By Matt Florjancic
For hundreds of high school football players around the country, Wednesday, Feb. 6, was a culmination of their sacrifices on the field and in the weight room, when they signed Letters of Intent to be part of the most successful college programs in the land.
However, for one central Ohio defensive lineman, earning the opportunity to play football at the University of Cincinnati was just another challenge he had to overcome.
Teays Valley High defensive end Walter Stewart stands 6-foot-5 and weighs better than 215 pounds, but it is his ability to overcome difficulties in life, not his time in the 40-yard dash, which makes him unstoppable on the football field.
While he was born down south in Atlanta, Stewart lived most of his life in the former steel town of Youngstown, Ohio. Prior to entering high school, Stewart moved to Columbus and was entered into the foster care system. During his time in the system, his foster family relocated to Ashville, where Teays Valley is located.
For Stewart, making it to the football field was a testament to his survival skills.
“When I was younger, I was attacked by a dog when I was about three or four. I was a fraction of a hair from being paralyzed,” Stewart said. “I’m lucky to be even playing football. I didn’t play football at all when I was in middle school. I’ve been bounced around a little bit.
“It started off kind of shaky because I came into the system when I was just turning 14, so I was still kind of young,” he said of his foster home experience. “It got me and my mom back united and getting along. It helped me out and they kept me on the right path. The past four years that I have been in foster care, I’ve been around my mom. It’s been kind of hard growing up without your family that you know. You’ve just got to get through it.”
Getting through adversity has become a trademark for Stewart. With only two years at Teays Valley because of a move from the Franklin Heights School District, Stewart needed to answer his critics and make an impact from any and all of the positions he played for the Vikings.
“I have been going there for two years, so it’s kind of been up and down, especially position-wise,” he said. “When I first came here, I played safety and last year, I was playing in the box a little bit. I was playing linebacker and defensive end. It’s been a good career playing in a lot of different spots and winning ball games.”
Teays Valley coach Steve Evans quickly earned a respect for his new defensive specialist. Although he was an important part of the defense, like most athletes, Stewart played on both sides of the ball and served as a kick returner. His natural athletic ability and intuition made Stewart the complete package on and off the field.
“Walter has just been a great contributor to our program,” Evans said. “This year, he was voted team captain by his teammates. I think that’s something very special and is an honor.
“He knows the game extremely well. He’s football smart,” Evans continued. “A lot of times, you might come across a great athlete that’s not very football smart. He reacts and has great instincts. His ability to play different positions has been a great attribute. We were able to move him around in so many different places to make our team be more successful (the Vikings were 7-3 last season). Anytime you talk to teachers or bus drivers, whoever it may be, they speak very highly of him. That shows signs of a very mature, humble young man, which he is.”
While Stewart’s versatility on the field, in addition to his commitment to work in the weight and classrooms, helped garner accolades and attention, getting noticed by Division I schools was not a given. Prior to his arrival at Teays Valley, the last football scholarship recipient the Vikings produced was in 1972, nearly 20 years before Stewart was born.
“It kind of shocked me because you would think at least a few players would come out every year,” said Stewart. “For me to be the third is amazing. I just want to thank my teammates and everybody for everything because without them, I wouldn’t have gotten as much credit as I did. I’m just real thankful.”
Stewart is so grateful to his teammates at Teays Valley that he based his number selection on that appreciation.
“The jersey number that I wear is No. 11,” said Stewart. “At first, I really didn’t know what jersey number to get, but I thought about it and picked No. 11 because there are 11 players on the field.
“You’ve just got to be a team player,” he added. “Coach [Evans] flat-out told me and pulled me to the side one day he said, ‘Walt, we’re going to need you blocking. You might not run the ball as much or catch as many passes, but it’ll help the team if you block.’ And I said ‘Alright.’ ”
After his junior season, Stewart met with an assistant coach from the University of Cincinnati. The message delivered by the coach was received loud and clear by Stewart, who used the questions about his skills as motivation to prove he could play in the Big East Conference.
“With Cincinnati, they’ve always been consistent in recruiting me,” Stewart said. “From the first time I met [UC linebackers] Coach [Tim] Hinton, the person that was recruiting our area of central Ohio, he watched my highlight film as a junior.
“I thought I had a pretty good year, considering I had never played the spot before,” he continued. “He looked me right in the eyes and he just told me, ‘You did pretty good, but with your talent and the way you play, you should dominate. If you can do that, then I think you’d be able to play for the University of Cincinnati.’ After he told me that, I was like ‘Wow, this dude is really challenging me.’ The whole year, I based my whole off-season on it. I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to prove to this guy that I could play, that I could be a Division I athlete.’”
The combination of Stewart’s size, talent and ability to answer the bell through the worst of situations has the Teays Valley community believing his trip down to Cincinnati will be a great experience for all parties concerned. If the past is any indication, only those on the opposite side of the ball will be in a position to argue. That is, until the time Stewart breaks into the backfield and registers his first quarterback sack.
“He’s got the tools,” Evans said. “If I know him like I feel I do, it’s not going to surprise me to see him on the field there in the next couple years. It’s difficult to go into a program like that and get jump-started as a freshman, but I fully expect to see him start getting some time.
“I know he’s going to go down there and he’s going to work his tail off in the weight room, but most importantly, he’s going to get a good education and be able to provide a future for himself,” added Evans. “I know some of the coaches down at Cincinnati are going to push him to that next level and I expect to see some great things.”
Matt Florjancic, a freelance reporter and a sports show host for WOBL and WDLW in Oberlin, covers northern and central Ohio for MaxPreps.com.