Doubters arent looking past CUs Speedy now
September 25, 2008
BOULDER The kid showed up nearly every day to watch practice, stood in the same place and peered through the gate. One afternoon, noticing he had the same audience day after day, the little league football coach approached the kid.You want to play football one day? the coach asked him.I want to play now, Rodney Stewart replied.And so Speedy Stewart, as fast and elusive for his age then (5) as he is now, launched a relationship with his uncle, Marvin Johnson, who was to become a mentor/father figure.In turn, Johnson helped launch a lifelong battle against long odds, one that rather incredibly landed Stewart at the University of Colorado as a 5-foot-6, 180-pound running back.Hes a kid that has been told no constantly, said Johnson, a 40-year-old security officer at the Twin Valley Behavioral Healthcare facility in Columbus, Ohio Stewarts hometown.Hes a little guy, so theres always been those questions.But as he has since childhood, Stewart steadfastly answers them and keeps on running. And running. His 166 yards on 28 carries last week in CUs 17-14 overtime win against West Virginia was the schools third-best rushing performance by a freshman.Johnson, who watched that game with pride, has two sons (Demetrius, Dominique) and is mentoring another youngster, Cameron Brown, in much the same way he mentored Stewart.The foursome has a strong brotherly bond: All were members of that little league team Stewart yearned to play on, and all now are playing for Stewarts former high school, Brookhaven.Marvin Johnson also nudged them toward track, shuttling them to AAU meets as far north as Providence (R.I.), as far south as Miami. There were plenty of long car rides and hotels … they became very close.As theyve grown, their focus has broadened. Dominique Johnson has talked of becoming a doctor, Cameron Brown an engineer. Demetrius Johnson and Stewart have eyes for the NFL, Marvin Johnson said.File away the name Demetrius Johnson; hes a 6-0, 240-pound junior fullback who helped Stewart punch up many of his 2,036 yards and 33 touchdowns last season at Brookhaven. CU, noted Stewart and Marvin Johnson, is recruiting Demetrius.The Buffaloes trip to Jacksonville, Fla., to play Florida State on Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, Channel 7) will be Stewarts second visit to the Sunshine State. Memories of the first remain some of Stewarts best.Playing for the Midlands Youth Association, a team of 11- and 12-year-olds coached by Marshall University graduate Randy Clarkson and Marvin Johnson, Speedy & Co. played three games in Daytona Beach, Fla., and won a national championship.I was s-o-o-o little; I had to be a baby. But Ive always been fast. … Our trophy is sitting at Marvin Johnsons house, said a beaming Stewart, the oldest of five children (two sisters, two brothers) whose last contact with their birth father occurred not long before Johnson introduced himself at the practice field.Marvin Johnson was/is a great mentor; I could always come to him and ask him any question, said Stewart, soft-spoken and usually sporting a high-wattage grin. I still talk to him a lot. If anybody knows everything about me, its going to be him.
Because of his size and knee ligaments torn early in his junior year that required reconstructive surgery, Stewart ran under the radar of most Division I-A football schools.When top-tier high school junior prospects in his area were proudly and hopefully showing recruiters their highlight tapes, Stewart had nothing to offer.That hurt him, and then there was his size … I tried to tell people it wasnt a factor, but they said he was too short and not durable enough, said former Brookhaven coach Tom Blake, who retired last season after 30 years on the sidelines but still teaches at the school.Blake saw Stewart early, recalling that on his first touch as a freshman, Stewart ran 83 yards for a touchdown. On 19 touches as a sophomore, Stewart scored five times. Then came the first scrimmage of his junior year and the season-ending knee injury.Marvin Johnson recalled the devastation Stewart experienced: He was frustrated, angry inside and not getting along well with anyone. He was upset at the world.But Marvin Johnson, who previously had worked in security at Ohio State, still was acquainted with the football teams medical personnel. After knee surgery performed by an Ohio State team doctor, Stewart underwent a rigorous rehabilitation program that included leg-strengthening work on weight equipment Johnson had purchased and put in his garage for his sons, Stewart and Brown to use.I told Rodney it was one day at a time, that we werent going to cry and be upset were going to walk it as far as we can walk it, Marvin Johnson said. And to make sure at the end that not only can you take out a linebacker, you can carry him on your back. And Rodney was willing to do it.Stewarts rehabilitation was so complete, so effective, said Blake, that in the first post-rehab 40-yard dash he ran at Brookhaven in March 2007, he was timed in 4.4 seconds. Hes even a couple of ticks faster now.Recalled Blake: When other kids were boisterous, talking loud and playing around, Rodney had this grin on his face, not saying much. Hes kind of a Ill show you guy, rather than telling you about it.
