A 'Step' Ahead: Steptoe's 360-degree approach prepares current and future Wildcats for life on and off the field
Whether it's coaching, broadcasting or going into business for themselves, many NFL players have an eye on what their post-playing career might look like. During his time with the Cleveland Browns, Syndric Steptoe had something else in mind. His post-football plan was to help others achieve their own post-football plans.
Steptoe, who played football at the University of Arizona prior to his time in the NFL, is now director of player and community relations for Arizona Football. In this role, he helps players transition into life as student-athlete, navigate their experience on campus, and then transition as their playing days at the University come to an end.
"On the way in, we have programs on financial literacy, character development, sexual assault awareness and avoiding pitfalls while enjoying a social life on campus," Steptoe says. "As we prepare them for life after football, we train them on interviewing skills, writing cover letters, connecting with internships and more."
Born in Bryan, Texas, Steptoe was raised by a single mother whose four sons were born before she reached the age of 21.
"There was a lot of struggle growing up," Steptoe says. "There were a lot of days when we didn't know where our next meal was coming from, but she was able to provide."
"Step," as Arizona football players call him, received multiple college football scholarship offers, and says it was a big step for his mother to allow him to play for Arizona when he could have stayed closer to home. Many Wildcat football players and their families, he says, are in a similar situation.
"Just in hearing my story, a lot of them are able to connect with me because they come from the same background, have the same experiences and want to be able to get to the places that I've been able to get to," he says.
Steptoe played wide receiver for the Wildcats from 2003 to 2006. He was selected by the Browns in the seventh round of the 2007 NFL draft and was with the team through 2010. After his playing days ended, Steptoe owned a restaurant in Miami, which he called "an expensive lesson, to say the least."
After that, he returned to his passion for football.
Steptoe joined the University in 2015, working in the Cedric Dempsey C.A.T.S. program, eventually becoming associate director of what is now known as Edward T. Bell C.A.T.S. Student-Athlete Development. He then became director of alumni career and professional development at the University of Arizona Alumni Association, helping create the Bear Down Network – a social platform featuring mentor connections, an alumni job board and other career resources – and the Wildcat Mentor Society, which helps connect student-athletes and other students with alumni to help them build their professional networks. He began in his current position in 2019.
In addition to gaining a work family, Steptoe met a member of his actual family for the first time after returning to the University: Tyina Steptoe, associate professor of history. (Hear Tyina Steptoe explain the history and importance of Juneteenth in this video on the University's Instagram page.)
"She says when she moved here, people started asking her if I was her husband," Syndric Steptoe said. "On the flip side, players were telling me my wife was teaching one of their classes. I told them, 'Unless you're in the fifth grade, you're not in my wife's class!'" He and his wife, Tori, have two children, son Kayden and daughter Khloey.
Eventually, Syndric emailed Tyina to introduce himself. The two later met, compared family histories and realized they were cousins.
Youth Impact Program
Steptoe sees his responsibilities stretching beyond the football team. One example: He wants to help Tucson kids develop the skills they need for success in academics and athletics.
"The Tucson community is the lifeline to our University," Steptoe says. "These are future Wildcats. To be able to give back to the youth in this community – it will lead to success on and off the field."
To that end, the University is working with the Youth Impact Program, a youth development program that partners with universities throughout the United States. The organization helps universities organize training programs designed to promote positive development among at-risk middle schoolers.
The University recently wrapped up its first two-week YIP camp, serving more than 70 Tucson-area middle schoolers. Wildcat football players and airmen from the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base served as camp leaders.
Campers spent the mornings doing academic activities, including learning about the science of sports through a program developed by Ricardo Valerdi, professor of systems and industrial engineering. The afternoons were dedicated to athletics, including football drills and military-style workouts.
Steptoe says the camp was a success, and he hopes to hold it every year.
"When you can involve the youth of the community that you work in with people they can look up to because they are D-1 athletes, it's a win-win," Steptoe says, referring to student-athletes playing for the University, an NCAA Division I school. "You have to keep those relationships alive, because it goes a long way for young men and women who are middle schoolers being able to see themselves in those roles – becoming college students, athletes and community leaders, whether it's here in Tucson or somewhere else."
Step's Reading List
As part of his work with players and campers, Steptoe recommends books to them on topics including leadership, character development and overcoming adversity. He shared some of his favorites with Lo Que Pasa:
- "Crash" by Jerry Spinelli
- "The Obstacle is the Way" by Ryan Holiday
- "Rich Dad Poor Dad" by Robert T. Kiyosaki
- "White Fragility" by Robin DiAngelo
- "Who Moved My Cheese?" by Spencer Johnson
- "Winning" by Tim S. Grover