Off the Field : Walter Stewart

This story. Oh my word.

Even though this is different than what we’ve usually been doing for Off the Field – giving virtual high fives to players who do as much to help people off the field as they do on the field – I had to share Walter Stewart’s story with you guys  after reading this outstanding article about him last week.

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)

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You’ve probably never heard of Walter Stewart, the standout defensive end from the University of Cincinnati. That’s because he hasn’t made it to the NFL yet. Yet being the operative word. Someone who has endured what he has might be tempted to throw in the towel, but Walter Stewart hasn’t stopped fighting.

Not when he was 12 and had to run away from home after another violent interaction with his mother, not when he had to adjust to life as a foster child, not when he was told he could never play football again as a senior in college, not when he was invited to the Combine but not allowed to participate.

He is singularly focused on one goal: keep moving forward.

Stewart was projected to be a first round pick before the x-ray that would change his life during his senior season in Cincinnati. Just five games into the season he learned he had a congenital spine abnormality located in his C1 vertebra which put him at extreme risk for substantial injury should he continue to play football. He was medically prohibited from playing the rest of his senior season.

For most, that would have been the end of it. But not for Stewart.

He addressed his college team and comforted them when they found themselves dismayed at losing one of their teammates and captains. He then, with the help of his foster parents, sought additional medical advice about his condition. Most doctors agreed with the diagnosis, but were unsure about the actual risk factors. He even got a few go-aheads from doctors who had seen other players with the same condition. But it didn’t much matter what the doctors said. Stewart decided that whatever the risk factor, he is willing to take it.

His prestigious collegiate career, though incomplete, was enough to get him an invite to the Combine so that teams could judge for themselves whether or not they are willing to give him a chance.

Only they weren’t allowed to see the full picture. After months of training for an invitation he had earned, he was medically prohibited from doing drills at the Combine. (However, something tells me that his spirit of perseverance spoke for itself in all of the interviews anyway, which was a win for Stewart without even stepping on the field.)

No Combine? No problem. Stewart had his Pro Day at Cincinnati on March 13th and showed himself to be the solid player he’s always been. Mike Mayock, draft guru, has said that as long as he passes the team’s medical evaluations he could go as high as a Top 10 pick.

That will be the final hurdle for Stewart: passing the team physical, the only obstacle that has kept him out of football ever since those initial x-rays were revealed. It’s hard to know whether teams will proceed with caution or throw it to the wind in order to add an extraordinary player to their roster.

History would tell us that the latter is true. History also tells us that whether or not Stewart makes an NFL roster, he’ll keep moving forward, undeterred.