• November 3, 2021

By Craig Sachson,

Champions are decided at the finish of the race, not the start. Delan Stallworth learned during his childhood, watching TV on Sunday afternoons. Football? You would think.

The son of a Division I college football player and one of Princeton’s standout cornerbacks this century, Stallworth’s Sundays were actually filled with Formula One racing. Cars remain a passion of his to this day, so much so that the senior mechanical engineering major is considering going into the automotive industry when his Princeton career ends.

Stallworth came to the sport of football later than many. He battled the obstacles, took some bumps, but he stayed on the track. And as the final lap approaches, he is on pace for a magical finish.

• • •
Eugene Stallworth played football at Ball State University, but he never forced his son Delan into the sport.

“I didn’t start playing until my freshman year of high school,” said Stallworth, who would go on to lead St. Xavier to an Ohio state championship. “It always had a draw for me, but my dad didn’t push it. My mom [Roseann] was all for it.”

It didn’t take terribly long for Stallworth to find his way, and soon college coaches were taking notice. With a strong academic background, Stallworth gained interest in the Ivy League. He came to Princeton in the middle of its 2016 Ivy League championship season and felt something that stayed with him.” That official visit, I felt like I could be part of the team,” he remembers. “I realized how much of a family it was.” What he didn’t realize was just how quickly he would become an active member of that family.

• • •
Fast forward a little over 13 months from that first trip to campus. Princeton, once positioned for a back-to-back Ivy championship run following a nationally televised demolition at Harvard, was holding on for dear life in the 2017 season finale at Dartmouth. Injuries had ravaged the defense of a Tiger team that started 5-1 before losing three straight games. Now the Tigers were trying to salvage a winning record in the final minutes in Hanover.

Stallworth had impressed the coaching staff throughout his freshman season, and in a normal year, he would have been primed for a breakout sophomore season. Instead, he was on the field against a loaded, experienced Dartmouth offense that targeted him time and again on the final drive. He committed two pass interference penalties, and then couldn’t stop Dartmouth’s bruising quarterback Jared Gerbino from running it in with one second remaining (in fairness, nobody else stopped Gerbino that day).
In racing terms, this was a wreck.

But instead of ending Stallworth’s day, it prepared him to be a massive contributor to one of the most remarkable eras in Princeton history.

• • •
“Delan is one of the best all-around cornerbacks to play at Princeton,” said head coach Bob Surace, who has both played with and coached many All-Ivy defensive backs. “His cover skills are excellent, but what separates him at that position is his physical tackling.”

That development, which was accelerated with varsity playing time as a freshman, grew even more as he tested himself daily against teammates and eventual NFL receivers Jesper Horsted and Steve Carlson. He focused on his technique and his physicality, and as he did so, his confidence grew. Teams were no longer looking to pick on Stallworth. In fact, he finished that perfect 2018 season without an interception and only three passes defensed.

Why? Quarterbacks simply avoided throwing at him.

That didn’t stop him from contributing. His biggest impact came against that same Dartmouth squad in a showdown of nationally ranked teams, when he had a season-high nine tackles in a 14-9 home comeback win. He averaged more than eight tackles per game over the second half of the season (including wins over Harvard and Yale), and he went on to earn his first of back-to-back All-Ivy League honors.

He was even better to finish out the 2019 season, as he averaged over nine tackles per game and posted double-digit stops in wins over Harvard and Penn. He ended that year with first-team All-Ivy honors, giving him a chance to be only the third Tiger defensive back over the last decade with a trio of All-Ivy seasons (Anthony Gaffney and Dorian Williams are the others).
He had no idea how long it would take for him to have that opportunity, but there was no chance he would pass it up.

• • •
“As soon as we learned we could get the extra year, guys wanted to come back and end things the right way,” he said of the COVID pandemic that shut down the 2020 season. “This is what we took the year off for, these hard-fought games this season. It’s taken senior leadership, more than just on the field.”

Stallworth learned that the hard way when injury kept him out of the dramatic five-overtime win over Harvard, but he found a way to do his part.

“I was trying to give as many tips as possible,” he said. “I wanted to draw on my experiences. It was definitely tough not to be able to play, but I was so proud of the guys afterwards.”
Imparting advice was fine, but it wasn’t what Stallworth is here to do. He has shined his brightest the last two Novembers, and he isn’t about to waste that opportunity now. Naturally, there is no better place to show his career growth than back in Hanover as Princeton tries to stay alone atop the Ivy standings this Friday night on ESPNU.

Stallworth has a bright future ahead of him. Whether he goes into automotive engineering or returns to working on medical devices, as he did over the last summer with the Ethicon company, he knows how to work, how to battle back, and how to compete to the end.

But for now, the only race he cares about is the one for an Ivy League championship.