It was Jan. 31, 2017, and Erin Stone was awakened pre-dawn by her son Geno kneeling at her bed.
It was decision day for him to pick a college to play football and the choice came down to Kent State and Iowa.
The safe choice was Kent State, a Mid-American Conference school a short drive from New Castle where he previously had made a verbal commitment. The longshot was Iowa, a much-respected Big Ten program in a far-away place where Geno really did not want to go.
“He said, ‘Mom, I’m tired of all this. I’m just going to go with Kent State. My best friend is going there, some other friends are going there and I’m OK with the MAC. And it’s close for you.’”
Erin, though, simply could not come to terms with her son’s decision. She said she knew in her heart that he was making a mistake.
“He had a half-day at school and called on the way home. I told him, ‘Let’s go for a ride when you get home and we’ll get you some gas,’” she said. “I think he thought it was odd that we needed two people to go and get gas, but he said OK.”
Little did Geno know, that trip to the gas station was going to change his life forever.
“I said, ‘Geno, this was your dream to play in the Big Ten,’” she said. “I know Penn State didn’t work out, but Iowa is in the Big Ten and coach (Kirk) Ferentz and his staff like you. You’re going to get a chance to play there. I don’t want you to regret your decision someday.”
They went home and Geno thought about her words and how he trusted her and told her Iowa was his choice.
It was the beginning of a remarkable journey that has made the incredible bond between mother and son even more unbreakable — and that very shortly will have the former New Castle High and University of Iowa football star dressed in a Baltimore Ravens uniform.
Geno, fresh off his senior football season when the Red Hurricane finished as WPIAL Class 4A runner-up and he was named first-team all-state, had made a verbal commitment to Kent State on Dec. 18, 2016. His heart was set on Penn State since he was a child. He attended camps and made nine visits there (none official but all by invitation) to catch the Nittany Lions’ attention.
He said that seems to have been accomplished. After numerous conversations with coach James Franklin, he was told that a scholarship offer would be coming in the mail. He badgered Erin and grandmother Debbie Stone, who lives with the family, from school to check the mail as soon as it came each day, but weeks passed with no mail from Happy Valley.
In the meantime, Michigan State offered him an official visit to East Lansing, which he accepted. He liked what he saw, and again was told a scholarship offer would be forthcoming. The day the offer was to be made, he received a call that the final available scholarship had gone to another defensive back.
On Jan. 14, with Kent State looking like his best option, Iowa entered the mix when director of recruiting Tyler Barnes messaged him on Twitter.
“He said Iowa was very interested in me and asked if I was still open with recruitment,” Geno said. “I told him I was and on Jan. 19, (defensive coordinator Phil) Parker flew here, went to the high school and then came to the house and met my mom. He flew back, and later that night, called and offered me a scholarship.”
Instead of jumping at it, Geno — in the midst of what would turn out to be a WPIAL Class 4A championship season in basketball — agonized over the decision. Iowa was cold and 10 hours away. He readily admits he had no idea where it even was.
“I said, ‘Where in the heck is Iowa?’” he said. “I couldn’t even pick it off a map.”
Erin stood her ground. She said they needed to take a drive there to see the campus and meet the coaches.
“Drive out when? It’s 10 hours away, mom,” Geno said.
“We’ll go now,” Erin said.
“I have a basketball game — coach (Ralph Blundo) isn’t going to be OK with that,” Geno said.
“We’ll leave after your game,” Erin said.
“At 10 o’clock at night? And it’s going to snow,” Geno said.
“I tried so hard not to even go,” Geno said with a laugh. “I used every excuse in the book. But my mom can be relentless. I finally gave in. I felt like I owed it to her to at least see the campus and meet the coaches.”
Heading for Iowa
On Jan. 27, Erin’s fiance, Ryan Davis, drove to Iowa through a blinding snowstorm.
“It was a culture shock when we got there,” Geno said. “There’s just not much there. And it was really, really cold.”
The contingent to welcome the Stones included numerous Hawkeyes coaches and players, led by then-Iowa star safety Amani Hooker (now with the Tennessee Titans).
Picking Hooker, a personable future Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year and second-team All-American to be the also-personable Geno’s host proved to be genius on the part of Ferentz, who knew that Geno came in with his mind at least partially closed.
“When we went out for the night, Amani Hooker sold me,” he said. “He made me realize it just made sense for me. It was like everything suddenly became clear. And he instantly became one of my best friends.
“I felt wanted. From coach Ferentz down, they left no doubt that I was a priority. That was very important to me.”
Still, Geno did not commit.
“He just didn’t want to go there,” Erin said. “The car ride on the day he had to make his decision was my last chance.”
The start of it all
Geno is used to fighting for everything and he had no better teacher than his mom.
Erin gave birth to Geno on April 19, 1999, when she was just 18.
