George Stewart: Minnesota Vikings WR whisperer

George Stewart’s deep baritone voice and rat-a-tat delivery
serve as the soundtrack for Minnesota Vikings training camp, rising
above click-clack of cleats on the pavement and popping of pads
during the endless drills under the August sun.

It’s the kind of voice that would seem more at home introducing
Motown records on the FM dial rather than barking at a rookie
receiver for cutting a route short. The combination of veteran ball
coach attention to detail and night-time DJ charisma over more than
two decades as a coach in the NFL has helped Stewart to earn a
reputation as a receiver whisperer of sorts with an uncanny knack
for connecting with even the most challenging personalities at a
position that traditionally has been a haven for divas and glory
hounds.

”What has happened, I started off as a peer to most of the
guys,” said Stewart, who was hired by famed Pittsburgh Steelers
coach Chuck Noll in 1989 at the age of 29. ”But as I continue to
get older, those ages stay the same. So I’ve gone from a peer to a
big brother to a father-type figure.”

As the Vikings try to build on a surprising push to the playoffs
last season, Stewart’s job and his ability to reach a variety of
personalities may be more important than ever. The team has a
completely revamped receiver corps this year, with only three
players in the unproven group returning from a passing offense that
ranked 31st in the league last year.

The Vikings brought over veteran Greg Jennings from rival Green
Bay, but he is the only player in the group who has a proven track
record of producing at this level. Jerome Simpson is coming off an
injury plagued season last year. Jarius Wright is in his second
season and played in only seven games last year. Cordarrelle
Patterson is a raw first-round draft pick with one year of major
college experience and the rest of the group is a hodgepodge of
rookie free agents, projects and players hungry for a chance.

With dynamic, do-it-all threat Percy Harvin gone to Seattle,
it’s up to Stewart to mold this crew into a group capable of making
plays for quarterback Christian Ponder and lightening the load on
Adrian Peterson’s shoulders.

”First-round pick, free agent, you treat them both the same,
you work them both the same,” Stewart said. ”There’s no
favorites. They see that and they feel that they have a chance. As
long as they feel like they have an equal chance on equal footing,
we have a chance to be successful.”

Stewart has also worked with the Steelers, 49ers, Falcons and
Buccaneers along the way, and he learned early from Noll and others
that the key to connecting with players was to shoot them straight.
Whether it was Terrell Owens, Randy Moss or Adam Thielen – an
undrafted rookie from Minnesota State, Mankato, trying to win a
roster spot this year – Stewart has never had any trouble finding
some common ground.

”He knows how to relate to us guys and just talk to us like
grown men,” Simpson said.

He also knows when to have some fun. Stewart is known for
orchestrating elaborately choreographed group handshakes to mark
the beginning of practice, sometimes highlighted by his booming
voice shouting ”Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!” to mark the beginning
of the work period.

Stewart prefers to listen to jazz and classics like Smokey
Robinson these days, but he’ll still throw on some new hip-hop and
R&B to find some common ground with the youngsters of
today.

”I know exactly what they’re talking about and I can feel
them,” Stewart said. ”They’ve kept me young. It’s a great
relationship because it is a relationship based on trust. As long
as we have that type of relationship we have a chance to be
successful.”

If knowing a few lyrics to the latest Jay Z hit helps him catch
a player’s attention, it’s worth it for the guy they call ”Coach
Stew.”

”That’s the cool thing about him,” Thielen said. ”He’s not
only a great coach on the field but just a tremendous guy off the
field. He’s almost like a father figure for us. He would do
anything for us. That makes it a lot easier on our part to
play.”

Online: AP NFL site: http://pro32.ap.org

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