CINCINNATI – Walter Stewart knows he has a decision to make. The former University of Cincinnati defensive end believes he can still play football. He needs a team to believe that he can.
Since suffering a sprained neck last early last season, an injury which led to the discovery that he had been born without the posterior arch of his C1 vertebra, Stewart has been seeking a chance. Doctors initially told him he would never play football again but he found one in Dr. James Elder, a neurosurgeon at Ohio State University, who gave him the clearance to begin working out again for the purpose of returning to the field.
While teams around the NFL, including the Bengals, are hosting rookie mini-camps and conducting offseason workout programs, Stewart is still searching for someone to believe in him.
Stewart went unselected in last month’s NFL Draft. He’s so far gone unsigned as a free agent and he’s not in anyone’s camp for a tryout. He is well aware of the risks but believes that’s mostly from the unknown.
“I was a little surprised because I expected to get a shot. It didn’t work out that way so I’m still in limbo, trying to see what is going on and wait and see what happens,” said Stewart in a conversation with Fox Sports Ohio this week. “My attitude is still the same. A lot of stuff is out of my control. When it comes to medical stuff, it’s hard because I feel like a majority of the time I’m pleading my health as opposed to showing my health.”
The Columbus native was considered a top draft prospect at the beginning of last season, possibly even a first-round candidate depending on how his senior season went. 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.
Despite the injury, he got an invite to the NFL scouting combine in February. He was ready to work out there before his medical exam came back and doctors red-flagged him. He participated in UC’s pro day in March, signing a waiver before being allowed to do so, and showed well by unofficially running 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.
None of that was enough to get teams to overlook his congenital medical condition.
“When I first got hurt I was under the impression that I could slip on ice and severely injure myself,” said Stewart. “That was the major concern until we got more into it and got more information about it and realized it’s a congenital thing. A lot of people are born without a lot of stuff and they’re just fine.
“I’ve been playing football my whole life and I’ve never had any issue. Had I not sprained my neck I probably would have never known and nobody would have known and I would have been playing football and doing what I’ve been doing. It’s a situation where now that we know it’s a congenital issue, how do we assess the risks? It’s such a rare defect that nobody knows. That’s the main issue.”
Stewart worked out for the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL last weekend and said he got some good feedback from the coaches and scouts who were there. Teams in the CFL will have to make the same risk assessment on Stewart that teams in the NFL have been through.
Michael Munoz was thought to be a high-round draft prospect in 2005. Munoz, the son of Bengals Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz, had been a star at Moeller High School and at the University of Tennessee. He also had bad knees. A knee injury forced him to miss the entire 2001 season but he came back and finished out his career with accolades.
Munoz went undrafted. He and his family were stunned. None of his father’s friends or contacts around the league bothered to call him and give them a heads up that Michael’s knees were red flags for teams. Unlike Stewart, Munoz did get some offers to sign as a free agent. He declined.
Now eight years later, Michael Munoz is the father of three and is working with his dad at their own public relations/sports marketing firm, The Munoz Agency.
“There were a lot of people around me that I went to for advice and at the end of the day you have to realize that while you love sports, you love athletics – I’m still around it today – and I love being around it but there’s a lot of life to live,” said Munoz. “Every time it gets to be about summer and group workouts would be starting, that decision comes back, but for Walter he’s got to decide what are the doctors telling him? What are the people around him telling him? Those that he respects their opinion. Is this something that he wants to take a chance on? It’s tough.”
Stewart was making plans for graduate school and getting into coaching when he and his family found second opinions that said he didn’t have to give up playing. His family supports his decision. Grad school and coaching is an option, but he wants to fully exhaust the possibility of playing before he goes down that path.
“If I knew that I was endangering myself, I wouldn’t do it,” said Stewart. “I’m only 22 years old and I wouldn’t take that chance but I really believe that I’m fine. I don’t have any pain. I’ve never had any pain that was associated with that type of injury. It was just one of those situations.”