Maine linebacker Deshawn Stevens transferred to West Virginia to play this fall. Ronald Gillis photo

Often when Deshawn Stevens crosses the border from his native Canada to the United States, he crosses in Quebec. The last time Stevens left his hometown Toronto to come to America, he crossed the border at Buffalo, New York. He wasn’t going to Orono, Maine this time. Stevens was heading to Morgantown, West Virginia.

Stevens, arguably the best linebacker to ever play football for the University of Maine, is using the extra year of eligibility the NCAA granted athletes who lost time to the COVID-19 pandemic to play his final season of college football at West Virginia University.

As good as Maine’s Football Championship Subdivision conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, is — and it’s quite good — it’s a step up in competition to the Big Twelve, the league in which the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Stevens will now test himself. It’s more than a step up. It’s a steep climb followed by a leap across a chasm. Stevens said he’s ready for the challenge. Stevens is betting on himself.

“How could I say no? I mean, how could I say no? I have high standards for myself,” Stevens said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon as he explored Morgantown. “You aspire to play at the highest level possible. You watch the games, you watch the excitement, you watch the huge crowds. You want to do that yourself.”

Maine will miss Stevens, but he had nothing left to prove here. On the field, Stevens’ time in Orono was brief, but it was dominant.

He redshirted his first season at Maine, and cracked the starting lineup late in the 2017 season. As a sophomore in 2018, he emerged as one of the best defenders on a strong Black Bear defense, with 120 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss and nine sacks. Stevens was a foundational reason Maine reached the FCS semifinals that season. He entered 2019 regarded as one of the best linebackers in the nation at the FCS level.

“I showed them what I was capable of, then I backed it up,” Stevens said.

The universe has a way of mocking expectations. In the first half of Maine’s first game in 2019, Stevens ruptured his right Achilles tendon. His season was over after five tackles. His return was interrupted by a pandemic. The fall 2020 season was scuttled. When the Black Bears finally got to play a truncated four-game season this spring, Stevens led the team with 36 tackles.

“My Achilles wasn’t really on my mind. I keep getting better and keep getting stronger,” Stevens said.

The move from Maine to the Mountaineers has been in the works since May, Stevens said. Alonzo Addae, a senior safety at West Virginia, a former rival of Stevens in the CAA at New Hampshire, brought Stevens to the attention of Mountaineer coaches. Stevens and Addae are both from Toronto and were teammates on the Canadian national team. It took some time for West Virginia to make sure Stevens’ paperwork was in order, and he was able to announce the move on his social media feeds June 28.

While the US-Canada border is still closed to non-essential travel, Stevens has been able to cross with his student visa. His visa to attend West Virginia was approved last week.

Stevens had options. In April, he was the sixth overall pick in the CFL draft, by the Ottawa Redblacks (former Maine offensive lineman Liam Dobson went third overall to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers). Addae was Ottawa’s second round pick, so the friends may have a future as teammates beyond this season at West Virginia. The CFL isn’t the ultimate goal, though, not even for two Canadian guys. The NFL is the prize, and that’s why Stevens is now a Mountaineer.

The Redblacks know this, too. Ottawa retains the rights to Stevens whenever he’s ready to join them, and the team has been supportive, he said. Professional football is in Stevens’ future in some form. He goes to West Virginia knowing he has that in his back pocket.

Stevens’ time at Maine was a time of growth. He saw teammate Darius Minor die, and saw family members die. He played linebacker as well as any Black Bear has, and returned from a devastating injury. He’ll cheer on the Black Bears from Morgantown.

“I hope I imparted my knowledge and wisdom on them,” Stevens said.

Stevens will not be easy to replace, on or off the field. Maine fans should keep their eyes on the Black Bears, but they also should keep an eye on West Virginia, where Stevens will look to apply what made him great in the CAA to the Big Twelve.

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