Football helped California’s Stafford turn priorities around

Wednesday, July 18, 2018 | 5:36 PM

The Tribune-Review and the TribLive High School Sports Network are profiling each member of the 25-player Trib HSSN Preseason WPIAL Football All-Star team. The players will be recognized at 2 p.m. July 24 during HSSN Media Day at Kennywood Park.

Jelani Stafford was faced with a difficult decision a year ago, one many teenagers face every day.

“Do I continue to hang with some of my friends and go down the wrong road, or do I change my priorities and start doing the right things,” the California High School senior said. “I decided to change my priorities, and football was the option.”

It’s a decision he doesn’t regret.

The 6-foot-2, 280-pound running back led Class A in rushing with 1,608 yards and 28 touchdowns in helping California to a Tri-County South Conference title and a trip to the WPIAL semifinals.

California lost to Imani Christian, 30-24, but Stafford said the change and a successful football season has him headed in the right direction.

“I got into a little bit of trouble last summer, so I had to make a choice,” Stafford said. “Football wasn’t a priority.

“Now I‘m focused on my family, school and football and my teammates. I’m looking forward to having another big season.”

California coach Darrin Dillow echoed Stafford’s statement about others who were dragging him down.

“He was hanging with kids not from California,” Dillow said. “After we talked to him, he realized who was trying to help him and standing behind him, and who didn’t really care about him. He made the right decision.”

Stafford probably won’t be the next Jerome Bettis in college despite his impressive rushing marks. He’s being recruited as a defensive tackle.

So he’s spent the summer getting stronger and going to different camps (Pitt, Duquesne, Robert Morris and Connecticut) to learn different techniques for his play on the defensive line.

“The camps have really helped, especially with hand battles,” Stafford said. “I learned so much.”

And while he’s learning a new position on defense, because California graduated 12 seniors, he’ll be an even bigger part of the offense.

“I want to break the single-game and single-season rushing record,” Stafford said. “The rushing mark is 1,994 yards, and I’d like to rush for more than 2,000 yards.”

Stafford’s other goal is to help California win another conference title and hopefully a WPIAL title.

Another thing that excites Stafford is getting a chance to play alongside his brother, Damanti, a freshman who is 6-1, 190. The younger Stafford plays running back and defensive end or linebacker.

“We graduated a lot of players,” Dillow said. “But I feel the team could be even better. We’ll see how things play out.”

Jelani Stafford

School: California

Class: Senior

Ht/Wt: 6-2/280

Positions: RB/ILB/DL

Stars: 4

Committed: Undecided

Division I offers: Albany, Buffalo, Citadel, Fordham, Howard, Robert Morris

2017 statistics: 156 carries, 1,608 yards; 1 catch, 12 yards; total touchdowns: 28

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at or via Twitter @Schofield_Trib.

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