Walk This Way
Catching the football was not Matt Stewart’s forte. He worked at it as much as any other defensive skill in practice, but there were more ricochets and bobbles than clean catches.
Yet as a senior strong safety at Millard South High School in Omaha, Stewart intercepted a pass and ran it in for a touchdown to beat Omaha Burke 7-0 on the way to the state playoffs.
“The fact that I was able to do something so spectacular that I didn’t think I had in me,” Stewart says, “proved to me that I had the potential to be better at football.”
So Stewart, one of KCTV5’s morning news anchors, decided to try and play at the collegiate level. And in his book, “The Walk-On,” he scratches and claws through four years of Division I football at Northwestern University, determined to prove his abilities and worth to coaches, even if sometimes he felt like relinquishing his goals.
Published this spring, “The Walk-On” examines Stewart’s struggles with the perceived stigma as the only unrecruited football player on Northwestern’s team as a freshman. He was a solid high school player, but admittedly not five-star material. The first time head coach Gary Barnett and the coaching staff met him was before his first training camp. They hadn’t watched film of him. They knew little about him. Stewart knew nobody either. As if that didn’t stoke the inferiority, Stewart wasn’t listed in the 1993 Northwestern Football Media Guide.
And of course Northwestern didn’t have what you’d regard as a storied football tradition. From 1976 to 1981, the Wildcats won three games. Three. In the 10 years before Stewart arrived in Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern compiled an ignominious 23-85-2 record. Conversely, Millard South was a winning football team when Stewart played in high school.
“That’s something I took over with me to Northwestern; I wasn’t used to losing,” Stewart says. “And so you come to this team that’s been losing for years, for decades. And it wasn’t something that I personally accepted. No way, we’re not going to lose. We’re going to turn this thing around.”
Despite the ramshackle state of Northwestern’s program, Barnett insisted that he’d “take the Purple to Pasadena” as the Big Ten’s representative at the Rose Bowl. But Stewart writes that in his first two years, infighting and a selfishness epidemic swept over the team that had also lingered from previous campaigns. The Wildcats were 2-9 in 1993 and 3-7-1 in 1994.
By his sophomore year at Northwestern, Stewart would play on the punt coverage unit in the big-time college atmosphere he craved. But he’d only get the occasional snap at safety.
Questioning whether his coaches thought he was good enough, Stewart’s self-doubt and dejection recurred.
After that season, though, Barnett summoned him to his office, offering Stewart a scholarship.
“Until you get that full-ride scholarship, you realize that you’re still an outsider. Everyone else was recruited. I’m the only one that they’d never met,” Stewart says. “And so the minute Coach Barnett gave me the full-ride scholarship, I felt like I was finally a part of the family.”
With all the bad individual attitudes out of the program, the 1995 team fought for each other instead of amongst themselves. The Wildcats had great leadership at the offensive skill positions (quarterback Steve Schnur and Heisman Trophy candidate running back Darnell Autry) and on defense (current Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald).
It was the team that any coach would want.
“When everybody buys into something,” says Barnett, who coached Northwestern from 1992 to 1998, “then it’s like driving an automatic transmission. And when a few people buy in, it’s like driving a stick shift. You’ve got to do it all yourself. As a coach, you’ve got to hit three pedals and move the lever and still steer. When it’s an automatic transmission, you just have to guide the thing. And that team that year was like having a car with an automatic transmission. It just sort of ran itself, and you just had to point it in the right direction.”
Northwestern was the talk of college football. Its defense was among the stingiest in the nation, and allowed only 11 points a game in Big Ten play. Autry rumbled for 1,675 yards and 14 touchdowns. And Stewart was springing blocks for punt returner Brian Musso on special teams. When Michigan beat Ohio State in the final week of the season, Northwestern claimed the Big Ten Conference championship outright with a 10-1 record, 8-0 in the league. The Wildcats had earned what everybody except the team deemed unthinkable: a bid to the Rose Bowl.
Stewart only saw two plays of game action in the 41-32 loss to Keyshawn Johnson’s USC Trojans, but he and his teammates proved that Northwestern doesn’t have to be relegated to substandard football.
“We went from the bottom of the Big Ten to winning the Big Ten and playing in the Rose Bowl, and not a lot of teams can say they’ve ever done that,” Stewart says. “So we were very proud of our accomplishments, and it gave us that desire.”
After playing in college football’s grandest theater, Barnett made it their objective for the 1996 season to get back to Pasadena. They nearly did.
On Senior Day, with another Big Ten title on the line, Purdue had the ball for one more play trailing by three points. The week before at Iowa, Stewart sulked and felt rejected yet again in a blowout win after his coaches decided not to play him. It was his absolute nadir as a collegian.
But with four seconds left in the Purdue game, Stewart lined up in the defensive backfield.
“I just knew in my heart that I was about ready to make a play, and I was going to make that play, because I was so mad at the coaches that I wanted to show them they made a mistake in not playing me against Iowa,” he says. “So when that ball started coming toward me, I jumped higher than I’ve ever jumped, I got my hands on that ball and I was not letting it go. When I came down with that, it was like I knew I was going to intercept it before I intercepted it.”
For somebody who couldn’t catch the ball well, stone hands became sure hands.
His interception won the game and a Big Ten co-championship with eventual Rose Bowl winner Ohio State. And that football? It’s in a big bin full of mementos at his house.
“The biggest thing I learned from my experiences at Northwestern is that if you set a goal, work hard and believe in yourself, you can accomplish anything,” Stewart says. “And I’ve taken that into my professional life.”
Stewart wanted to be an anchor in Kansas City ever since he was a high-schooler in Omaha. If he could just be an anchor in Kansas City, he asserts, then he’d be a success in broadcast news. Eight years ago this month, Stewart joined KCTV5.
And while Stewart understood that he wasn’t a football player who could start in Division I, it’s this ambitious trait that his college coach could identify.
“What he became was an example for us as coaches to use when we would try to attract other walk-ons,” Barnett says, “because we would always sell that carrot that would be out there that you too can earn a scholarship, and Matt Stewart is an example of that.”
Visit mattstewartbooks.com to order “The Walk-On”—and watch a clip of Stewart’s Senior Day interception.