By Mark Soltau
STANFORD, Calif. - Alex Debniak is not your average Stanford student-athlete. Peel back the layers, and you discover what an extraordinary journey he made to The Farm.
A senior outside linebacker from Hudsonville, Mich., Debniak comes from a loving family and has two younger sisters. His parents, Mark and Kyle, were track athletes at Central Michigan. Early on, Mark sensed something different about his son.
"When he was three years old, my husband kept saying, `There's something wrong with him,' '' said Kyle. "And I kept thinking, `There's not. There's not. I know there's not.' ''
Debniak had trouble speaking and couldn't complete a clear sentence. When he did talk, the words came slowly.
"I was not catching on to the English language whatsoever," he said. "I had the inability to actually form sentences or process what people were trying to say to me. When I got into Kindergarten, a lot of the teachers noticed I was speaking a lot louder than the other kids, so they thought I might have a hearing problem."
So his parents had him tested. What they learned is that Debniak had an auditory processing disorder. While he had no trouble hearing words, his brain couldn't process or understand them. In addition, it affected his ability to orient his body to where things are.
"Which I find ironic, since I ended up playing football," said the candid Debniak, who shared his story with gostanford.com and is preparing for the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin on Jan. 1 in Pasadena.
After a battery of cognitive and psychological tests, doctors determined that Debniak would probably struggle for the rest of his life.
"I ended up grading in the first percentile in most every category," he said. "The way they looked at it was if this kid doesn't get any help in the next year or so, a lot of those areas in his brain are going to close off and he could potentially end up in special education for the rest of his life."
Kyle prepared for the worst.
"I said, `Okay, he'll be a special needs kid. But we love him and he's a wonderful boy."
His parents immediately took Debniak to a pathologist named Marge Penning, whose practice was about 30 minutes from the Debniak home. For the next 10 years, Kyle drove Alex to see her once a week for 30 minutes. After each visit, Dr. Penning would give Mark and Kyle a list of cognitive questions to quiz their son on every night.
"She was just amazing in his life," Kyle said of Dr. Penning. "She got him to a place where he was pretty good, where he could keep up with his classmates."
It wasn't easy. One nightly test included pulling out a deck of cards with a doghouse in the middle, with a dog sitting on top of it, behind it and inside.
"He couldn't tell you what the dog was doing," said Kyle. "He had to learn positional words, which has been a problem for him all his life."
Debniak kept his pain and frustration to himself and never complained. He also cried himself to sleep for eight years.
"It was quite intense," he said. "It was a lot of hard times. I struggled a lot socially and didn't have a lot of friends. A lot of that isolation changes the way you see things in the world."
Added Kyle, "He was so nice about it. He'd learn and beat himself up if he didn't get it right. He was harder on himself than we could have ever been."
Slowly, Debniak progressed, but that didn't prevent other students from teasing him. In middle school, he stopped talking.
"It was so hard for him because all the kids thought he was stupid," said Kyle. "And he was so much smarter than they were; they just didn't know. He couldn't express himself."
As difficult as his ordeal was, Debniak leaned on his family for support and became more efficient with his time.
"I had a lot of dark days growing up," he said. "The way my father kind of looked at it and the way my parents raised me, when you're faced with these kinds of situations, you've got to run through a brick wall. That's just the way you have to handle everything in life."
So that's what he did.
"At some point in time, I was getting picked on, getting called names, was isolated and struggling academically to keep up," said Debniak. "I just made a decision: I had so much anger pent up -- a lot of rage - I just said, `You know, this is going to be an obsessive rage. I'm just going to bust right through this wall. I'm going to work with my pathologist and I'm going to come through on the other side. I'm going to take this thing and just run with it.' "
Dr. Penning noticed the change.
"Sometimes people give up," she said. "Others overcome. Alex worked so hard and I really applaud his effort. He was a wonderful kid to work with and I'm very, very proud of him."
Not that all of his problems were solved. At Hudsonville High School, he starred in football and track and field. As a senior, Debniak rushed for 1,387 yards and 18 touchdowns, and made 68 tackles and 17 sacks, to earn all-state honors. He also established seven school records in track and field.
But Debniak wrestled with the playbook and wasn't always sure where to line up, causing some to question his intelligence.
"Even to this day - and I constantly struggle with it - I just want to prove to people that I'm worth it," he said. "That I have value in my life, that I'm a great athlete, and that I am incredibly intelligent. That's something that I want to articulate and show."
Debniak made solid academic improvement and was heavily recruited for football. He wrote his college essay about his challenges with auditory processing disorder and to his surprise, was accepted to Stanford.
"It was a great moment in my life," said Debniak.
When Debniak arrived on campus, the Office of Accessible Education contacted him and asked if they could assist in any way. He refused.
"I don't want anybody helping me in my life anymore," he said. "I went through that whole process. I'm my own man and I'm going to take responsibility."
Debniak decided to major in human biology. Not because he was interested in medicine, but because he wanted to stretch and prove himself.
