Walter Stewart had things planned out. His days of playing football seemingly complete, Stewart was ready to start on a graduate degree and work his way into the coaching ranks.
When doctors tell you you’re not able to play the game you love and have been playing for years because they’ve discovered your spine wasn’t built like normal spines its more than disappointing. That’s what Stewart, the University of Cincinnati’s 6-foot-5, 250-pound defensive end, was told in mid-October. He had been injured against Fordham on Oct. 13 and x-rays from that injury revealed he had a congenital abnormality. He was born without the posterior arch of his C1 vertebra.
A promising NFL prospect would not get a chance to prove himself at the next level, let alone any more games for the Bearcats.
“I wanted to figure out what I wanted to go to grad school for,” said Stewart. “I wanted to contact a lot of my old coaches and figure out where I would want to go and if they had room and get right into it. I’ve got a lot of experience. That was my plan, but …”
Instead of making those phone calls and researching grad schools, Stewart has been preparing for that shot at the NFL.
Wednesday afternoon inside the practice bubble at UC’s Sheakley Athletic Center Stewart was running, jumping and lifting for NFL scouts and personnel hoping to show them he is worthy of a chance. It’s all he’s looking for, a chance.
“I’m definitely going to be ready to work out for anybody, to talk with anybody and let them know I’m still pursuing the game,” said Stewart. “This is what we do as athletes.”
Six weeks after his initial diagnosis Stewart got pleasantly surprising news. He and his family sought out second opinions. Some doctors have affirmed the first diagnosis but he has found some who believe he can play without greater risk of injury than the game and his position already carry.
He did every drill Wednesday with the exception of the 60-yard shuttle. He unofficially ran 4.61 seconds in the 40-yard dash, 4.40 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle and 7.22 seconds in the 3-cone drill. He had a broad jump of 10 feet, 3 inches, a vertical leap of 37. 5 inches and had 16 reps on the 225-pound bench press. His vertical leap and broad jump were the best of the approximately 20 players competing in the drills and fared favorably with the top performances at the NFL scouting combine last month.
Stewart got a late invitation to the combine and was ready to workout but he was not cleared to do so by the NFL doctors.
“I was shocked. I knew the medical evaluation was pretty strenuous but I my jaw was on the floor,” said Stewart. “It was still a good learning experience. I still met a lot of people and was able to talk to a lot of teams. They got to see me. It was still a good experience but it was crazy.”
That’s why Wednesday was so important.
“When I heard the news about him and his neck it broke my heart because Walt is one of the hardest working, genuine people I know,” said former UC teammate J.K. Schaffer, now a linebacker with the Bengals.
Schaffer was watching Wednesday’s pro day from the sideline, encouraging all of the Bearcats. His encouragement of Stewart was a little more focused.
“I consider him a brother,” said Schaffer. “If his health issues can work themselves out, if some way he can find a way to play I think he’s going to make an impact at the next level and he’s going to be a good player at the next level. It sucks that that had to happen to him but he’s the type of guy who can overcome something like this.”
Stewart was credited with 149.5 tackles in his UC career, including 114 solo stops. He had 17.5 sacks, 34.5 tackles for loss, eight forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, 10 passes defensed and one interception. He also came up with “Get the Dub.”
Playing around with his iPod two summers ago, Stewart created a rap song and it caught on with the team. It became their unofficial fight song.
“I’ve always loved that song. I get so jacked up when we used to put that on after games,” said Schaffer.
UC was 5-0 after the Fordham game. The Bearcats lost the next week at Toledo, their first game without Stewart. He watched from above, in the coaches’ box, taking in all of the interactions he never knew went on with the coaching staff.
As the season progressed Stewart was a defacto coach. When the Bearcats went to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl against Duke he was coaching. Butch Jones had left to take over at Tennessee and only five full-time coaches were around for bowl preparation, led by interim coach Steve Stripling. The Bearcats supplemented with grad assistants and Stewart. He wore a headset on the sideline and was responsible for making sure defensive line substitutions were run in and out correctly.
The Bearcats rallied for a 49-35 win.
“Walter Stewart with the headset coaching the d-line and all GAs on the field, it was like doomsday for us,” said UC linebacker Greg Blair. “That was a great win and my favorite win of the year last year.”
There are no guarantees for Walter Stewart. As he proceeds through this process he has no illusions of grandeur. All he wants is a chance.
“I’ve been grinding and letting it be known that I’m not done, that I’m still pursuing the game,” said Stewart. “Once I was told I could work out I was going to go for this. If it doesn’t work out then I’ll move on. I’m good and I’m ready to go and get in the hunt.