine’s ice hockey camps.
“Daren is wonderful with young people,” Cosgrove said. “I think it’s a strength of his.”
Stone also unwittingly became part of pop culture last summer. After mentioning to hockey campers that he could jump over a parked car, they eventually convinced him to prove it.
The former high jumper twice successfully ran and hurdled sedans, to the delight of the teenagers – who taped the feat and promptly put the footage on the Internet at a site called “YouTube.com.”
“One of my [football] coaches said, ‘that was amazing, but don’t do it again,'” Stone said with a smile.
UMaine hopes Stone will continue to perform superb feats on the field as the Bears chase a Division I-AA playoff berth.