Happier Than Ever

Chris Stewart left his dorm roommate in South Bend crying when he broke the abrupt news. He also left a few teammates disappointed and wondering what he was going to do next. The sophomore offensive lineman was having doubts about his future at Notre Dame, so Stewart took a leave of absence to go back home to Spring, Texas and figure out his situation with his family.

It wasn't an easy thing to sort through, and the Stewart family prayed on it.

The 6-foot-5, 336-pound Stewart, who bounced from offensive guard, to nose tackle, back to the offensive line in less than two years, spent a lot of time thinking in the bedroom where he slept as a U.S. Army All-American about if he was going to go back to Notre Dame and finish what he started. Or does his path go in a different direction?

Everything led back to the Golden Dome.

"With football and school, I don't think people understand how strenuous of a thing it is, especially for a young guy, I just turned 20, to have that always constantly going on," Stewart explained. "At the time I was really confused about a lot of things. I didn't see how I fit into the scheme of some things and I also don't like the winter here. I just felt like I just needed to go home for a little time and be with my family, I'm big on my family, I trust my family, love my family, their opinions mean a lot to me. I just really felt like I needed to go home and like hey lets sit down, lets talk about this is the position I'm in, lets go from here, what do you guys think?

"I did that and me and my family sat down and prayed about it, we felt like hey I need to come back."

So that's what Stewart did.

It was culmination of things like watching the Irish try and mount a comeback against Purdue on television instead of being with his teammates on the sideline.

"I was throwing stuff at the TV like c'mon," Stewart said with a laugh. "To still have that kind of passion, and to care about your teammates and the team while you're at home, it was almost like a no-brainer. I think I just, like I said stuff gets so clogged up and so stressful and you're going to go to the people you depend on most in life and that's my family."

Stewart thought about what his life would be like without Notre Dame in it, and couldn't picture it.

"As I sat in my room that Friday and Saturday, the main thing that I missed and I hope this doesn't sound like a cliché, but the main set of people I missed were honestly my teammates," Stewart explained. "I couldn't get out of my head about 10 or 15 guys that I just might not ever see these guys again. I think that speaks volumes about the kind of people and players Notre Dame has. Because I think so many times people say my teammates are like my family, but when you're about 1,000 miles away from home and you're with these guys 10 out of 12 months they really are your family. And I had some guys calling me being like if you take this route then that's fine because we're going to back you 100 percent because you're like a brother to us and we want what's best for you. You have to make what decisions that you think is best.

"I would say that and really just besides my teammates, the kind of the people at Notre Dame," Stewart continued. "The people in the dorm, my roommate cried like a baby when I left. Just I think I have a network of very close people here I really did not want to sever ties with yet. And then the just university itself, lets be honest a degree from Notre Dame is going to be pretty nice."

A degree that Stewart, a history major, is a year ahead of schedule in getting.

Stewart returned to Notre Dame a new man. Nothing like the 390-pound plus kid that arrived the first time.

"Anytime a kid goes through a little bit of a situation like that and basically comes back, he becomes recommitted and I see him working hard," offensive line coach John Latina said. "I've never been displeased, I just knew he was behind because of he wasn't on the varsity last year, and he didn't go through spring ball and he was behind, it was like he was a true freshman again. I was never disappointed with him and always felt he had a chance."

Stewart is beginning to get that chance, and Saturday against Duke (1-9), head coach Charlie Weis said that Stewart will be in the game at both right guard and right tackle.

With the recent transfer of Matt Carufel and a few other factors, Stewart has finally been able to work himself into the offensive line rotation. A scout-team player as a freshman, Weis and the staff thought Stewart and his massive size could better serve the team as a nose tackle in Corwin Brown's new 3-4 scheme. They tried the switch in the spring, and it was a bust, and Stewart returned to the offensive line this fall.

Back to square one again, Stewart struggled to make any kind of move on the depth chart, but after returning to school, things started to fall into place. He earned a role on the field goal unit and knew he was going to play for the first time in his career against Boston College. Then the night before the game, he found out he was going to get some snaps at right tackle.

"If we ever do that embarrassing moment thing in the program, my first one will be my very first play," Stewart said. "I got blindsided by one of the guys on field goal and got knocked on my butt. But hey we made the field goal."

Last Saturday, it was Stewart knocking an Air Force defensive end on his butt, as he helped the Irish go on a seven-play 50-yard scoring drive in the second quarter. Stewart has been getting his feet wet playing one-to-two series a week for the last four games.

"It's enough to at least know where I am as a player, what places I need to improve on coming up to this off-season with two games to go," Stewart said. "It's a positive thing to know going into the off-season what I need to work on."

It will be the first off-season Stewart goes into playing the same position he did the year before. That and becoming a better pass blocker will help him become more of an every-down player.

"He and I had this very conversation last week," Weis said. "He knows that I would like for him to put himself in condition to contend to be that guy. We've already talked about what needs to happen because right now he's way ahead in run blocking than he is in pass blocking, and he'd admit the same thing himself. He wants to play, and he knows he can't be an offensive lineman and be one-dimensional. You have to be pretty solid on both of them, and I think that's what he's going to dedicate himself to in the off-season, to put himself in position to be able to do that."

Stewart said he will have a list of things he is dedicating himself to in the off-season, with hopes of starting. There is the pass blocking thing. He also mentioned losing another 15 pounds on top of the 60 or so he's dropped since his freshman year couldn't hurt.

Back at Klein High, Stewart guessed that his team maybe passed for 1,000 yards combined over his junior and senior seasons, so pass blocking wasn't really emphasized.

"The struggle is just that really in the last two years, I've really been in a program where I've been taught the mechanics of pass blocking," Stewart said. "Of course having to lose the weight and everything had a factor in it also. So I feel like I'm just catching up with the pass blocking but since I was always a big guy, run blocking was my favorite thing. That's always come naturally."

Weis and Latina aren't sure if Stewart's future is at guard or tackle. Stewart played right tackle in high school, and moved to guard when he first got to Notre Dame. He is comfortable with both. He just wants to play.

It's amazing to Stewart how quickly things changed for him when he came back to school. Going from not thinking he was in future plans, to cross training at guard and tackle for the game this weekend. But more importantly, just how happy he was to be back.

"When I came back, I mean that first week was like heaven on earth to come back," he said. "I had guys, we went out to dinner in the dining hall, just catching up on stuff and just talking and it was just like we understand what happens, stuff like that happens, we're just happy to have you back."

No one maybe more than Stewart's roommate.

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