After the first play in the Paso Robles High football team’s CIF-Southern Section divisional semifinal playoff game in 2010, all attention was on Gardena Serra’s Ardis Perez, and understandably so.
Perez broke his neck tackling the Bearcats’ return man on the opening kickoff and lay motionless on the field for 20 minutes as the game was halted.
Lost in all of the concern over Perez, who would return to the field to become an all-league linebacker by the end of his high school career, was the devastating damage done to the ballcarrier, which went largely overlooked by everyone including himself for more than a year.
Elias Stokes believes that was the play that caused him to tear the labrum in each of his hip joints, injuries that hampered his senior year at Paso Robles and essentially wiped away his first two seasons playing college football at Cal Poly.
Only now, more than three-and-a-half years after the fateful collision, Stokes is participating in Mustangs training camp fully healthy and hoping to make an impact at slotback.
“My expectation is to push Kenny Mitchell and Jake Brito as hard as I can,” Stokes said on the second day of practice Saturday. “Hopefully, we’ll have a nice little competitive battle. Hopefully, I’ll get some play time in there. If not, I’ll push those guys to be the best they can be, and we’ll go from there and have a great season.”
Both Stokes and Mustangs coaches sincerely thought he was good to go heading into his true freshman season in 2012, but when he began to push himself early in that first training camp, it was apparent something was wrong.
Tests finally revealed tears in both hip joints that he had likely played an entire high school season with. By the time college rolled around, Stokes said the pain had worsened to the point where running felt like stabbing and knifing through his entire groin area.
He underwent a surgery to repair one of the tears in April of his freshman year and had the procedure performed on the other joint after his redshirt freshman campaign in 2013.
Now, a redshirt sophomore, coaches are glad to finally have him back at full speed. If his performance before the injury is any indication, Stokes can be a valuable weapon.
As the Tribune County Player of the Year in 2010, Stokes was a touchdown machine. He had 28 total, including 17 receiving, seven rushing and four more on kick and punt returns.
Even though his numbers sharply declined for a Paso Robles team that failed to replicate the previous year’s success his senior season, Cal Poly was delighted to have Stokes sign with the program in 2012.
Since he’s been unable to get on the field in all the time since, he essentially has a blank slate.
“We have an idea and we think we see some potential,” Mustangs running backs coach Aristotle Thompson said, “but just like anybody else, you still want to see them get out there and show it. The biggest thing with him is getting away from the injury bug and going out there and showing what we think he can do.
“We know that he can catch the ball. We know that he can run, but how do we put that into the context of what we’re doing and how can we use his skill set to our advantage but also get him to grow in a way that is fitting for the system as well?”
Those questions should begin to be answered in the next three weeks as Cal Poly prepares for its season opener against New Mexico State on Aug. 28.
Though Stokes has yet to be a factor on the field, Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh already views him as a valuable asset for the team.
Stokes was one of the first players Walsh mentioned as a role model for recruits the staff targets from the Central Coast, and Cal Poly has a growing list of former local standouts all likely to contribute in the coming years.
Junior tackle Weston Walker is a former walk-on from Atascadero looking to start for the second straight season. Redshirt freshman Ross Berry from Templeton is vying for playing time at guard. Linebacker Jack Ferguson of San Luis Obispo High should get an opportunity on special teams and could parlay that into a regular job in years to come. Walk-on sophomore defensive lineman Kelly Shepard of Arroyo Grande is in a rotation of players at defensive end, and another former Eagles standout, linebacker Grant Alton is walking on this fall.
Then there’s Stokes.
“The more guys that we can get like that and have here, it’s going to make the process easier,” Walsh said. “If someone’s deciding between playing here and Northern Arizona, let’s say, you have six guys that can say, ‘stay here and live here.’ ”
Stokes might be the most spirited one of those. He’s a quasi-celebrity in his own right in the student rooting section for other sporting events, regularly leading cheers and pumping up the rest of the crowd.
If his hip troubles have hurt his chances to play early on, they haven’t hampered his college experience.
“I just love to be a Mustang,” Stokes said. “I’m out here living the dream with everyone, all the athletes in The Mustang Way. I go to all the games. I love being here. I love seeing the basketball team win their championship, the baseball team winning their stuff. “If I know we have some local kids, I’ll try to go over and talk to them and tell them how it is and what it’s like and hopefully they’ll see it the way I see it.”