Stephen Silva is about to finish his football career for the Montana State University-Northern Lights as the school’s all-time leading rusher. He has a list of records at MSU-N a mile long, and he’ll leave Havre with a degree in civil engineeri
ng this spring.
Those achievements are impressive for any college football player at any level.
Still, he a remembers a time, and not that long ago when no one wanted him, and the few colleges that did talk to him, told him he was too small for them.
But Silva, a 5-9, 190-pound speedster from Bakersfield, Calif., never listened to the too-small talk, and he never gave up on being the best football player he could be. He attributes both to his father, who played in the Frontier Conference himself, as a Carroll College Fighting Saint.
And it’s those beliefs, instilled in him by his dad, as well as his dad’s history with the Saints, which eventually got him to Northern, and eventually got him to stardom.
“When I finished high school football, no colleges recruited me,” Silva said. “I had one scholarship offer for track and that was it. So my dad called his old coach (Bob Petrino) at Carroll and he put us in touch with coach Mike Van Diest. But they didn’t want me really, because of my size, but they did put us in touch with Bobby Petrino, who was the coach at Arkansas, and eventually, he directed us to Mark Samson. That’s pretty much the story of how I ended up playing for Northern.”
And it turns out, the player Carroll and Arkansas said was too small to play running back for them, wasn’t too small to make history at MSU-N. But then again, Silva has never worried about being too small.
“My dad always told me about how people said he was too small, but he said he’d go out and play like he was the biggest guy on the field,” Silva said. “He told me to go out and play like I was 6-4 and 250 pounds. So that’s what I’ve always tried to do. Obviously, my speed was my asset, but I’ve always tried to play like I’m bigger. My dad taught me that, and he taught me to go out and give it my all every single play, no matter if it’s in the film room, the practice field or on game days. And if you do that and believe in yourself, it doesn’t really matter how small you are.”
And Silva’s size certainly hasn’t mattered over the last four years. Ironically, it was against Carroll, a team which didn’t have a place for him, in just his second game of his freshman season, where he announced his presence with authority. In that game in Helena, Silva returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, which is one of the many Northern records he holds as his career winds down.
Silva also saw limited action as a running back his freshman season, and really broke out as a starter in 2010. During his sophomore campaign, he totaled 750 yards on 150 carries and had his first 100-yard game when he racked up 138 yards against Rocky Mountain College that September.
“Stephen is a hard-working kid who gives the maximum effort and gets the most out of himself,” Samson said. “From the first day he got here, I don’t think he’s ever relaxed. He’s always worked really hard, in practice, in the weight room and in the class room. He’s never worried about his size, he’s just worked to get better and better and it’s paid off because he’s accomplished an awful lot of great things in his four years here.
“It was a big jump from high school to college football,” said Silva, who gained 171 yards in 2009. “The speed and the physicality of it, I learned pretty quick because we were playing Carroll the second game I ever played in. So I knew I was going to have to work hard to get better. And that’s what I’ve always tried to do. In the offseason, during the winter, the summers, I just kept working hard, trying to improve things like my technique and my vision. I never really changed anything, I just kept working hard and it’s worked out in the long run.”
Worked out is putting it mildly.
Last fall, Silva put together a season for the ages. He broke Northern’s single-game rushing record, gaining 201 yards against Rocky, he had five games of 100 or more yards, including four of his last five. He also went over 200 yards in a win over UM-Western and finished the year by breaking Justin Moe’s single-season rushing record with 1,105 yards to go a long with six TD’s. In all, Silva averaged a whopping seven yards per touch as he was named Frontier First-Team All-Conference and an NAIA All-American. And to top it all off, he became the school’s all-time leading rusher as a junior, and helped the Lights to a 5-5 record.
“I’m not the type of person who likes to go around bragging about those kinds of things,” Silva said of his accolades. “But it feels awesome to know what I’ve accomplished. I’m very proud of the things I was able to do last season and during my career here. But really, I’m just trying to go out there every play and every game trying to help my team win by making plays. I’m trying to help this program succeed and those accomplishments are really a product of that.”
Silva, who’s been a team captain, is also very humble and very team-oriented and is quick to give credit to others, including his offensive line, his entire team, his coaching staff and his father.
“Without question, I wouldn’t even be talking about these things right now without the help and support of a lot people,” Silva said. “I have had great teammates, great coaching and obviously, all the guys who have played offensive line over the years, I couldn’t have done any of this without them.”
