No football players have dominated a Big Game like Ryan Steen did as a Vintage High senior in 1992, scoring every point in the Monticello Empire League rivalry contest.
It was something only one other player had done – in a 6-0 Vintage win three years earlier, though all quarterback Chris Rhondeau had to do was sneak into the end zone from a yard out.
In the 23-0 blowout Steen was part of, he ran 56 yards for a first-quarter touchdown and 11 yards for a second-quarter score, staying on the field to kick the extra point after each.
When he couldn’t find the end zone in the third quarter, he threaded a 21-yard field goal instead. He found pay dirt again in the fourth from 27 yards out. He missed that extra point, perhaps exhausted on a night when he ran 16 times for 177 yards and went over 1,000 yards for the season.
The next week, Steen scored 14 points – on a touchdown catch, two field goals and two extra points – in a 20-15 win over Hogan that gave the Crushers (6-1 MEL) the league title outright over the Spartans (5-1-1 MEL).
Trying to tackle Steen, as one opposing head coach remarked, was like trying to catch a gnat. Blessed with 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash and a low center of gravity, he also wrestled in the winter, and did both baseball and track and field in the spring – all four years.
So kicking was hardly a stretch.
“I started kicking in the ninth grade but I didn’t do it in games until my senior year,” he recalled. “My grandma always said she taught me how to kick. I used to take little toilet paper rolls, line them up like goalposts, and make these little field goals. I’m not gonna say I was the greatest kicker in terms of distance, but I could get it down the pipe.”
Along with taking handoffs and catching passes, the jack of all trades booted kickoffs and punts as a senior. The only thing he didn’t do that season was play defense, although he had doubled as a defensive back in his first three high school seasons.
“I ran the ball 20 to 25 times a game, so not playing defense gave me a little bit of a breather,” he said.
Steen went on to play for NCAA Division I-AA Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo on a scholarship, as strictly a kickoff returner in 1993, before adding wide receiver to his resume in 1994. His speedy brother, Curtis Steen, joined him as a Mustangs returner during his senior season in 1996.
The 1992 Napa County Football Player of the Year, Ryan Steen was still among the top 10 all-time in four statistical categories at Cal Poly 20 years later.
The 1993 Vintage graduate will be one of eight people inducted into the Vintage High Athletic Hall of Fame on Saturday at the Elks Lodge of Napa, during a dinner and enshrinement ceremony starting at 7 p.m.
Steve Wallace (Class of 1977), Jerry Smith and Mike Jarecki (Class of 1979), Adam Housley (1989), Anna Cmaylo (Class of 2004), Liza Saunders and Marty James are also in the class. Saunders recently retired after 41 years as Vintage’s head swimming and diving coach. James, who retired on June 4 after 40 years with the Napa Valley Register, is a special category inductee.
The newest class will be introduced Friday night at halftime of Vintage’s 7 p.m. Hall of Fame Game against Acalanes-Lafayette at Memorial Stadium. Visit vintageboosters.com for tickets or more information.
Dave Shipp, who was Vintage’s head coach from 1989 to 1993 during more than three decades of coaching football, said Steen was the fastest player he ever coached.
“He could flat out fly. He would be pulling away from people going into the end zone. He was the second-leading receiver in the league as a junior, too, catching a lot of screen passes,” Shipp said. “For a small player, he was not afraid to go up the middle and take shots. He was in phenomenal condition. He worked really hard at it, so he stayed injury free.
“He was just a natural athlete. He had phenomenal moves. (Former Napa High head coach Bob) Herlocker used to have a saying about Pat Hodge (from Vintage’s 1980 section champion team) that he could cut on a dime and give you five cents change. That was Ryan, too.”
Shipp said Steen had a great attitude, and didn’t mope when things didn’t go his way.
“He was always ready to play and he always had a smile on his face,” he said. “We were playing Elk Grove and on the first play, Ryan took the ball by 84 yards for a touchdown. We were missing one guy on the line of scrimmage (and got an illegal procedure penalty), so we came back and ran the same play again and Ryan went 89 yards for a touchdown.
“Once he got to the linebacker level, not too many people could tackle him, and he knew how to read blocks. He knew exactly when to turn on the jets. He just had that sixth sense of what was happening on the field. He was going to make the most out of what God gave him. He did that and a lot more.”
In the 2016 Cal Poly media guide, Steen is listed second all-time for All-Purpose Yards Per Game with 132.6, and Average Yards Per Catch with 24.86. He was also listed 10th in number of Kickoff Returns, 22 for 424 return yards, and Average Yards Per Punt Return, with 6.5 (10 for 65 yards).
“I was the only true freshman that started, out of 100 guys, and the older guys kinda took me under their wing,” Steen recalled. “They mainly recruited me for kickoff and punt returns, and the first time I ever touched the ball I took it back (70-plus) yards. I was like ‘Wow, that was easy.’ That first year I did well and I got all-conference as a returner.
