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September 4, 2014
Little man's toughness catalyst for his success
He was big and physical. And at the high school level, James "Little Man" Stewart was flat fun to watch and through four years at Tennessee he proved to be the rock of the Volunteer backfield. His passion and drive started at an early age where his father laid the foundation for his football future.
"Looking back it was special," Stewart said. "My dad was harder on us than anyone else. He was a tough guy and he wanted us to be tough. There was nothing given to us. He made us earn everything we got. It really turned me and my brother (Scotty) in to the players and men that we have become."
The older Stewart became, the more he grew into a solid frame that could outrun opposing secondaries. He never paid much attention to what was happening around him and that was the case with the recruiting process until a school talent show revealed a heavy hitter in the stands.
"Actually I never worried about playing in the SEC until scouts started coming to see me play," Stewart said. "Florida was the first team to come and scout me during one of my basketball practices. I started noticing the interest and then Tennessee came down to a couple of my talent shows. Me and my buddy had a dancing group and I remember coach Majors came to one and sat in the back with my football coach. That's how I started to take notice."
Stewart committed to Tennessee shortly after and the thought was he would be able to slowly acclimate himself to the college game. Then Chuck Webb's decision to turn pro intervened and playing early became a reality in fall camp. It was game #1 and "Little Man" let the Tennessee fanbase know he and fellow freshman Aaron Hayden could pick up the slack.
"One of my better moments and I still think about it was my first game in the orange," Stewart said. "It was on the road at Louisville and it was the opportunity to contribute and I scored my first touchdown that night. It was just very cool to be playing college football and it will always be a moment I treasure."
Stewart finished his freshman campaign with 190 carries for 939 yards with 8 touchdowns. He and Hayden were joined by Charlie Garner the following two seasons and carries became few and far between as the trio split time. During his sophomore and junior years, the toughness instilled inside from an early age worked in his favor. After gaining just 923 yards and scoring 16 touchdowns in those two seasons, Stewart was back in the saddle for his senior season in 1994 that was highlighted by a fabulous 71 yard run between the hedges in Athens.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Stewart said. "It was designed to go up the middle but it was plugged up. I saw that, but someone already had me by the ankle. I spun and I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to bounce it outside, but then somebody made a block on the edge and once I got out I was just trying to make it to the end zone. So much energy was spent to just get down the line before I turned it up field, I was gassed. Fortunately I was able to make it in and it was one of the best runs of my college career."
Stewart finished that season with 170 carries for 1028 yards with 11 touchdowns. In the season finale against Vanderbilt he passed Johnny Jones to become Tennessee's all-time leading rusher with 2,890 yards on the ground.
"It meant a number of different things," Stewart said. "I was sharing time with two and three different running backs. It just meant that if you keep your nose to the grindstone and keep working that good things can happen to you. I learned a number of different things and it really made me into a better player."
He now ranks third all-time behind Travis Henry and Arian Foster. "Little Man" had played his way into the Tennessee record books. But what about that nickname? Where did it come from?
"My dad gave it to me when I was five years old," Stewart said. "I was bouncing on his knee and he started calling me "little man" and it took off from there. I never really got called James by anyone. My family was calling me "little man" and then my teachers started doing it and it really just took off. Everyone knew me as "little man" and it even followed me to Jacksonville."
Stewart performed well at the NFL combine that winter and when April rolled around, he was selected 19th overall in the first round by the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. Once again, he would be splitting time and he was prepared.
"It definitely helped me transition into the NFL with my splitting time," Stewart said. "The thing about me is I've always been a team player. When Natrone (Means) came in I welcomed him in and we were good friends. Same thing with Fred Taylor. I just wanted our team to be successful."
In 2000, he signed with the Detroit Lions where Stewart would enjoy his finest season as a professional.
"That first year in Detroit was one of my best years in football," Stewart said. "It was the coach that coached me and my teammates. They welcomed me in with open arms and I just played stress free. They just let me be me. It didn't matter that we played in the oldest stadium or had the oldest things. I just enjoyed it and my family did too."
Retired and back in Jacksonville, he now owns his own personal training studio called Studio 33. It's a chance to give back and do something he enjoys doing.
"It's very gratifying to watch people achieve things they didn't think they could achieve," Stewart said. "You really get to know somebody and a lot of these people have become my friends. I love it and I really enjoy that aspect."