|Al Behrman/Associated Press|
|Walter Stewart looked like a sure-fire pick in the 2013 NFL Draft before doctors discovered a medical abnormality.|
On that twisted day in June, two days before Walter Stewart's 13th birthday, something told him to run. He needed to put this strange situation behind him. It was a time to press forward, no longer a time to look back.
So when another argument with his mother turned more violent than usual -- she threw a telephone that caused damage to his face -- the future football prospect got out of the house, his life on its way to being forever altered.
"It just started to get out of control," said Stewart, now a product of the University of Cincinnati preparing for the 2013 NFL Draft as a defensive end. "The way she was using discipline on me ... we weren't meshing. So I ran away."
Stewart, who appreciatively entered Ohio's foster-care system within two days, no longer looks back at his past with any resentment. He doesn't begrudge his biological mother, who gave birth to him when she was 12. He doesn't feel sorry for himself, refusing to dwell on his childhood or the struggles he endured.
Then why is it even important? Well, after five years in the foster-care system, which included a move away from Columbus to the small town of Ashville, Ohio, Stewart is not defined by his past. But he was most certainly molded by it.
Less than 10 years later, Stewart is among the 333 college football players invited to next week's NFL Scouting Combine. And while you probably know little about him -- or the spinal abnormality that continues to jeopardize his career -- few could possibly face a more uncertain week ahead after taking a more uncertain path to get here.
Few have endured greater. Few have a more inspirational story to share. And few will be more interesting to follow, as you'll see once you know his whole story.
"Nothing has ever been easy for him," said Keith Fields, Stewart's foster father. "It's actually been quite amazing. I'm so grateful for the way he has turned out -- and I'm so interested to see how the rest of his story goes."
Four months ago, less than halfway through the most recent college football season, representatives from the University of Cincinnati called the home of Stewart's foster parents. When Fields answered, he sensed the urgency right away.
The school told Fields to come to campus, located 110 miles away, as soon as possible for a meeting about an injury Stewart had suffered in the team's Oct. 13 win over Fordham. They told Fields to pick up Stewart -- also unaware of the severity of the situation -- at his dorm on the way to the meeting.
|Walter Stewart posed for a picture with his foster family when he was inducted into his high school's hall of fame. (Courtesy of the Fields family)|
"They'd never asked us to do something like that before," Fields recalled. "I knew it couldn't be good."
During the drive, a team trainer called Fields to warn him what was up: X-rays taken after Stewart's injury had revealed a congenital abnormality. Stewart had been born without the posterior arch of the C1 vertebra. And his football career, in the professional opinion of Cincinnati's team doctor, was abruptly over.
"Here's a young man who was told his career was taken from him," said former Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, now the head coach at the University of Tennessee. "But the way he handled the situation was inspirational. It made you realize his level of maturity. It was inspiring."
Keep in mind, Stewart was the captain of the Bearcats. He'd started 41 consecutive games. His size, speed and strength had made him an asset on the field -- and a certain selection in the 2013 NFL Draft. His leadership (Stewart often conducted bed checks on the nights before games as a senior) had been a major asset off the field, as well.
And now, all of it, from the millions to be made in the NFL to the memories he'd hoped to make during his final college season, had ended with one cold sentence from his doctor: You'll never play football again.
While Stewart planned to get a second opinion about his future (Fields immediately started calling other doctors), he also began to accept the fate presented to him. At the very least, his senior season was over. So he wanted to address his team.
The defensive end started into his speech during a team meeting two hours later, a moment that not only defined his career but also defined his attitude and personality. While everyone else cried, Stewart held strong.
"In the years I've been at Cincinnati, hundreds of players have also played here," Stewart told the team. "I'm just the next person to tell you not to ever take this for granted. Don't ever take this for granted. I promise, I don't regret anything about this situation. I'll have my degree, and I'll have no regrets."
|Walter Stewart with his foster sister, Logan Fields, just two weeks before the injury that changed his football career. (Courtesy of the Fields family)|
Said Fields: "It was unbelievable. He was never once angry. It was like he was giving his own eulogy -- and afterward, he was the one comforting everyone else. He handled it better than any of us."
Stewart's speech illustrated a side of him that so many had come to see before. But his actions in the following days, as he began to grasp the end of his career, truly enlightened those around him.
Stewart didn't think about the healthy paychecks he'd never earn in the NFL. Really, despite his promising prospects, he never thought about the NFL at all.
"I follow the NFL very closely -- and I understand the risk and the reward," Stewart said. "I understand the whole process, but I never worried about any NFL stuff. No agents. No rankings. I just knew I was a good player. I was only worried about my team and my season.
"The NFL was always out of my control. I always knew when I put a helmet on, this could be it. A lot of people were a lot sadder than I was. Football is football. That's what I signed up for. For me to play in the NFL, that was irrelevant. I just wanted to focus on each week. I'd worry about the other stuff when I got there."
