Stewart Looks To Answer Tough Questions

Throughout his young life Walter Stewart faced each obstacle head-on and fought with football by his side. After seeing the game taken away from him, Stewart was given a new lease on his football life and will now work to fulfill his dreams of playing in the NFL.

As an underrated two-star high school prospects from Ashville (Ohio) Teays Valley High School, Walt Stewart looked to have beaten the odds by becoming a high level performer at the University of Cincinnati early in his career when he started 12 games at outside linebacker posting 59 tackles including 4.5 sacks.

Long term success was within Stewart's grasp as he continued taking his game to another level during the years that followed and by the start of this past season Stewart's name was starting to be talked about as a high level NFL prospect.

However, after five games that saw the 6-foot-5, 249-pound defensive lineman post 22 total tackles and five sacks, a new obstacle smacked Stewart in the face ending his Bearcats career early and placing thoughts of playing on Sunday in the back of his mind.

"It has been a crazy year," said Stewart. "When I got hurt it was really tough as I was playing great football and I was disappointed I couldn't finish the season. What hurt even more was watching us lose the Keg of Nails to Louisville for the first time since I've been here.

"However, we won a piece of the Big East and won the Belk Bowl, so you can't beat that at all."

While injuries are part of the football experience at any level, Stewart's injury was thought to be career and life changing.

"When my injury was first diagnosed they believed I actually fractured a vertebra in my neck," explained Stewart. "However, we also learned that I was born with a partially developed vertebra and from the x-rays and MRIs it was hard to tell if I was hurt during the game especially since I played the entire game and didn't have any of the symptoms of an injury to that particular vertebra.

"Once I went to the doctor he said my neck was unstable with it being partially developed and I was considered by the Cincinnati doctors to have an unstable neck and unable to play at UC the rest of my career."

While Stewart first took to heart the medical advice received from UC, he also looked to leave no doubts about his condition while looking for more opinions before placing his football dreams in their final resting place.

"Other doctors I've seen said they don't know for sure if I did fracture it or not," said Stewart. "Because I was born this way my vertebra doesn't look normal at all. So when I got other opinions, they said if you have always been like this, it is hard to say it's unstable if you've never had any issues or problems with your neck as it has always been like this.

"They said the neck is still stable and chances of getting hurt are slightly higher than others. However, it's a congenital abnormality and just the way I was born. So they felt the neck is stable and because of these second opinions is why I have hope and will continue working out and seeing what the NFL guys say about it."

With a full understanding of his condition Stewart enters this phase of his life aware of any risk he may face but is not fearful of something serious happing to him.

"This definitely made me more aware as far as being able to understand certain situations if I play again," said Stewart. "I enter this journey without any fear as I've always played the game knowing I've put myself in compromising situations.

"If I had known prior to playing I think I would have had some fear. But since I never knew my vertebra was partially developed, I don't see why there is any more risk associated with it now.

"I fully understand the danger having this issue and understand what can happen to be. Nevertheless, I signed up for it and football is a violent game and those who play it understand the risk associated with it. Even without a physical defect you understand what playing this game can do to you. If I had any fear or doubt I would play at all and just give it up. But I don't feel that way and that is the reason I'm still trying to pursue an NFL career."

Despite his positive outlook Stewart knows others will hold concerns with his decision.

"I know there are going to be concerns because I didn't finish the season," said Stewart. "After getting different opinions about the injury I started getting contradiction information and diagnosis from different doctors.

"For doctors at the University of Cincinnati being born this way was too risky for them and I fully understand each school has their own criteria players have to meet to play. However, my case is so rare and the best option for UC was to sit me down.

"I'm sure the NFL will have different doctors and different opinions and it will really come down to what they feel the risk of me getting hurt is. But in my opinion and other doctors I've seen the injury was not as bad as first diagnosed. This is a very unique situation and was so extreme I thought I was going to have to have surgery after seeing the first doctor."

Like many who are eligible for this spring's NFL Draft, Stewart wants to leave the game on his own terms.

"I want to know if I can play or not," stressed Stewart. "I've been medically cleared to give it a shot and I'm excited about that. I know it's going to be a waiting game as teams figure out if I can play or not.

"I'm thankful for at least getting a shot and being part of the whole draft process and even if I don't get drafted I'm going to enjoy everything up to that point. I'm training here locally at Ignition in Mason, Ohio and hope to get invited to the combine as I feel it would allow me the chance to really clear a lot of things up with my situation.

"If not, then my pro day at UC is going to be that much more important as I'll look to spread the word to teams that I'm not retired and able to compete at a high level."

Despite not being able to put the pads on during his final months as a Bearcat, Stewart leaves with a lot of fond memories and many valuable learning experiences including his recent stint as a coach.

"I graduated on December 15th," said Stewart. "Since the injury I've been working behind the scenes. Being a player you understand the game from one perspective. When you get behind the scenes and you have to help with making substitutions and being a boss as you see certain things in a different perspective.

"When my playing days are over I think I would like to be a coach as I learned a lot of different aspects of the game especially during the Belk Bowl when I was wearing a headset. I learned a lot so I could see myself as a coach in the future."

While there will be many questions raised about Stewart from a medical side of things, there will also be those who will wonder about his future on the field. Where does Stewart see himself playing at the next level?

"It will really depend upon the defensive scheme," said Stewart. "I fit best at outside linebacker in the 3-4 schemes and could possibly play a little defensive end if I can get my weight up a little bit. But outside linebacker seems to be more suitable for my skill set." will continue to follow the path taken by Stewart in the coming months.

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