In the 1990s, Dan Stubblefield was one of the better defensive linemen in the National Football League. He also had the good fortune of being drafted by and getting to play for one of the league’s elite and iconic franchises that was in the midst of one of the sport’s greatest dynasties.
His talent and skill made him a major contributor while allowing him to reach the mountaintop of America’s most popular sport.
But many athletes struggle after they retire, and Stubblefield was no exception. Actually, his post-football life was seriously marred by controversy and maliciousness.
Humble Beginnings In Ohio
Dana William Stubblefield was born on Nov. 14, 1970 in Cleves, Ohio, a small village just minutes west of Cincinnati.
Stubblefield’s father wasn’t in the picture when he was growing up, forcing him to be raised only by his mother. As one would expect, it created some hardship for the family, as it wasn’t particularly well off financially.
“If I wanted a new pair of sneakers, I had to work for it or have my money saved up,” admitted Stubblefield.
Once he made his way to Taylor High School, he became a star football player. He reached the 300-pound mark at a very young age, which made him something of an immovable object on the gridiron.
Stubblefield was also an outstanding wrestler in high school. He fought in the heavyweight division and forged a 33-2 record while getting pinned only one time, earning him Western Metro League wrestler of the year honors.
Back before cross-training was a thing in fitness or athletics, Stubblefield was aware that his success as a wrestler would beget success on the football field.
“It’s so intense,” he said of wrestling. “You’ve got four minutes, and you go all out. It really helped my football game because I use wrestling moves out there on the field.”
But in his senior year, he faced a challenge. His mother wanted to move to Cincinnati proper, and he didn’t want to start anew at a different school.
Luckily, the Heath family came to the rescue.
Martha Heath taught at Taylor High, and her husband Terry was a former classmate of Stubblefield’s mother. Even better, Stubblefield was currently going to school with one of their children.
The Heaths offered Stubblefield the opportunity to live with them on their farm, and with the blessing of his mother, he agreed.
There was a slight issue though: The Heaths were white, and some of Stubblefield’s friends were miffed by his decision to the point where they wanted nothing to do with him anymore.
But his new living arrangement worked out. Terry Heath became the father figure Stubblefield never had, albeit a Caucasian one, and the feeling was mutual. Over the years, the couple would attend his college and pro games, and Stubblefield would even introduce the Heaths to others as his mom and dad.
A Soaring Jayhawk
Stubblefield matriculated to the University of Kansas, but unlike many future NFL players, he did not do so on any kind of scholarship.
He was not a productive student at Taylor High, but luckily, the NCAA’s Proposition 48 allowed him to play college football.
“He didn’t do very well on the books, but he was a smart guy,” said Chuck Woodling, J-W sports editor, of Stubblefield. “He was a classic example of why they would have Prop 48. He screwed up in high school, but he could do the work.”
During his time as a Kansas Jayhawk, Stubblefield emerged as a difference-maker on the field at the defensive tackle position. During his three seasons on the varsity squad, he had a total of 19 sacks, peaking in the 1991 season with 10, along with a career total of 168 tackles.
It earned him first-team All America honors from College & Pro Football Weekly. In both his junior and senior seasons he earned his way onto the All-Big Eight first team.
By his senior season, Stubblefield became the captain of the Jayhawks. Along with fellow linemen Chris Maumalanga and Gilbert Brown, he helped make the Jayhawks one of college football’s most feared defensive juggernauts.
That year, KU went 8-4 on the season and advanced to the Aloha Bowl, where it outlasted Brigham Young University 23-20 after trailing 20-12 in the fourth quarter. With three sacks and one tackle for loss, Stubblefield earned game MVP honors.
Stubblefield’s success in the NCAA made him a strong pro prospect, and it led to the San Francisco 49ers taking him with the 26th overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft.
In the 1980s, the 49ers were the league’s team of the decade, taking home four Super Bowl championships. They helped revolutionize the game with their West Coast offense, which spread the field and put loads of pressure on opposing defenses.
But the real key to the Niners’ success was their own defense, which routinely ranked at or near the top of the league throughout the league.
But by the early 1990s, several members of that defense had left the team, and it was in need of new blood. The hope was that Stubblefield would do just that.
In 1993, his rookie season, he certainly delivered, recording 10.5 sacks and 64 tackles, earning himself the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
With Steve Young replacing the ailing and aging Joe Montana at quarterback, the Niners went 10-6 and advanced to the NFC Championship Game, where they lost to the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, 38-21. Dallas went on to win another world championship.
San Francisco needed more reinforcements defensively, and to that end it brought in linebacker Ken Norton, Jr. and cornerback Deion Sanders. The team also drafted another star defensive tackle Bryant Young, who would form quite a tandem with Stubblefield.
The result was that the 1994 49ers were a force to be reckoned with, not just offensively but also defensively. They finished the regular season 13-3, as Stubblefield had 8.5 sacks on the season and got his first Pro Bowl nod.
