NORMAN — Look at Kenny Stills, and you see the tattoos and the Mohawk and the bleached hair and the lip piercing.
Look closer at the Oklahoma wide receiver — particularly at the tattoo on the inside of his left forearm — and you realize he is more complex than his brash exterior might lead you to believe.
“In order to get something you never had,” he said, reciting the first line of that tattoo, “you have to do something you never did.”
The script runs from the crook of his elbow to the inside of his wrist.
When God takes something from your grasp, he's not punishing you. He's merely opening your hands to receive something better. The will of God will not take you where the grace of God cannot protect you.
On the verge of the Sooners' first game without receiver extraordinaire Ryan Broyles, the focus is squarely on Stills. Players and coaches might insist that replacing the NCAA career leader in receptions is going to be a group effort, but Stills has the talent and the ability to fill those rather large cleats.
He has the poise, too.
It's a confidence born out of a lifetime around football, a family that set limits but encouraged growth and a track record of success at every level of the game, from a Pop Warner national title to a California section title to a Big 12 title and a BCS bowl win.
“Kenny is ready to step in and do what he has to do,” his dad, Ken Stills, said. “I don't doubt it at all.”
Neither does Stills.
He hates that this opportunity came about because of Broyles' blown-out knee, but it's a challenge that those who know him best say he's ready to accept.
“I've always wanted to be the No. 1 guy,” he said. “I've got to take advantage of my opportunity.”
It's an opportunity he's been preparing for his whole life.
A green blankie and a football
The first gift that Kenny Stills received as a baby was a mini football, and when he started walking, it went everywhere with him.
“He had his little green blankie and his football,” his mom, Annette Delao, said. “We'd tell him, ‘Do the three-point stance, Kenny', and he would show us. It's just a natural thing.
“It's in his genes.”
That, it is.
Stills' dad played defensive back at Wisconsin, then in the NFL for the Packers and Vikings. He coached in the XFL and NFL Europe. But it was Stills' mom who initially fueled the football fire she saw in her son.
“My mom lied about my age,” Stills said, smiling.
He started playing youth football when he was only 6. The league's age minimum was 7.
Not long after, he joined a team that he was part of until he started high school. It was a bunch that lost only a handful of games over all those years, including a couple of seasons that ended at the Pop Warner Super Bowl in Florida.
Stills loved those big stages. Then again, he'd spent time been around football at its highest level. Because his dad was still coaching when Stills was young, he got to hang around NFL players in the locker room and on the practice field.
He once fielded punts before a game at the famed Coliseum in Los Angeles. Even though he was still in elementary school, he did it with ease.
Even though his parents afforded him every opportunity where football was involved, they gave him no leeway when it came to rules and expectations.
“My dad was real strict when I was young,” Stills said. “My handwriting had to be on the line. Yes, sir. No, sir. That type of stuff.
“Same with my mom.”
“I have vivid memories of me sitting at a desk working on handwriting.”
For Stills' parents, having him practice and perfect his handwriting wasn't about having great penmanship. It was about learning bigger life lessons.
“Kenny, the lines are there for a reason,” his father told him. “It's the same as the rules we have for life.”
So, how did the boy who spent hours perfecting his handwriting become the guy who has tattoos covering his body? How did he go from staying on the lines to coloring outside them?