This article appears in the September 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Jonathan Stewart can play the piano, yet he hasn't taken a single lesson. No sheet music. It's all by ear. A little pop. Some modern up-tempo stuff. It's not uncharacteristic for the Timberline senior running back to absorb something that moves him and draw inspiration from it.
He has the same relationship with the Bible.
It's like that line in the Book of Philippians that he repeats to himself before every game. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. Chapter 4, Verse 13.
The 5-foot-10, 222-pound SchoolSports All-American is one of the nation's most promising backfield recruits and is surely subject to all the tension and strain that goes along with that. But he allows those words to move and inspire him.
"I don't tend to allow things to the point where I have a lot of pressure," says Stewart, who's rated the No. 4 running back and No. 10 overall recruit in the Class of 2005 by SchoolSports.com. "I just go with the flow. I really, truly give everything to God. I believe He will handle all that other stuff."
But a moment of prayer couldn't possibly drown out every last word that descends upon Stewart's ears. The advice. The critiques. The offers from recruiters. The lofty expectations. Philippians helps, but for some situations, Stewart relies on himself.
"I don't really pay attention to what people say about me not doing enough or this or that," says Stewart, who will turn 18 on March 21. "If you do that, you bring yourself down to the level of the people saying it. I don't listen to anything unless it makes sense to me."
Regardless, when you add up Stewart's raw physical ability, there's not a lot to filter out. The data speaks for itself.
The kid can squat 565 pounds and runs a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash (and a hand-timed 10.58 in the 100 meters in case you're wondering whether he can take it all the way to the house). You want upper-body strength? Try a 360-pound bench press max and the endurance to bench 185 pounds a whopping 31 times.
"He's basically got more tools than anybody I've ever seen," says Timberline fourth-year head coach Kevin Young, 31, a former running back and linebacker at Prosser High. "He works hard to do the right things that get him better. His balance is special, and part of that is because he's phenomenally strong. The shots he takes and still manages to stay on his feet is his best quality. He'll shake three or four guys you think have him."
"My balance is one of my best attributes," Stewart confirms. "I can be falling, but I have the leg strength to push myself up and keep running again."
The numbers back that up. Entering this season, he's rushed for 5,480 career yards in three seasons, leaving him just 649 yards shy of breaking the state record of 6,128 yards set by former Wahkiakum back Jerod Moore (1996-99). Considering Stewart averaged 216 yards per game last year, he could become the state's all-time leading rusher by the third or fourth game of this season and has a legit shot at topping 7,000 career yards.
That's even more amazing when you factor in that Stewart has only been a full-time back for one season. After serving as a change-of-pace guy off the bench his freshman year (1,279 yards, 15 touchdowns), Stewart missed three of his team's nine games with a fracture in his left foot as a sophomore (1,609 yards, 14 TDs).
Once healthy and carrying a full load last season, he busted out for 2,592 yards and 36 touchdowns, earning Class 3A Player of the Year honors while leading Timberline to an 11-1 record and the state quarterfinals.
His career total of 65 touchdowns with a full season still to play is startling, especially considering he's made only 15 scholastic starts and played in only 27 games. And his career yards-per-game average of 203 is downright uncontainable. That's a reality River Ridge learned the hard way when Stewart steamrolled his way to 363 yards and eight TDs on 35 carries last fall.
Not surprisingly, Stewart has dreamed about playing the game at its highest level for as long as he can remember. But those daydreams are slightly more realistic now, legitimized by his unparalleled combination of upper-body strength, leg drive and speed among the nation's elite high school backs.
"When I was little, I'd always dream about the NFL," says Stewart, who lists Washington, Oregon, Tennessee, Cal and Florida State among his collegiate favorites. "Since I've gotten older, it's still a dream I dream. But I realize I have to go step by step. I just dream about football in general now and being successful at that."
Stewart may find that path tougher than expected this season. The Blazers graduated all five starting offensive linemen this past spring, and a repeat of last year's unbeaten record en route to the Pac-9 Conference title won't be a given. He'll need his ability to slip multiple tacklers more than ever.
So, is there anything Stewart needs to add to better prepare himself for that challenge?
"Maybe it's just being a little bit tougher," says Young. "Or just knowing how tough he is. Sometimes he doesn't realize the strength and size advantage he has and doesn't take advantage. If he can just realize he's the best on the field, he'll be complete."
Sounds like the Book of Philippians might come in handy here. As well as next year, when Stewart will again be challenged to elevate his game to the collegiate level.
"I think in most (college) programs, he'd compete for playing time right away," says Young. "And that's simply because he's as strong and fast as most college juniors. He definitely has a chance to start as a freshman, and I'm not going to be the one who bets against him."