It all earned San Fran a rematch with the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game, where it had lost to Troy Aikman and company each of the last two seasons.
On both of those occasions, Aikman had his way with the Niners. But this time, with Stubblefield and his friends patrolling the line of scrimmage, Aikman was inefficient, throwing three interceptions and getting sacked four times.
San Francisco raced out to a 21-0 lead and coasted to a 38-28 triumph, thanks in part to Stubblefield’s three tackles.
The Niners were on to Super Bowl XXIX, where it took on the heavy underdog San Diego Chargers. Stubblefield helped harass Chargers QB Stan Humphries into a bad day, sacking him once, while Young and All-Pro wide receiver Jerry Rice feasted on offense, helping San Fran to a 49-26 blowout and its fifth Vince Lombardi trophy.
Stubblefield’s numbers fell a bit in 1995, but he was still named to the Pro Bowl, and the Niners still prospered, posting an 11-5 record on the season. The team was still a monster on the defensive side of the ball, ranking second in points allowed and first in yards given up.
In the playoffs, San Francisco had to deal with a new rival: Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. The Packers had been patiently building a contender over the past few years, and they were coached by Mike Holmgren, who had once been the Niners’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Stubblefield had a whale of a game with nine tackles and one sack. However, Favre still managed to play up to his standards, and the Niners were never in it, falling behind 21-0 before losing by the final score of 27-17.
Stubblefield’s production fell again during the 1996 season, yet the Niners remained strong and finished 12-4 on the season. But since they failed to win the NFC West, they had to start the playoffs with a wild card contest.
There, they had no trouble dismissing the Philadelphia Eagles, 14-0. But in the next round, San Fran again ran into the Packers, and again the Packers ran over the Niners, 35-14, despite a sack and three solo tackles from Stubblefield.
Adversity hit San Francisco in a major way right when the 1997 campaign began. In Week 1 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a violent and illegal tackle by Warren Sapp (he was called for a personal foul) on Rice caused the wideout to tear both his left anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, virtually ending his season.
Sapp also had a big hit on Young that gave him a concussion and forced him out of the game. As a result, Young thought about retiring, although he would end up all but one game that season.
With Race sidelined and the 36-year-old Young showing signs of aging, the Niners would need to depend on their defense more than ever before, which meant that Stubblefield would have to up his game.
Up his game he did, tallying 15 sacks, three forced fumbles and 61 tackles on the season. In Week 11 he gave Philadelphia Eagles QB Ty Detmer nightmares by sacking him four times and holding him to just 13 out of 31 completed passes, 137 yards, one interception and no touchdowns in a 24-12 win.
San Fran’s defense gave up fewer yards than any other team in the NFL, and Stubblefield earned the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award as a result, while also getting named to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro first-team.
Although their offense wasn’t quite as potent without Rice, the 49ers won 13 games and finished first in the NFC West behind Stubblefield and their defense.
They started the playoffs by pulling away from the Minnesota Vikings for a 38-22 win in the divisional round, before yet again facing the Packers for the conference championship.
By now, Niners fans had seen this movie before, and they were sick of it. Stubblefield did his part, but San Francisco’s defense was as potent as an aging AAA battery, and it fell to Favre and gang, 23-10.
Mr. Stubblefield Goes To Washington
Following the 1997 season, Stubblefield became a free agent. It isn’t often that the NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year is available on the open market, and he was a hot commodity.
He ended up signing with the Washington Redskins, who gave him a contract worth $36 million over six years. He wanted to remain with the 49ers, but salary cap restrictions made it difficult for him to stay in the Bay while getting compensated fairly.
After winning three Super Bowls in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Redskins had fallen into mediocrity. Although they were coming off two consecutive winning seasons, they had not appeared in the postseason since the 1992 campaign.
The 1998 season was a rough one for Washington and Stubblefield. He played in just seven games, as his year was cut prematurely short by a right knee injury that required surgery.
The Redskins started 0-7 and despite a four-game winning streak towards the end of the schedule, they missed the playoffs.
But Stubblefield bounced back nicely in 1999, playing the full schedule and recording three sacks and 44 tackles. The Redskins finished 10-6 and finally reached the postseason, where it easily dispatched the Detroit Lions in the wild card round, 27-13.
The divisional round pitted Washington against the Buccaneers, winners of 11 games and owners of a hard-hitting style of football. The Redskins jumped out to a 13-0 lead in the third quarter and looked to be on their way to the NFC Championship Game, as Stubblefield contributed seven tackles (four solo) and a sack.
But Washington’s offense went cold, and it fell behind 14-13 in the fourth quarter. In the final seconds, it had an opportunity to win with a field goal, but the snap was bad, and the Redskins came up one point short.
Unfortunately, they couldn’t build on their success. After starting the 2000 season in promising fashion, winning six of their first eight games, they faltered in the final weeks of the schedule and finished 8-8, missing the playoffs.
Returning To The Bay
Over time, Stubblefield grew more and more frustrated with the environment in Washington. The franchise lacked stability and direction, unlike the 49ers, who had been a model of front office leadership and a winning culture on the field when he was there.
