As a student at West Virginia University, Don Stemple wanted to play football. But he wasn’t the fastest or most athletic player. While his high school team was West Virginia state champions, Stemple – unlike five of his teammates – never received a Division 1 scholarship offer.
Nevertheless, Stemple entertained pie-in-the-sky dreams of playing professionally. So in the spring of 1978 he participated in a tryout for walk-ons at WVU. And he made it.
The beginning of Stemple’s collegiate career was not steeped in success. He played his first two years under the legendary Nick Saban (then defensive backs coach), who some now consider to be the greatest college coach of all time. Stemple barely smelled the field.
“No matter what I did, I was relegated to play on the scout squad, only on the practice field. Yeah, Saban and I didn’t really see eye to eye,” Stemple says with a chuckle.
Fortunes changed during Stemple’s junior year when the Mountaineers hired head coach Don Nehlen (who went on to rack up 149 wins during his 21-year tenure with West Virginia, the most in school history). Under Nehlen (and with Saban gone), Stemple played special teams, nickel back in some defensive schemes, and was even awarded a full scholarship for his final two years of eligibility. Despite the increased playing time, he was far from a key cog on defense and was mostly invisible to fans.
Then came Dec. 31, 1981. “That day changed my life,” Stemple says.
West Virginia played in the Peach Bowl against Florida, an up-and-coming program with plenty of offensive firepower. The Gators were favored by 17.5 points and most people expected them to steamroll West Virginia.
That didn’t happen. The exact opposite happened.
West Virginia completely shackled the once-potent Florida offense for a total of negative 30 rushing yards. Florida was nearly shut out: the final score was 26-6 and its lone touchdown didn’t occur until very late in the game. It was a shocking result, possibly the most important game in WVU football history.
Also shocking was one of the game’s heroes: a seldom-used defensive back named Don Stemple. Stemple recorded a handful of significant tackles and was named Defensive Player of the Game.
After college Stemple held out hope to play professionally; however, after a few unsuccessful tryouts, (one with the Detroit Lions), he realized he needed a new career path. Stemple graduated with a degree in industrial engineering so, when he received a job offer from Monongahela Power, he took it.
Almost forty years later, Stemple looks back at that moment as yet another that changed the course of his life.
“It couldn’t have worked out any better. I love my job,” Stemple says. “This is what I was born to do.”
A customer account manager in Marietta, Stemple has worked with some of the same large commercial clients in southeastern Ohio for years. These include Ormet, Ohio University, Globe Metallurgical, Eramet Marietta and Kraton Polymers. The enduring personal relationships he’s built with his customers have been mutually beneficial, which is why his stewardship was so important when AEP Ohio purchased Mon Power in 2006.
“I can’t say enough of how big an impact he had on making that transition a smooth one,” says Mark Gundelfinger, who was Stemple’s manager when he joined AEP Ohio. “He was very helpful and a great person to work with. He has a great relationship with his customers, and he helped them through any changes and let them know everything would be OK. He is a true gentleman.”
Gundelfinger says Stemple very quickly embraced AEP Ohio’s policies and the way we do business. He understood them, he lived them, and years later Stemple’s customer-first attitude embodies how we’re able to provide excellent customer service.
“I like working with people one on one. I like to be a problem solver,” Stemple says. “If I can’t help them personally, I try to get them to the right person. And when they are happy with the result, that’s very satisfying to me.”
Stemple is retiring April 2 after 37 years of service, and he has zero regrets about missing out on his dream of professional football. He says things have worked out very well for him: he is happily married with five children, four granddaughters and plenty of time to see them all once he retires. Still, hanging up his cleats gives him pause.
“I’ve been blessed to have played on some special teams,” Stemple says. “And my AEP team is special. Leaving will be hard.”
Published March 30, 2020