One of those offensive linemen has been blocking for Silva for the last four years. An All-American himself, Brock Hyder has seen exactly what makes Silva so successful. In fact, he’s had a front-row seat to it.
“I like that he is fast because he makes us all look good,” Hyder said. “Even if we don't block for very long, he just runs right by the defense. And I think he has great vision, and that is what has made him so good over the years, his vision has just gotten better and better. And speed doesn't go away, so he has just gotten better, and it really shows.
“Stephen has been a great player for us for the past four years. He has always had great speed but the thing that has really allowed him to be successful is his work ethic and his will,” added Lights’ offensive coordinator Kyle Samson. “He has always been one of the hardest workers on the team and he approaches everything he does with great focus and enthusiasm. He is someone that has had a tremendous impact on our program on and off the field and definitely someone that will be very hard to replace. As a coach, he is the ultimate team player and someone that I am extremely proud to have coached and gotten to know on a personal level. I know Stephen will be very successful in life after football.”
But Silva’s football career isn’t over just yet.
In an up-and-down senior season, one in which the Lights haven’t had the success they were hoping for, Silva has gained 611 yards and scored four TD’s. He’s currently fifth in the Frontier in rushing, and he broke his own single-game rushing record when he totaled 217 yards against, who else, RMC in late September in Havre. As he approaches the final two games of his career, including his last-ever home game this Saturday against Dickinson State, he’s racked up 2,653 yards at Northern.
And while those things are all impressive to anyone, his head coach sees Silva as so much more than just one of the school’s greatest running backs ever.
“You know, Stephen has been a great asset to this program,” Mark Samson said. “He’s set a great example here. He’s succeeded in the class room, he’s been a great student and a great member of this university and this community. On the field, he’s had a lot of success. He’s never missed one game. He’s played a lot of football here in four years and he’s continued to work just as hard, if not harder each and every season. He’s really just set a tremendous example for this program. He’s a great kid and I love him to death.
“My experience here has been awesome,” Silva added. “I wouldn’t change anything about what I’ve done here. I love this community and this school and it’s really become a home away from home for me. The school and the community, it just feels like a big family and that’s what makes going to school, playing football and living here so special. It’s like we all know each other here and people look out for each other. I’ve loved that about this place since I got here.”
With two games left in his college days, and graduation looming in the spring, Silva really hasn’t had a lot of time to reflect, or look ahead. But he said he would cherish the opportunity to continue playing football, possibly in the Canadian Football League, or elsewhere. And obviously, if given the chance, he won’t let his size get in his way, just as he didn’t let it stop him from making a name for himself as a Northern Light.
And in looking at all the records, all the accomplishments and all the highlights Silva has from four years of playing running back for the Lights, it can easily be said that all those phone calls he didn’t get as a high school senior mean a lot of college football programs missed out on something special. But four years later, Silva has no regrets and no disappointments. He’s been a shining light, playing like a giant at Northern, just like his dad always told him to do.
“It’s a pretty good feeling now, knowing that there wasn’t much interest in me as a college football player coming out of high school, and now being able to see all the things I’ve accomplished,” Silva said. “I’m really proud of all the things I’ve done in my time here and I’m just thankful I got that one opportunity.
“I love this game,” he continued. “I have been playing it for a really long time, and I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done in all those years. I’ve loved my time at Northern and I’m happy I got the chance to come here and even have the opportunity to do the things I’ve done. They are accomplishments I’ll always have and they are things I can always look back on be proud of. I can always look back and know that my size didn’t matter, that in some ways it was an advantage for me, and I’ll always know that what mattered is, I gave this game everything I had every day, every single play and I worked and trained as hard as I could. And doing those things is what allowed me to be successful and have all the great accomplishments that I’m leaving here with.”
Breaking the Mold
Stephen Silva’s Notable MSU-N Records
Thru Oct. 27, 2012
• MSU-N All-Time Rushing Record of 2,653 yards
• Single Season Rushing Record of 1,105 yards set in 2011
• Single-Game Rushing Record of 217 yards set on Sept. 29, 2012 vs RMC
• Yards-Per-Carry in a game of 9.5 set against UM-Western 2011
• Average Yards per Season for a Career of 78.9
• 100-Yard Games in a Season with 5 in 2011
• 100-Yards Games in a Career with 9