Delbert Stephens knew he should have been better at basketball. After all, he was the tallest boy at his Burlington middleschool, and he had the desire and work ethic. It should have been a slam-dunk.

But it wasn’t. Try as he might, Stephens simply did not have any ability to play the game and, despite repeated tries, he wasn’t able to make the team until well into high school.

Stephens unwinds this story of childhood trauma with the grace and good humor of a master story teller. Spend some time re-capturing memories with the genial 1968 graduate of Burlington High School and you are swept past stories of sports, motorcycle odysseys, the joys of pickleball and South Dakota winters.

Stephens now lives in Burlington. With a 6-foot-6 athletic build, he is a familiar sight about town. Many days a week the retired state employee can be found lending a hand at the YMCA or astride his 950-pound Gold Wing motorcycle emblazoned with the words “Mr. Back Fist."

But it is not until he can be persuaded to sit down and tell his life story does his adventure come into focus. He confesses the opening chapters of that life story were shaped by a mother determined to keep her young charge headed in the proper direction.

“I remember that when I started school, I was so big that kids went out of their way to pick on me. There was one kid that would wait for me each day by the back door of the school and try to get me to fight. I didn’t know the first thing about fighting, so it ended up with him chasing me all the way home.

“One day, my mother was looking out the window and saw me running up to the house. I was crying, and this other kid was right behind me,” Stephens continued.

“When I got in the house, my mother sat me down in the kitchen and asked what was happening. I told her and she thought about it for a minute. Then she said that I had better make up my mind to fight the bully, because what he could do to me would be nothing compared to the licking she would give me if she caught me running home again."

So he stood up to his bully, and something amazing happened.

"We became the best of friends," Stephens said. "My mother taught me that sometimes you just got to stand up for yourself.”

Stephens’ youthful challenges soon extended to the basketball court, where repeated tries to join the school team were frustrated. The coaches looked at his on-court moves, shook their heads and sent him home. Repeated tries yielded the same results, and it wasn’t until his junior year a coach let him work out with the team. As a member of the junior varsity team, he spent time on the fundamentals.

“I worked pretty hard and, in my senior year, I was starting,” he said.

A pair of local businessmen saw something in Stephens and paid his way to Southeastern Community College.

“At best, you could say I was an average player, but I got to meet and play for some great people. Coach Spaulding was great, and I remember how much I liked playing with guys like Fred Brown and Dick Gibbs.”

Stephens’ SCC play caught the attention of the coaches at South Dakota’s Huron College, and he was offered a scholarship there. Stephens jumped at the opportunity, but those first months at the small college in South Dakota’s flatlands proved to be a challenge.

“I think there might have been one or two other black families in Huron, but I never got a chance to meet them. To tell the truth, I was scared as hell and, until school started in the fall, all I did was stay at the gym and try to find someone to play ping-pong with. It was very strange,” he said.

When classes began and the rest of the team arrived, Stephens found he enjoyed South Dakota, but winters proved daunting. He was to remain at Huron for another three years before earning a bachelor's degree. He also acquired a young family and found himself with a wife and child to support.

“I have been married three times, and I have four kids, but I keep telling those kids ‘Don’t do what I did. Just do what I say,’” he said.

Those early married days at Huron found Stephens in a frantic search for work to support his wife and child. Days were a blur of classes, practice and late night work.

“I was doing anything I could to earn money,” he recalled. “I was raking leaves, repairing concrete equipment, cutting up scrap metal and doing janitor work. If it paid, I would try it. I had earned a welding certificate when I was at SCC, so I was doing some of that.”

When college days came to an end, Stephens returned to Burlington and began a search for a job. He started out cleaning bathrooms at the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant when a friend suggested he apply at Case.

“I showed up for my Case interview wearing the clothes from my janitor’s job and I apologized to the interviewer. He said clothes do not make the man. The man makes the man, and I’ve remembered that.”

Stephens’ skills and willingness to tackle a wide range of tasks earned him a fabrication job at Case and there he remained for seven years. But eventually he was caught in a layoff. Then a friend suggested he apply at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. He gathered his college transcripts and work history and, after an interview process, he was hired as an athletic coordinator at the prison.

“I worked in the gym, scheduled tournaments and monitored the play. It was a great job. I loved it, even with the fights and occasional use of bats and knives, but I had a way of getting things to settle down. I found out if you gave the prisoners respect, they would respect you in return.”

Stephens’ prison experience brought back childhood memories of being bullied. He realized that while he was big and a good talker and usually could work his way out of threatening situations, he still didn’t know the first thing about defending himself. It was then he turned to the study of martial arts.

“I really got into karate and found I was pretty good at it. I started going to tournaments and started winning at them. I was fast and had a good reach and had this move that earned me the nickname of ‘Mr. Back Fist' that I had painted on my motorcycle. Eventually, I got to be ranked No. 3 in the nation, and there were offers to turn pro,” he said.

“I thought about it for a while, but I knew I had family responsibilities, and I had a good job with good insurance. So I turned it down, and it was a good choice. You are given a chance to make some important choices in life, and I have been pretty lucky in making the right ones.”

Stephens continued his studies in martial arts, and six years ago, he became a black belt in the art of bushidokankijitsu combat bushido — a mix of three martial arts disciplines.

Stephens has retired from the prison system, but his days remain crowded. He has formed a passion for pickleball — a truncated version of tennis where his long reach still provides him an advantage. He continues part-time work at the YMCA and enjoys the interaction with the members.

“When I started at the Y 20 years ago, I was making $7.50 an hour. Now, after all those years, I am finally up to $8.50. So you can see it is not the money that keeps me coming back,” he said.

Warm weather will find Stephens roaming the country on his motorcycle attending bike rallies throughout the U.S.

“Those rides get to be an adventure in themselves,” he said. “There was a ride to Tacoma, Washington, that was 11 hours a day at 80 mph. We’ve driven through wind, fire, rain and tornadoes. We were out west in Idaho when we pulled beneath an underpass to put on rain gear just as a tornado hit. If we hadn’t stopped just then, it would have blown us all over.”

Stephens recognizes he has gotten older but feels challenges remain to be met.

“If I want to do something, I just go out and do it. And if I can’t, my son will probably be doing it,” he laughed.

But Stephens’ real joys now come with being able to watch his three grandchildren take part in sports. And he will confess they probably have more athletic ability than he did when he was struggling to make his high school team.

Correction

This story has been updated from the print version with several corrections: Stephens attended middle school and high school in Burlington; he is 6-foot-6; he credits his mother for her guidance when he was a boy; he did not fight the boy who bullied him; his attendance at Southeastern Community College was with the support of local businessmen; he has four children and worked 11 years at Case; participates in bushidokankijitsu combat bushido; and encountered a tornado in Idaho.