Chris Hine | Sunday, October 12, 2008
It was a step Chris Stewart knew he had to take, but that didn’t mean it was going to be easy.
That step was getting off the plane in South Bend following Stewart’s leave of absence in the middle of Notre Dame’s 2007 season. Stewart had taken a week off to travel home to Spring, Texas, to deal with a variety of issues, some too personal for Stewart talk about now, but one of them was leaving Notre Dame, as some of his other teammates – quarterbacks Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones – had done and others would later do that season.
But Stewart, now a starter at right guard, ultimately decided to come back to Notre Dame and that step off the plane was also a symbolic step – a sign that it was time to grow up.
“I came back optimistic,” Stewart said. “I had this period of teeter-totter … I guess I was saying, ‘Try to make the best of it.’ But I don’t want to say I was dreading coming back, but I knew I was coming back to a difficult situation and I just have to take those punches for as long as it lasts and enjoy it when the fight’s over. But getting off that plane was a really hard thing.”
Stewart came to Notre Dame and didn’t see the field at all as a freshman. That spring, the coaching staff attempted to move Stewart to the defensive line, and then in the fall, he moved back to the offensive side, but still wasn’t seeing the field as much as he would have liked.
Then, Stewart said, a number of personal issue arose in his life that were constantly on his mind and at this point last year, Stewart was going through the most difficult part of his life.
“It was a process for me switching to learning how to handle a lot of difficulties in life,” Stewart said. “I was still a teenager, 19 at the time, but growing up to understand and see the world more as an adult. You’re going to have bad times, things not going on well at home and whatnot.
“One of the things with being so far away from home is you never really go home and I’m really big on my family. It was just all kinds of things mixed into one, coming at me at one point and I had to step away for a while, learn how to go back to a situation and see it through. I think it’ll leave a big time mark on the rest of my life.”
To deal with his situation, Stewart asked Irish coach Charlie Weis for some time off, something Stewart said was hard to muster the courage to do.
“The whole situation, going home and being with family, the problems there, it was no cakewalk,” Stewart said. “Some of my friends joked that I took a week’s vacation when they didn’t, but that was probably the most trying week of stress I ever had in my life … I would never want to repeat it – ever.”
Personal problems are usually hard enough for someone to deal with, but Stewart had all of his obligations as a student and football player piled on top.
“When you’re in season and even out of it, I don’t think people realize how very little time you have for yourself,” he said. “You have class, practice, watching film, working out, I mean, if you really think about, you have maybe an hour, two hours tops to yourself.
When he got away from football and went home, Stewart’s father, George, tried to empathize with his son’s situation.
“One of the good things about my dad is he’ll say stuff like, ‘You have to realize where you’re at,’ and he admitted that he doesn’t understand the kind of pressure that I’m under because he’s never been in this kind of situation,” Chris Stewart said.
But while Stewart was prepared to leave Notre Dame has father had another idea. George helped his son put his life in perspective. He told Chris that he was going to one of the most prestigious universities in the country – for free – and that should be his first priority. If he got to play football as well, that was a bonus.
“He did say that the biggest thing for him was that if I did leave somewhere like Notre Dame, to recognize that there are very few institutions that have the same clout as Notre Dame and then have the same kind of football that Notre Dame had,” Stewart said. “He basically wanted me to be happy and go somewhere that I was going to be content and look back and say, ‘I made a great decision.’ He was very up front about it and he thought that place was here. He had his opinion, but he said ‘Hey, you’re a grown man, you left the house. It’s your decision.'”
That decision, however hard it was for Stewart to make, was to get back on a plane and fly back to South Bend – for good.
Turning a corner
Time helped heal Stewart’s problems and now he said life doesn’t seem so bad.
“Life’s not a piece of cake, it never is, but it’s way less complicated – way, way less complicated,” Stewart said. ” … You can say some things, like not doing so well on a test or not doing so well in practice, they’re not inconsequential, but they’re such small things compared to how things could be.”
He also said Weis’ commitment in the spring to becoming a more approachable figure has helped him and the rest of the team.
“Maybe it was a little different for him, I’m guessing, going from the pros where you have grown men, and coming back to college where you have guys transitioning into grown men,” Stewart said. “One of the things that’s changed for the better here is that the level of comfort has changed a little bit more. I don’t want to say it was like you couldn’t talk to anybody around here, but now – we still go to work – but it’s just fun football.”
Stewart has played a prominent role in the resurgence on Notre Dame’s offensive line this season and last week against Stanford, Stewart was out there pumping up the crowd, enjoying the atmosphere and every minute of Notre Dame’s 28-21 win over Stanford.
“[Going to Notre Dame] puts more of a spotlight on you, so if you go out and have a bad performance, people are going to see that just as much as they see you have a stellar, game-winning performance,” Stewart said. “It’s definitely more pressure, but it’s what you come here for. You come here for the ups and downs, the goods and the bads and I think we’ve left the bad and are in a state of transition to the good.”
As a team, Notre Dame may be in a transition, but Chris Stewart has already left the bad behind him.