Casa Grande QB tries to move forward at Vista Grande after girlfriend's tragic death (2024)

Richard ObertArizona Republic

Eltorna Gant is just completing baseball season and transitioning to the football field at his new school, where the spotlight is different these days for one of Casa Grande's best high school athletes.

Once the star at Casa Grande Union High, where his touchdown passes were celebrated by the community, Gant, now attends nearby Vista Grande, a rival school. As he navigates through town it seems the community has become split on what to think about him.

In late November, he attended a party at a vacant house in Casa Grande with his girlfriend, 17-year-old senior Hailey Stephens, a cheerleader at Union.

According to news reports citing information from police, in the early hours of Nov. 26, there was an altercation between attendees at the party. A gunfight broke out. Stephens was struck in the head by a stray bullet and later died. Another girl was struck in the arm and survived. They were innocent victims of stray gunfire. The house was riddled with bullets.

Nine people were arrested, five charged with murder. Gant, now 17, was charged with criminal trespassing, a class 6 felony, and is currently going through the court process, his mom, Victoria Gant, said.

A week before the tragedy, Gant, a quarterback, was honored at Casa Grande Union High as the 5A Southern Region Offensive Football Player of the Year, a dynamic duo-threat quarterback with top grades in the classroom who had everything going for him.

"This happened, and I wouldn't say it changed a lot of minds, but it had a lot of people looking at him in a negative way," Victoria Gant said.

Negative feedback

After the death of his girlfriend, Gant didn't want to play football anymore, at least at first. It was hard staying at the school where he became close to Hailey, a popular student who made the honor roll. It got to the point where Gant felt he needed a change. His parents saw that.

In late January, he transferred to Vista Grande, where he had to miss the first half of the baseball season due to the Arizona Interscholastic Association transfer rules. Now he's into spring football practices. Coach Jon Roberts said there is a small army of people willing to go to bat for Gant in August, when a hardship hearing will be held with the AIA seeking an exception that will allow him to avoid sitting out part of next football season because of the transfer.

Gant, 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, has been a good student (3.7 GPA), along with being an outstanding athlete in his high school career. But the school is concerned about comments that could come out in response to an article about Gant, Roberts says.

"I told them, 'Whether he gets an article or throws a touchdown, people are going to say something,'" Roberts said. "I said, 'The more that we show that he's a good kid, I believe, the more it disseminates.' I don't know if I'm thinking about it the wrong way."

Gant is staying off of social media, taking his classes, going to practice and moving forward.

He didn't want to discuss details of what happened at that Nov. 26 party, but it's changed his life forever. Traumatized by the death of Hailey, it's hard for him to talk.

"It was difficult," he said. "Right now, it's just focusing on what is here."

A community split

Roberts knows the Casa Grande community well. His uncle Randy Robbins, the Casa Grande Union athletic director, might be the most famous Union alum of all time. He starred in football there, then played for the University of Arizona in the early 1980s before playing nine seasons for the Denver Broncos in the NFL.

Roberts is close to his uncle, even as the coach from the rival school now. And he's pretty well-connected in the community.

Roberts said he's seen a community split over Gant since Hailey's death.

"You have people in the community that has blamed him for what has happened," he said. "You know what teenagers do, they throw a party. It got out of hand. But he didn't do it with intentions of getting anyone hurt or killed. He's done everything that the courts have asked him to do."

Gant could have moved 30 miles north up Interstate 10 to a school in the East Valley, but with other family members' needs in Casa Grande, the parents decided to stay put and make the three-mile transfer move within the Casa Grande district.

"It was an option," Victoria said. "But with everything happening so fast, I was more focused on him going to a different environment. How could I get him back and forth and make sure he's getting there without having to depend on anybody else. I have a daughter who has some disabilities. We have two vehicles. We have to make sure she gets what she needs. We couldn't just make a decision to go to another town."

Victoria said that she's talked to Hailey's parents since her death.

"There is communication there, but I also try to give space to them for what they're going through," she said.

She said the last time she talked to her parents, they weren't holding anything against Eltorna for what happened.

"You always hear about it, but you don't expect stuff like that to happen, especially your own kids," Victoria said.

She and her husband tell Eltorna not to feed into negative comments made about him on social media.

"There was a lot of kids, adults, people at school, who were saying negative things, saying he should be in jail," Victoria said. "This and that. That he shouldn't be posted for any achievements he had, because he was arrested. So we try to tell him not to feed into any of that."

'How does he start some healing?'

Roberts felt Gant needed a fresh start.

"I don't know how he could have played football over there, and after every touchdown, he hears the fight song and he looks to the left, and the girls are wearing the same cheerleading uniforms and she's not there," Roberts said. "How does he start some healing?"

Most players at both Casa Grande Union and Vista Grande know each other, growing up playing on the same youth teams or against each other. There are only three junior high schools.

"I give Eltorna credit because he considered us an option," Roberts said. "Him coming over was therapeutic for him. It didn't have anything to do with football.

"I hope that the AIA will hear his (hardship case), because the kid threw for 2,700 yards, he had over 3,300 yards of total offense, and he has his entire offensive guys (at Casa Grande Union) and the No. 8 kid in the 2026 class with (tight end) Aveon (Williams). There was no incentive for him to come here. He came here for mental health reason, and I hope they consider that."

After leaving Casa Grande Union in late January for a new start in the same school district at Vista Grande, it's been day-to-day living with the memory of that tragic night in November.

Baseball and football is helping.

"He never said no, he didn't want to play," Victoria said. "I think it was just so much, he was trying to take everything in. With all of the negativity coming in, I think he was worried about if he went back out, how is everyone going to portray him, look at him now? It marches in his head."

Victoria said her son wasn't involved in the fighting that took place at the house party. But he was there. His girlfriend lost her life. And now there is a lifetime of regret over what could have been, as he moves on in life.

"Hopefully, I'll have that change and be a good role model for anybody going through something like this," Eltorna said.

To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert atrichard.obert@arizonarepublic.comor 602-316-8827. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter: @azc_obert.

Casa Grande QB tries to move forward at Vista Grande after girlfriend's tragic death (2024)

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