“My second year, they kind of knew who I was. I wore No. 1, and obviously I’m not a hard guy to stop, the smallest guy on the field. I had just returned two kicks for touchdowns against Portland State and we went to San Francisco State for the fifth game. I was frustrated because on the kickoffs they would just kick it out of bounds and let us start on the 35. And on punts they would never, ever give me a chance to return it. They would just squib it or just kick it at an angle out of bounds, and I was getting super frustrated.”
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Then came the play in that game that changed Steen’s life.
“I finally got to return a punt and I was going down the left sideline,” he recalled. “Nine times out of 10 I would have just stepped out. But I was frustrated and irritated, so I cut back in, and a guy hit me with his helmet. I didn’t see him at all. It was weird. It felt like a hard hit and it knocked me way out of bounds and everyone’s just freaking out (trash talking).
“I popped up real quick and started running to our sideline and started feeling kind of sick. I thought maybe it was just like an adrenaline dump, too much adrenaline, but I started seeing black spots. I was thinking ‘What the hell?’ I sat down and the trainer looked at me. My shoulder was sagging big time, and I could see in his eyes that something was wrong.”
Steen had sustained a separated right shoulder.
“It was like a third-degree separation, with torn rotator cuff muscles,” he said. “I had to go immediately into surgery and have a pin and a plate for eight weeks. After they took it out, it was three to four months before I could even start rehabbing. I couldn’t put my arm up over my head.”
He missed his junior season at Cal Poly but, of course, tried to come back as a senior.
“I did some kickoff and punt returns and did all right, and I was definitely moving right up to probably being a starter,” he said. “Then a couple weeks later, I was trying to go to the ball and it all went all bad again. It was stinger after stinger and it just wouldn’t heal. So I was over it. I just focused on school.
“I had never had a serious injury in all of youth football or high school football. It’s crazy how a split second decision can change your life so drastically.”
Steen moved on to another passion – surfing.
“I got really into that,” he said. “I surfed in competitions all over the world – Peru, Chile, Costa Rica. That was my new passion.”
He also decided to transfer to Cal State Northridge because of its exercise physiology program, and ended up graduating from there with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science. He went on to graduate from the Palmer College of Chiropractic West and now has his own chiropractic business in Brentwood.
He and his wife, Sarah – a school district administrator in Tracy – have a 13-year-old son, Ryder, who plays youth football for the East County Lions. His father is one of his coaches.
Steen Chiropractic is across the street from Heritage High, a 14-year-old school in Brentwood. But the Steens live in Discovery Bay. So next year Ryder will be attending crosstown rival Liberty, which was founded in 1902 and currently has the 19th-ranked football team in the state, according to MaxPreps.com.
Steen looks back on his last Big Game as a team-bonding experience more than the Ryan Steen Show.
“That was such a cool game because a lot of us played together on the Saints, both Napa and Vintage guys,” he said. “That’s what I love about the Napa-Vintage rivalry – most of the kids grow up together, so when you actually get to that game there’s a lot of emotion because you know these guys so well and it gets so competitive and so fun.
“Back then the field was amazing, too. It’s amazing now (since the 2010 revamping), but it’s kind of corporate – whereas before, there was no track around it, so you had the crowd right up to the field and it would just echo that sound, like there were 100 more guys than there really were. The huge grass field was so good. They would keep that grass so short, which I loved because I felt so fast on it.”
He, Curtis and their parents, Cliff Steen and Joann Truby, lived in a remote home off Dry Creek Road. They had a steep driveway that Ryan sprinted up to build leg strength. He would also help his dad, Cliff, clear logs from the property, dig trenches and other chores.
“It was almost like being on a farm,” he said. “When I was in eighth grade, our house burned down. But my dad was a general contractor, so we rebuilt it in the same exact spot.”
Steen talks so positively about his athletic experiences, as if things fell into his lap. But nothing falls into the lap of a 5-foot-5, 150-pound football player – or even wrestler.
“Ever met Jim Lanterman?” he said of the longtime Vintage wrestling coach who was inducted into the hall of fame last year. “He had a huge part in my life. He knew football was my thing, but I could not walk on campus anywhere without hearing him say ‘Steen, get in the wrestling room.’ I had woodshop with him, too. I’m surprised more kids don’t wrestle these days. There’s a really big shift right now in terms of kids doing only one sport, and maybe I’m just old school, but I just think it’s so hard not to get burned out by doing one sport all the time.
“It’s nice to work different muscles in different sports. I’ve got kids that I coach who play football and then go straight to these clinics and basically it’s football all year round. It takes a special kind of kid to want to do that and not get burned out with it.”
Steen even dabbled in motocross as a youth, and these days also plays the drums and guitar.
“Sometimes I say I’m not a master at anything, but I’m a jack of all trades,” he said. “I like to stay active, and I’m still in the gym five days a week.”
“I feel part of the reason I became a doctor is because I put everything into sports and knew how to push my limits, both mentally and physically, so it seemed there was nothing I couldn’t do.”