"Anything having to do with numbers and logic is what I struggle with the most," said Debniak. "I thought, `You know what, you already know what hell feels like. Not really hell, but on earth at least. It's not going to get any worse than that.' You need to challenge yourself and work on the parts of your brain that are the weakest."
Outside linebacker Chase Thomas, one of his closest friends on the team, has nothing but admiration for Debniak.
"It's definitely not in my DNA in terms of trying to take on the hardest major at Stanford, but shows something about him," he said. "He's a hard worker in everything he does and doesn't accept failure."
Debniak has one class left to complete his major: cell and developmental biology. He has failed the course twice.
"This is really the crux of what I've struggled with," he said. "The pace of that class, all the numbers involved, and the details. It's been terrible. Hopefully, the third time is the charm."
On the field, Debniak was one of eight true freshmen to see playing time in 2008. Torn between playing running back and linebacker, he redshirted the following year after sustaining a knee injury in training camp, but played in all 13 games in 2010, recording 18 total tackles and securing a sack in the Orange Bowl victory against Virginia Tech. Last year, he saw action in every game and made a significant impact, receiving the Phil Moffat Award as Stanford's top special teams player.
Still, Debniak wasn't satisfied. He wanted to contribute more. Admittedly, learning plays and techniques held him back at times.
"When I first got here, having to deal with the coverage and fundamentals of football, I was clueless," he said. "So, it has taken me 2-3-4 years now to really master that and get a real grasp. Even in classrooms, trying to process stuff." Now, playing outside linebacker is instinctive.
"It's hard when we as a coaching staff are unsure where he should play and he himself is unsure where he should play," said David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford. M. Freeman Director of Football. "It was hazy for a long time. I think he's matured a lot, especially in the last two years. He's comfortable now and loves the game. He knows what he is doing and just can't wait to play."
Kyle, a middle school teacher, and Mark, a commercial lender, would like to see their son savor his accomplishments, but suspect he will always push harder.
Debniak's goal in life is to help kids who are battling the challenges he did.
"He's just always had something to prove," she said. "I would love it if he found a place where he could relax and just feel like he's arrived, but I just don't feel like he feels that. I know he's proud of himself and I know he likes himself. He's comfortable in his own skin. But he has to keep pushing."
Debniak said he's working on it.
"In all honesty, that's something that I'm learning, to just sit back and reflect and be happy with myself," he said. "I am incredibly proud of what I've done so far, but I guess the way my mind works - a lot of my friends will tell you this - I'm a pretty cynical individual."
Former Cardinal safety Delano Howell, now playing for the Indianapolis Colts, roomed with Debniak for three years. They are tight, partly because of their strong belief in Christ, but also because Howell is a great listener.
"The thing I always liked about Alex is that he was always very sincere and genuine," Howell said. "The reason we got along so well is that I'm very transparent and he's very transparent, so we could share what's really on our mind in practical terms. There was just very good chemistry."
Howell is one of the few people Debniak opened up to about his childhood.
"When you talk about overcoming challenges, that kind of epitomizes his life," said Howell. "That would stop a lot of people or force a lot of people to quit. He wouldn't quit; he would just keep going. He would find reasons because of his competitive nature and will to succeed. I know we will remain lifelong friends."
Another sounding board at Stanford has been Jim Stump. For more than 40 years, he has overseen a campus ministry program for Cardinal student-athletes.
"He's one of the most amazing young men I've ever known," said Stump, who has met with Debniak about an hour a week for the past three years. "He is extremely intelligent and very, very deep in his thinking. So much so, that he's different than a lot of other guys his age.
"It sometimes sets him up for the guys not understanding him. He has his own value system, and that doesn't always work with the norm of the men in his age group. I commend him strongly for standing up for his own personal values."
Teammates call the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Debniak "Debs," and love his enthusiasm and child-like smile when he produces big plays.
"It's just 100 percent pure joy," said Howell.
This season, he has made many key plays backing up Thomas and on special teams. Debniak has 23 total tackles, including 17 unassisted, has four tackles for losses, including a key third-down sack against Oregon State, and has forced two fumbles.
"When he comes on the field, he impacts the play every single time," said Thomas. "He's either in the backfield getting in the quarterback's face, making a tackle or causing a fumble on special teams. The kid is an absolute animal. He's probably the fastest linebacker we have. Definitely the most explosive as well."
At the recent team banquet, Debniak shared the Outstanding Senior Award with All-America tight end Zach Ertz.
"He's made plays in every game," Shaw said. "I have a firm belief he's going to play at the next level. He's that talented."
Stump said the sack against Oregon State, which helped preserve a tight 27-23 win, moved him deeply.
"It brought tears to my eyes, because I know how much that meant to him," he said. "He is so deserving of the recognition and accomplishments that come with that kind of effort that he's put forward for this team."
Mark and Kyle attended every home game and said the 2012 season has been a blessing for their son.
"If he doesn't go any further, I will be so thankful for this year," said Kyle. "The smiles. He's finally feeling like he belongs out there."