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Why UTEP’s leading tackler rode away from football before his senior season

EL PASO, Texas -- Imagine choosing to put an end to the pursuit of a lifelong dream when it's closest to becoming a reality.

That's exactly what former UTEP football player Stephen Forester did.

"It was a lot easier than I think it seems," Forester said.

Like most Division I college football players, his dream was to play in the NFL. Forester started at linebacker for the Miners and led the team in tackles during a Covid-interrupted season. The senior could've returned for one more year as the NCAA was not counting the year of eligibility against athletes during the pandemic.

But Forester is choosing not to return to UTEP. And he's not trying his hand at playing professionally.

That's because his perspective on life changed just before the start of what he thought would be a normal senior season.

In February 2020, his uncle, Steve Clarke, was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer that claimed the lives of notable politicians Senator John McCain and Beau Biden, President Joe Biden's son.

Clarke flew out to San Francisco for surgery, but Forester stayed in El Paso with spring football just a few weeks away.

"I was thinking this is my year," Forester said. "Thinking selfishly and that I need to train, so I'm not going to go out there. I'm going to take advantage of the opportunity that I have at UTEP to go tot he next level and prove to myself that I'm kind of worth it."

But just weeks later and shortly into spring football, UTEP canceled the remainder of spring football practices and the spring game due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"It was just kind of something that happens in your life that you've got everything planned out how you want it to be and then you don't anymore."

AN IDEA IS BORN

It was that moment that made him refocus his life.

"Maybe for the first time in my life, [I wanted to do] something not selfish. [The pandemic] changed everything."

He looked back on other times in his life when he chose football over family. But this time was different.

"You only get so many opportunities to do something meaningful for people in your life."

Something meaningful turned into The Bike to Crush Cancer, a 650-mile bike ride from El Paso to Forester's hometown of Garland, just outside Dallas.

"He had a big smile," Herschel Forester, Stephen's dad, remembered after telling Clarke, his brother-in-law, of the bike ride. "He was rooting us on. He went like this *fist pump*. He was excited about it."

Clarke's wish was for the money raised from the bike ride to be donated to the Head for the Cure Foundation and the Musella Foundation.

Both helped Clarke tremendously through his fight.

"It’s something that we’re honored to be a part of," Laura Cooke, Programs And Marketing Manager for the Head for the Cure Foundation, said. "When you get to see [Stephen] come up with this idea on his own, see it come to fruition, it’s exciting to see someone put so much of themselves into it."

TRAGEDY HITS HOME

Just one month before the planned bike ride, Steve Clarke died on April 6 with his family by his side. He was 58.

"Even in the worst of times and hardest of times he was cracking jokes," Forester said. "He was always giving and serving."

The Bike to Crush Cancer took on an even bigger meaning.

"I think I'm still going through it mentally. I think that's what the bike ride is for me."

Forester's old way of coping with pain and anger was to take it out on his opponents on the football field. But he achieved personal growth through his uncle's death.

"Instead of doing something destructive, we're trying to do something constructive."

A 650-MILE BONDING EXPERIENCE

Forester, his dad and his brother, Josh, a current player on the UTEP football team, took off on their bicycles from Sun Bowl Stadium on May 8. Stephen's mom, Cindy, drove along the entire route providing the snacks and trailer to sleep in at night.

"This really drew us together as a family," Herschel said. "I saw my boys, how important our family is to them. It makes me really proud."

On the first leg of the ride, Forester cracked his helmet and suffered facial lacerations in a horrific crash. His dad had tire issues. The family had to retreat to El Paso to get their bikes repaired at a shop. But Uncle Steve's spirit carried them forward.

"He's our Superman," Forester said. "Just pushing us through, giving us passion to finish up the bike ride."

And that's exactly what they did.

Eleven days later, and after a 102-mile final leg, Forester cruised through the finish line with his family there to cheer him on.

"There is no obstacle, not even death, that can make me stop loving Steve."

Forester's ride is over, but his mission to raise money for brain cancer research isn't. He is auctioning off his game-worn UTEP gear. All proceeds will go to the Head for the Cure Foundation and Musella Foundation. Click here for auction details.

ABC-7 Xtra / El Paso / Local News / News / Texas Sports / UTEP / Video

Erik Elken

Erik Elken co-anchors ABC-7’s flagship newscasts.

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