Stewart is adjusting to campus life at CU. He was over any homesickness before classes began and is wrestling with the time management issues most freshmen face but is exacerbated for a student-athlete.Studying for classes, going to class, studying the playbook … it leaves us with no time; youre busy all the time, he said.He wants to succeed for many reasons, a prime one being to set an example for his brothers (ages 11 and 15), both of whom are running backs.Hopefully, they see what Im doing, can get to college and can do the same thing, Stewart said.If theres anything Stewart misses on game day at Folsom Field, its Marvin Johnson being on the sideline or in the stands. When Stewart erred at Brookhaven, Id look for him and hed give me this little face. I knew Id messed up.Chief among the life lessons taught him by Marvin Johnson was this, said Stewart: He would ask me the difference between a winner and loser. Nothing. Its what the winner does that makes him a winner, and what the loser doesnt do that makes him a loser. He still reminds me to this day that you have to work to be a winner.Stewart doesnt watch football in large doses on television a highlight here and there and with the exception of a Super Bowl or two, he cant remember the last time he saw a game from start to finish. He has been compared to a bevy of smaller Buffs backs, even to former Kansas State tailback Darren Sproles.But he seeks to emulate no one he has seen (or hasnt) on TV, and he didnt need TV to reinforce the concept of bigger, stronger, faster particularly the latter two and how he might benefit. When he arrived at CU, he was able to bench press 225 pounds 22 times, with a maximum press of 380 pounds, and he was squatting up to 500 pounds. He doesnt like the term scatback, Marvin Johnson said. He thinks thats for little guys.
After his stellar senior season, Stewart said, recruiters were asking, Who is this kid? But interest from major programs never got past that question.He was reduced to waiting for prospects who had received early offers not to commit, and for those schools to call on him. It didnt happen.He didnt receive his first scholarship offer until he participated in the Ted Ginn Bus Tour, a nearly two-week trip to Midwestern college campuses organized by Ginn, the father of former Ohio State standout Ted Ginn Jr.The tour, said Marvin Johnson, costs each participant about $300 and stops at up to 15 campuses, where the prospects work out for coaches. Stewart said about 50 prospects toured with him, but none might have been as anxious as Stewart.At the Big Ten Conference schools they visited, Stewart virtually was ignored. The first interest and offers came from Eastern Michigan, Toledo and Akron. Eastern Michigan then scaled back its interest, wanting him as a preferred walk-on.He was hurt by that, Marvin Johnson said. It was kind of all or nothing at that point and nothing was left in the bucket. I told him someone is going to see something in you, and when they do, other [schools] are going to kick themselves in the butt for not seeing it.Hes hoping [CU] can play a Big Ten school while hes there.
CU didnt know Rodney Stewart from Martha Stewart until Buffs assistant Darian Hagan was in Trotwood, Ohio, last winter recruiting linebacker Doug Rippy.Asked by Rippy who the Buffs were recruiting at running back, Hagan said the highly touted Darrell Scott still was pondering his decision.To which Rippy, now redshirting and Stewarts roommate, replied, You should check out my buddy, Speedy.Shortly thereafter, Hagan, CUs running backs coach, and running game coordinator/offensive line coach Jeff Grimes had flown to Jackson, Miss., to visit a running back prospect who didnt pan out.In their hotel room, Hagan recounted his conversation with Rippy for Grimes. An Internet check of Stewarts senior season ensued, followed later by a perusal of a Stewart highlight tape put together by Marvin Johnson.Were watching tape of this little guy going zip, zip, zip, Grimes said. It was the same thing you saw [against West Virginia] but even more effective at the high school level.Something else in the tape was very evident to Grimes: You could tell he was short, but not how big he was. So when we went to see him (in Columbus), Im just praying when he shows up hes not 5-5 and 150.He walks in and hes got that kind of cocky little walk … I put my hands on his shoulders, and hes good and thick. And when you look at him without the pads on, hes well put together.I wasnt worried about his size but, obviously, a lot of other people were. Height has nothing to do with a running back; his overall size does his strength and ability to run through tackles and take a pounding. But height has nothing to do with ability as a running back.That has been Stewarts lifelong contention, and his breakout performance against the Mountaineers might have been step one in proving it to the schools that passed him over.Not bad for a little guy who was too small to play Division I football, a laughing Blake said the morning after watching Stewart on national television. I tried to tell people that, but they said he was too short and not durable enough. Ive seen it happen in the past, but Rodneys a special kid.The Buffs appear well on the way to discovering it for themselves.
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