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November 8, 2013
It's a family thing
He was told to quit football; move on to the next phase of his life. And he was told, whenever that time came, that among his first calls should be Butch Jones.
Butch Jones told Walter Stewart as much, almost daily as part of his Cincinnati Bearcats' football program. Jones never stopped telling Stewart, even after he was injured last season against Fordham and told, because of a congenital defect in his spine, Stewart should forsake football.
To expect that Stewart would have quit football would be to expect Miley Cyrus to quit twerking. So the Ashville, Ohio, native who grew up in a foster home finished his season with the Bearcats. Got an invite to the NFL Combine. Participated in the Bearcats' pro day.
"I just felt that I was still better with myself knowing that I did everything I could instead of asking myself, 'What if? What if coulda, shoulda?' I got the combine experience and went through pro day at Cincinnati," Stewart told VolQuest.com. "Throughout the whole process, I was always talking to Coach Jones, letting him know what I was thinking and he always told me, 'Do what you do. Don't stop. Whenever you do finish, let me know. I'll have a place for you here at Tennessee.'"
When NFL teams remained too skeptical of Stewart's medical readiness, Canadian Football teams showed interest. The Toronto Argonauts brought Stewart into their organization, prepared to make him a part of their team. For the first time in his life, however, Stewart found one obstacle he couldn't overcome: medical clearance.
"I ended up going to Canada for a week, Toronto, and got the opportunity to play Canadian football," Stewart said. "I didn't pass the physical up there. After I came back from Canada, I called Coach Jones and he was just like 'Come on down. We're running (prospect) camps. See how you like it. Then you can go home and think about it.
"I came down in June, got reacquainted with everybody. Met some players. Then I came back in July, and I've been here ever since."
Officially, Stewart is a coaching intern for the Vols. Unofficially, he's among the team's biggest motivators and a steadfast resource for players.
"He's a real big energy guy and just an example to us," senior defensive end Corey Miller said. "He'll come into our meeting rooms or whatever kind of swinging his dreadlocks and just really get us pumped up."
Jones has preached across his first 11 months at Tennessee, and particularly during the Vols' inaugural season of 'Butch Ball,' the need to have one another's back. It's among the program's myriad mantras.
Jones wouldn't have it any other way in returning Stewart into his football program.
"We talk about that relationships last a lifetime, and it's not a three-, four- or five-year commitment on our part to our players. If they come to play for this coaching staff, it's a lifetime commitment to them," Jones said. "When he got hurt at the Fordham game, I told him, 'I'll always have you; I'll always have your back.' And I tell our players, if you give me everything you have, then I'll give you everything I have."
The point, Stewart explained, is to just be a resource to the current Vols.
"I wasn't brought up in the best of circumstances; granted, they've been through a lot of stuff like I have and when we do have a good game I'm proud of them like they're proud of me," Stewart said. "We're all about the same age level and that helps me relate to them and just being there and showing them that no matter what you're doing in life, you can still have a positive impact on somebody else. Still bring that energy no matter what you're doing. And you don't have to be a player or coach. It can be any job, any situation. Positive energy is something everybody wants and always keeps you pushing forward."
That attitude is what Jones knew when he made clear Stewart had a spot in Knoxville; it's why Jones has a handful of his former protégés on staff.
"He's an illustration where his development in our football program to being youthful in mind and leadership to being one of the greatest leaders and most dynamic leaders that I've ever had the opportunity to coach," Jones said. "I know that our program sets individuals up to be successful in their further endeavors. In life, whether it's in the world of business or whatever career they choose or in the NFL. I'm very, very proud of him and now the progress he's making as a young football coach. You look at all of our former players that we have on this staff, from Walter Stewart to Brandon Miles to Larry Knight. I think that speaks volumes of what we do to take care of our players.
"They see it, and I think they're a great resource for our players in our program here. They've been through the program, they understand how it works, they believe in it because they've seen it. They've seen the fruits of their labors with the development both mentally and physically turn into championship habits. All of our former players have won championships in the past, and I think it's important that they can relate to our current players and they do a good job with that."
Stewart believes he's a prime example of Jones' commitment to a family-based football program.
"It's all about family; it's not just lip-service," Stewart said. "I can see it firsthand. Playing for him three years and now getting the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of football, it speaks volumes to the type of guy that Coach Jones is. He told me before last season even started, at Big East Media Day, 'No matter where you're at, you always have a place with me.' He told me I could come work with him and that no matter where he was, he'd have my back. I would have never expected that, from beginning of the season to end. It's pretty crazy how everything went down. I'm real thankful and real fortunate. Coach Jones has got my back. And I've got his."