Fans and the media had also accused Stubblefield of becoming fat and happy after receiving his huge contract upon arriving in the nation’s capital. But Steve Mariucci, his old coach in San Fran, felt the accusations were overblown.
Luckily for Stubblefield, the Redskins cut him in March 2001 for salary cap reasons, and San Francisco welcomed him back with open arms, giving him a new six-year contract worth over $29 million.
“It is home, It’s an I-left-my-heart-in-San-Francisco type deal,” Stubblefield said. “I was a little nervous of coming back in, but when I drove up to the building, it felt like I was coming in for a normal workout. But, I was coming in trying to find a job.”
The Niners were a much different team than they were when he left a few years earlier. Young was long gone, having retired due to repeated concussions, and Rice had moved across the Bay to the Oakland Raiders.
The team’s new star was wideout Terrell Owens, while starting QB Jeff Garcia carried the burden of carrying the Niners’ tradition of success into the new millennium.
One mainstay who was still there was Bryant Young, Stubblefield’s old colleague and close friend.
San Fran had missed the playoffs in 1999 and 2000, and the main culprit was its defense. But with Stubblefield back, and with a solid bump in his production in 2001, the Niners won 12 games and returned to the postseason.
As was the case in the mid-1990s, they couldn’t get past the packers in the playoffs, losing to them in the wild card round 25-15 after playing them to a standstill through three quarters, despite five tackles (one solo) from Stubblefield. But at least some optimism returned to Northern California.
Even though he turned 32 years of age, Stubblefield continued to be serviceable in 2002 with three sacks in 15 contests. The Niners won 10 games, finishing first in the NFC West, but they would have to play a wild card game to begin the playoffs.
Things looked bleak in the wild card round against the New York Giants, as San Francisco fell behind by a massive margin of 38-14 with less than five minutes left in the third quarter.
But Garcia and Owens engineered a whopper of a comeback, as the Niners rallied to win 39-38. In the divisional round, however, the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers stomped San Fran, 31-6.
Stubblefield signed as a free agent with the Raiders for the 2003 season, reuniting him with Rice. The Niners had released him over concerns about his conditioning, which irritated him.
Oakland was coming off a trip to the Super Bowl, and the hope was that ’03 would be the year it got over the hump. But Rice’s production seriously declined at age 41, as did Stubblefield’s, and the Raiders won just four games and missed the playoffs.
The league would suspend him that season after he tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug known as THG.
It would be Stubblefield’s swan song. The New England Patriots signed him in 2004, but he was released before the season started.
Still, he enjoyed a very productive career during which he made life tough for opposing QBs.
There has been a lot of conversation over the years about NFL players getting into trouble with the law. Some would say such criticism is exaggerated, but Stubblefield was an egregious example of a football player who couldn’t stay off the police blotter.
Stubblefield’s foray into PEDs in 2003 wasn’t limited to being suspended by the NFL. That fall, he testified before a grand jury that was investigating the involvement of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) in supplying PEDs to a number of prominent athletes, particularly Major League Baseball players such as San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds.
Back then, pro baseball would be seriously scarred by steroids and the resulting fallout in terms of public perception, but it wasn’t much of a problem in the NFL. Stubblefield would be an outlier in that regard.
Before testifying in court, he lied to investigators by claiming he had never done THG or the oxygen-boosting drug EPO, while also falsely claiming he hasn’t received either substance from BALCO.
Stubblefield was facing multiple years in prison for lying to federal agents. But he was cooperative during his case by giving investigators the names of people who may have received and taken PEDs, and as a result, he got a lesser sentence of two years’ worth of probation.
During that time, it looked like he was trying to get his life on track. He spent two separate stints as a member of the coaching staff for the football team at Valley Christian High School in San Jose, Calif.
Mike Machado, the head coach and dean of students, called Stubblefield “an outstanding coach and role model” for his players.
But he wouldn’t be an upstanding citizen for long. In 2010, he was convicted of federal charges and sentenced to 90 days in jail after he submitted a change-of-address form to the United States Postal Service so that the mail addressed to his ex-girlfriend, including her employment checks, would be delivered to his home.
Just a few years later came an unconscionable incident. In 2015, Stubblefield hired a 31-year-old woman off a babysitting website and invited her to his home outside of San Jose to interview her for what she thought would be a babysitting job.
Later, Stubblefield texted her and said he would pay her for her time that day. When she returned to his home, he raped her and before giving her the $80 she was promised.
He later stood trial under charges of rape by force, oral copulation by force, false imprisonment and raping a person incapable of giving consent. The victim suffered from a developmental disability, which made Stubblefield’s actions even more heinous.
In July 2020, he was found guilty. Three months later, he was given a prison sentence of 15 years to life.
It is bewildering how Stubblefield went from an inspiring success story who overcame lack of finances and a father figure to become an All-American, Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion, only to throw it all away with one evil act against a mentally compromised woman.