Hillside alums, NCCU trio reunited in the Bull City

North Carolina Central’s, from left, Chauncey Caldwell, Jamal Currie-Elliott and Daeshawn Stephens, throw up the Bull City sign at ‘Meet the Eagles Day.’ The trio, who all played together at Hillside High, chose different routes out of high school, but all ended back up in Durham this season.
North Carolina Central’s, from left, Chauncey Caldwell, Jamal Currie-Elliott and Daeshawn Stephens, throw up the Bull City sign at ‘Meet the Eagles Day.’ The trio, who all played together at Hillside High, chose different routes out of high school, but all ended back up in Durham this season. NCCU Athletics

The saying goes, there’s no place like home.

No matter what route one might take, there is no place like home. Home, to Chauncey Caldwell, Daeshawn Stephens and Jamal Currie-Elliott, is Durham. The Bull City is where the trio grew up and all met (Stephens and Currie-Elliott are cousins) and caused havoc on the football field for two seasons together at Hillside High School.

And after detours through Eugene, Ore., Raleigh and Charlotte, home is where the three offensive players reunited at North Carolina Central this season. Home, the city of Durham, is where they will represent on Saturday when the Eagles (1-1) travel across town to take on Duke (3-0) in the Bull City Classic at Wallace Wade Stadium.

Caldwell, a sophomore quarterback who started eight games as a true freshman for NCCU, was the first one to stay home, committing to former NCCU head coach Jerry Mack the summer before his senior season, but he was also the first to leave the Triangle before returning home.

Caldwell left Durham and moved to Charlotte, playing his senior season at Mallard Creek High School. He always knew he would return to the Bull City to play football, but during his prep days, he couldn’t imagine a scenario when he would play with Stephens and Currie-Elliott again. He almost laughs at the notion when asked if they talked about playing college football together during their Hillside days.

“I knew I wasn’t going to play with them anymore,” he said behind a chuckle. “They were too good, they went to big schools.”

Stephens, who was one year ahead of Caldwell and two years older than Currie-Elliott, was a three-star recruit in the class of 2016 and committed to North Carolina State in the summer of 2015. Currie-Elliott was an even bigger target than Stephens. The freshman running back was a four-star recruit and the No. 12 running back in the nation according to 247Sports, and had offers from multiple ACC and SEC programs. He decided to head to the Pacific Northwest, enrolling at Oregon early and playing in the 2018 spring game. Caldwell, though, in a prophetic moment, had a message for Currie-Elliott before he left.

“Chauncey kind of said it before I left for Oregon,” Currie-Elliott said. “Chauncey had mentioned ‘you will be back soon.’ The situation that happened there, I don’t want to talk about it, but it happened, and now I’m here.”

Caldwell doesn’t know what made him predict Currie-Elliott’s future.

“I knew if all else failed he would be back with us,” Caldwell said. “I knew we all would end up at the same spot.”

Stephens spent two seasons at N.C. State, appearing in 10 games in 2017 for the Wolfpack after red-shirting the 2016 season. He said he was looking to go where he had “better opportunities” and didn’t think twice about his next destination, admitting that out of high school he always wanted to attend an HBCU (Historically Black College & University), but couldn’t turn down an opportunity to play at N.C. State. Like the move with Currie-Elliott, this one was also predicted, not by Caldwell, but by Caldwell’s father.

“Chauncey’s dad said ‘I’m going to give it two years and I can see you both playing football at Central,’” Stephens recalled. “Chauncey used to always joke with me about it. I red shirted and I would always come down, or when we had away games I wouldn’t travel, so I would come down and we would train together. Eventually, after the 2017 season (at State) things didn’t work out how I wanted them to, so I just pulled the trigger and came.”

While Caldwell was the only one of the three around last season, Stephens has made a quick impact on his new teammates. Since enrolling in January, Stephens not only earned a starting spot (tied for the team lead with seven receptions through two games), but he was voted a team captain as a redshirt sophomore.

Even though he took over the starting quarterback duties as a true freshman, Caldwell was throwing to veterans who he had yet to build chemistry with last year. Enter his high school buddies, who provided a comfort blanket, especially Stephens, as Caldwell hit his new favorite target five times in the opener against Prairie View A&M.

“We noticed in the spring that Chauncey and Daeshawn have a chemistry,” NCCU coach Granville Eastman said. “That was pretty obvious from the high school connection and things like that, but they continued to build on that chemistry from spring football up until now. I think that’s going to pay great dividends as we go onto the season.”

In the opener Caldwell threw a touchdown to Stephens and Currie-Elliott scored on a 1-yard run before leaving the game with an injury (his status is uncertain heading into the Duke game) and the signal caller thought for a brief second that it “felt like we were back in high school.”

In high school, the trio never lost a conference game and made it to the third round of the NCHSAA playoffs both years they shared the field. Hillside football fans saw big things in the future for them all during their dominant prep days. Big time colleges came calling, drawing in Stephens and Currie-Elliott, but when it came time to transfer, NCCU was the obvious answer for both.

Stephens said his grandmother worked in the cafeteria at NCCU for years, while Currie-Elliott’s grandmother stayed across the street from the school and he always told her he would attend Central one day. They both grew up with maroon and gray in their blood, even if that wasn’t their first choice. Both can live with the decision, but admitted they got some blowback from the community for leaving “big time” programs and landing at NCCU.

“That’s going to come,” Currie-Elliott said. “Where we are from a lot of people don’t want to see you succeed. We just keep doing what we do and we don’t pay it any attention.”

Stephens said he’s always heard people downplay NCCU, but for him, it was something that went in one ear and out the other.

“I’m going to be the first one in my family to graduate from college, so whatever degree I get it’s going to be great,” Stephens said. “And if you can play, no matter if you’re DII, Alabama, anywhere, the NFL will find you. A lot of these people never played college football, so how are you going to get me some advice about something you never did in your life?”

Something Caldwell, Stephens and Currie-Elliott have done with their post-Hillside life is return to their roots. It’s important to them to show their faces to the up and coming players. Hillside and NCCU are less than two miles apart, and the players are regulars on the Hornets’ practice field. Caldwell and Stephens even went to the first practice of the fall, going through drills with the current Hillside players. For them it’s important to remain humble and show they are available to the new guys for guidance, that way when the current Hillside Hornets are in the spotlight, they won’t forget to come back and spread the word.

To the trio, playing at NCCU, in their hometown, it means that much more because they have family in the stands, not only that, they represent their city every Saturday.

“For me, when we were in high school seeing the impact we had on the community, and for our classmates to see us playing on TV, and for the kids coming up they see they can choose our route,” Caldwell said. “Not necessarily sports, but be successful and go to school, so it’s definitely important.”