In the four months that have passed since Cincinnati's team doctor made his original diagnosis, Stewart and his foster family have sought the professional opinions of seven other doctors. Two of them are currently doctors for NFL teams. One is a doctor for a major Division I college.
The opinions, strangely enough, have varied across the board. While orthopedic surgeons have more often sided with the original diagnosis, several highly respected neurosurgeons have adamantly disagreed, professionally advising Stewart that he is completely capable of having a full and healthy NFL career.
The question still centers on the C1, which is the first cervical vertebra of the spine. Some doctors believe he did indeed suffer a fracture during that game against Fordham as a result of his abnormality. Others believe it is a separate injury independent of the abnormality -- and the abnormality never would have been discovered had it not been for X-rays being taken in the same area.
"It'll be very interesting to see what the team doctors say about it," Fields said. "That's why we were pushing so hard to get into the combine."
Stewart did successfully get invited to the combine, where his condition and ability on the football field won't be nearly as important as his physicals with the medical staffs of several teams.
With no neck issues, Stewart is a likely mid-round pick, according to multiple scouts and one personnel director. But there are still questions, at least from certain doctors (specifically the University of Cincinnati's own team doctor), about whether his C1 abnormality makes him more susceptible to serious injury. One scout told NFL.com he didn't even write up a full scouting report on Stewart because the school advised him after the injury that Stewart would not be able to pursue an NFL career.
One NFL doctor told Fields and Stewart that, because of his neck issue, he would tell his team that they should not draft him. But another NFL doctor said he would have no concerns or problems if the team did indeed select Stewart. In other words, it's all a matter of medical opinion.
No doubt, Stewart's stock is likely to be impacted.
"There have been times I've told Walt, 'I don't know if it's worth it,' " Fields said. "I have a harder time with it than he does. How am I going to feel if something happens? But Walt is totally comfortable with it. And many doctors are also very comfortable with it. So I'm also accepting of it."
This much is certain: There is very little precedence in the NFL to provide any sense of comfort -- or discomfort -- about Stewart's ability to have a successful and healthy career. Some doctors have told Stewart that plenty of players likely have played without a developed C1 arch, but they probably never knew it because they never had any reason to have X-rays taken that would've identified the abnormality.
"Right now, my goal is to get to the combine healthy and be ready to compete with the top guys in the nation," Stewart said. "I want people to realize I'm not retired. I want them to know that I'm still trying to pursue football.
"Hopefully, someone will give me my shot."
Stewart is currently training at Ignition Athletic Performance Group in Cincinnati, where he has been able to undergo a full training workload, uninhibited by the neck situation. Despite differing medical opinions, Stewart feels plenty comfortable, given all of the information he has, about moving forward with his career.
"When he came in, he was 230 pounds," said Ted Borgerding, performance director at Ignition. "He'd taken some time off. He wasn't able to work out. But now, he's going four days a week, twice a day. He's put on 15 pounds of muscle, and his conditioning levels are back to what they needed to be to be prepared to play."
Borgerding noted that Stewart has never once informed him of any pain or limitations during their training sessions that would suggest any issues with his neck.
Shortly after he entered the Fields' home as a foster child, Stewart's new parents forced him to pick an activity, any activity he wanted. It could have been karate. Or painting. Or piano. Or yes, it could even be football.
Of the 37 foster children raised by the Fields, very few selected sports. But Stewart had the size (he was already 6-foot-1 at age 13) and the desire. So he picked football. And football eventually led to a very new type of life for him.
"In the school where he ended up (after the family moved from Columbus to Ashville), less than one percent of the kids were African-American," Fields said. "We were worried. But the community accepted him. They loved him. And he became a two-time captain at his high school."
It was this acceptance -- and a life devoid of trouble -- that ultimately also led to a reconciliation with his birth mother. Even though he lived out his adolescent days with his foster family, Stewart is now also very close to his mother, who has sought counseling and help to better raise her other children.
Given the sport's importance in his life, Stewart doesn't want to give it up. He wants to keep playing, even though he is willing to move on with his life, should all NFL doctors decide against the possibility of endorsing him to their respective teams' front offices. That's why he sought a second opinion that gave him a different outlook on his career. When a third and fourth opinion also provided confidence, Stewart decided to push forward.
Maybe it will work out. Maybe it won't. But the lessons Stewart has learned in his inspiring life have nonetheless allowed him to handle this situation, as well.
"As a kid, I didn't understand why stuff was happening in my childhood," Stewart said. "But I never got down on myself like, 'Why me?' I just wanted to understand what I could do from where I was at. 'What can I do now?' That's the stuff I thought about it. I just kept moving."
If his career should end now, if no NFL team should select him in April's draft, Stewart will land on his feet in some capacity. Maybe he'll become a coach. Jones, after all, has extended an open invitation to join Tennessee's staff, if Stewart chooses that route.
Whatever the case, this much is clear: Stewart will keep moving. He won't ask why. He won't complain. He'll put this strange situation behind him. He'll press forward.
And he won't look back.
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.