Tony Steward won the high school version of the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker. With that sort of five-star stardom, Steward’s path to the NFL seemed paved in stone.
Then he was hit with a double-whammy. As a senior at Menendez High School in St. Augustine, Fla., Steward tore an ACL. Then, as a true freshman at Clemson, he tore the ACL in his other knee about nine months later.
“After the first one, you know, it happens,” Steward said on Monday. “Obviously, it’s something that you can’t control. When it happened the second time, it was pretty rough. I knew what I had to do to get back. I was starting to question, ‘Why is it happening? Are you trying to tell me that I should give it up?’”
Steward never seriously considered giving up his passion. With the help of his girlfriend, family, friends, coaches and teammates, Steward worked through the physical and emotional pain. Finally, as a senior, Steward broke into the starting lineup. More than that, he stayed on the field.
Healthy, athletic and productive, Steward at least partially rebuilt his draft credentials. He recently had a predraft visit with the Green Bay Packers.
“Honestly, I thought it went very well,” he said. “It was my first visit and I enjoyed it. A lot of good people around there. I feel like it’s a place where I would fit in great. I feel like a lot of the attitudes and personalities in that locker room fit me very well. Just being there, it felt good. It was my first trip and I didn’t know what to expect, and it ended up being a great one.”
He’s been a man in demand recently. His trip to Green Bay was the first of his 10 predraft visits.
“Yeah, it’s pretty awesome,” Steward said while at an airport while heading from one visit to the next. “In fact, it’s actually very exciting. It’s also kind of boosted my confidence a little bit.”
Confidence is just what Steward needed. The high school phenom could have played collegiately at just about any school in the nation. Then came the injuries. At a big-time school like Clemson, time waits for no one — not even the best prep linebacker in the nation. He played a total of 240 snaps on defense as a sophomore and junior.
Finally, Steward’s time came last year. He started 12 of 13 games and finished fourth on the team with 58 tackles and 10 tackles for losses while adding a second-ranked 3.5 sacks.
“Man, it meant a lot to me,” Steward said. “After all I’ve been through, just being able to be patient and persevere through everything and finally get back on the field and be able to play, it was awesome. It put in my mind that being hard-working and committed to something, good things happen and you’ll get the results that you wanted. ...
“As soon as I got back there on the field, it was all there. I knew what I could do. I’m sure the coaches knew what I could do. Finally getting back on the field and being able to show everybody was one of those things that you’re just proud of and enjoy. It’s very exciting.”
Steward’s drive and determination didn’t go unnoticed. Clemson’s defense featured two potential first-round picks in Vic Beasley and Stephone Anthony. However, coach Dabo Swinney singled out Steward following a late-season victory over in-state rival South Carolina. After the game, Swinney said, “God never says, ‘Oops,’” before quoting the Bible: “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up."
"There's not a guy on our team that epitomizes that more than Tony Steward,” an emotional Swinney said. “Because that young man never grew weary. He never gave up. He never lost belief. He never gave up on his dream, on his opportunity.”
Despite the injuries and lack of playing time until his senior season, Steward’s belief in himself never wavered. Maybe he wouldn’t be the college star and future first-round pick that so many envisioned, but he’d get his shot in the NFL. Steward may or may not get drafted, but he’ll be vying for a roster spot this summer. Not only did he have a solid senior season, but he showed his athleticism at Clemson’s pro day. Steward (6-1, 241) ran his 40-yard dash in 4.64 seconds and put up 29 reps on the 225-pound bench press.
“It was huge, and it confirmed what everyone else saw during the season,” Steward said. “I knew what I could do and people around me knew what I could do, but being able to show everybody else that it wasn’t just a one-time thing — it’s something that I plan to do for many years to come.”
If there were fleeting doubts during two years of rehabbing ACL injuries, they are in his rearview mirror. After overcoming two major knee injuries, is there any obstacle he can’t clear?
“There’s no doubt in my mind at all,” he said. “I’ve stayed true to what I’m supposed to do. I prayed about it. I’m a spiritual guy and I believe things happen for a reason. I felt like those things happened and they were a minor setback and God has a plan for everyone. I think it actually turned me into a better person than I was before.”email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.