“I had had a tubal pregnancy prior and was told I would not be able to have kids,” she said. “So when I was told I was pregnant, I said, ‘No way.’”
She was indeed pregnant, to one-time boyfriend Jermaine Flamer, who has led a troubled existence and has not really been a part of Geno’s life. He did attend the WPIAL championship basketball game Geno’s senior year.
“That’s his dad and we respect that,” Erin said.
“He’ll always be my dad,” Geno added quietly. “He is part of me.”
For eight years, Geno had a wonderful father figure in Bobby Lepore, whom Erin was dating. When Lepore died in a car accident when Geno was 9, he was devastated.
His next father figure became Blundo.
“He was the person I could trust the most other than my mom,” Geno said.
“Oh, but Ralph was hard on him,” Erin said, “He would tell me, ‘Erin, you can’t baby him.’ But he was my baby, so I wanted to baby him. He is very loved and my very best friend.
“But somewhere along the way, he grew up and became an outstanding young man all on his own.”
Three seasons of success
Erin only missed five games in Geno’s three seasons at Iowa. Geno made considerable noise his freshman year, getting the Hawkeyes’ Next Man In Award as one of 10 true freshmen to see action.
In 2018, his sophomore season, Geno saw action in all 13 games, with eight starts at strong safety. The big one came on Oct. 27 in a 30-24 loss at Penn State, when he made his presence known on defense, collecting four tackles and recording his first career touchdown with a 24-yard pick-6 against Trace McSorley to cut the deficit to three points in the fourth quarter.
“Coach Franklin greeted me on the field after the game to congratulate me,” he said. “I’ve had several conversations with him. He told me they really screwed up in letting me get away and always wishes me the best.
“I have no hard feelings toward Penn State. I think things turned out the way they were meant to.”
Geno again started all 13 games at strong safety as a junior, recording 70 tackles, including 46 solo stops and 24 assists, after which he was voted second-team All-Big Ten by league coaches. He was named permanent team captain before the Holiday Bowl against USC, won by Iowa, 49-24.
Then came decision time. Should he turn pro or stay for his senior season at Iowa?
He talked to good friend and fellow New Castle native Malik Hooker, who starred at Ohio State and is now with the Indianapolis Colts. Hooker encouraged Geno to turn pro.
He made his decision to declare for the draft Jan. 6, heading for the high school, where he told his uncle Sam Flora, the school’s athletic director, as well as Blundo and football coach Joe Cowart.
He then called Ferentz.
“He said he wanted what was best for me and went over the benefits of leaving and staying,” Geno said. “He said he respected my decision.”
A tough draft
Then came possibly the most stressful time of all — the April 23-25 NFL Draft.
Geno said he had been told he could be drafted in the late-second or third round. He knew that a sub-par performance at the NFL combine in Indianapolis — where he ran the 40 in 4.62 instead of the expected 4.5 after tweaking a leg — hurt him, as did the cancellation of Iowa’s Pro Day due to the coronavirus.
As Geno waited, the third round came and went, as did the fourth, fifth and sixth.
His agent had heard from several teams, including the Ravens, with all expressing interest but none putting them on their board.
“I was getting texts from teams that were saying if you go undrafted, we would love to have you,” Geno said. “But I wanted to be drafted.”
With those in his home on the edge of their seats, Geno sat in his bedroom and missed the sixth round. Getting little peace there, he went out and sat in his car and asked everyone to give him some space.
“My heart was breaking watching his face looking at his phone,” Debbie said. “He looked devastated with every pick.”
When he saw that the Ravens had one pick left — 219th in the seventh round — and ESPN was listing him as one of the best players still available, Geno made a bold move. He texted the Ravens.
“They texted back and said they might be picking me but were still looking at it. Then my phone rang. Literally a couple of seconds before it flashed on the screen, their GM called and said, ‘Are you ready to be a Raven?’ Then there it was on the screen: 219. Baltimore Ravens, Geno Stone, Safety, Iowa.”
Those in Stone’s home, which the family had tried to limit due to social distancing, erupted. Geno could barely catch his breath.
“It was so emotional,” Erin said. “People were driving by and honking and waving. I wanted to let them all in but I couldn’t. I just broke down.”
Meanwhile, respected ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. had no qualms about sharing his opinion on Geno.
“Safety Geno Stone could be a special-teams menace as a rookie. Getting him in the seventh round is stellar,” Kiper said.
Geno has been college football’s best cover safety since 2018, according to Pro Football Focus, which called him “the biggest steal in the draft.” Lead draft analyst Mike Renner said, “I get why some guys high on the PFF draft board fell, but I have NO CLUE how Geno Stone lasted to the 7th. And he goes to the perfect fit in Baltimore.”
NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah listed Geno as his favorite seventh-round pick.
Geno signed his professional contract on Wednesday and now begins virtual meetings until he is told to report. He said he has no plans for his signing bonus other than to possibly upgrade his car.