As part of the WDAF-Fox 4 morning team (and a former KCTV morning anchor), Matt Stewart is a familiar face to many in the metropolitan area. However, when Stewart walked onto the football field at Dyche Stadium at Northwestern University, few knew his name.
Stewart left Omaha, Neb., to play for the Wildcats in the Big Ten. Few walk-ons actually make the squad, but Stewart was determined to give it a go and made it.
The 6-foot, 205-pound Stewart saw his hard work pay off. He went from fifth-string safety to second on the depth chart and played in the 1996 Rose Bowl.
Stewart, who lives in Lenexa, has now written a book about his experience, “The Walk-on: Inside Northwestern’s Rise from Cellar Dweller to Big Ten Champ.” Stewart’s 280-page book gives an inside look at the walk-on experience, a story seldom told.
“It’s so important to share,” Stewart said. “The walk-on is the backbone of any good program. They’re willing to put their ego aside and help those big guys get better. To be a true team, you need people to sacrifice for the team. … There’s no shame in being a walk-on, either.”
Stewart felt compelled to write about Northwestern – for years relegated to the cellar in the standings – as the program rose to the top during the mid-1990s. Stewart played three of his four years at Northwestern; eventually he was given a scholarship by coach Gary Barnett, who is credited with turning the football program around.
Barnett also had written a book about the Northwestern program, but Stewart felt there was another angle.
“None of my teammates had written a book about the experience, so I wanted to capture this on paper,” Stewart said. “And being a journalist who loves to write, it was a natural.”
Growing up in Omaha, Stewart wasn’t a football standout but loved playing. He never thought about playing college ball — it was more of a dream. However, following a game his senior year, when Stewart intercepted a pass and sprinted 40 yards for a touchdown that won the game, he changed his mind.
“If I could win a high school game, what could I do in college,” Stewart wrote.
Already accepted at Northwestern to study journalism, Stewart decided to give football a shot as a walk-on. It wasn’t easy.
“I nearly quit, too, my freshman year,” Stewart said. “It was really hard. No one knows your name, and you’re not playing. You’re a tackling dummy for the starters, but I stuck it out through spring ball. I started making plays, and coaches started saying, ‘keep practicing and you’ll play,’ and I got the opportunity to show what I could do.” Stewart shares many of the stories from his years on the squad. He was part of two Big Ten championships and a trip to the Rose Bowl playing USC.
“That was pretty cool,” he said. “I was only in for two plays. On one, they called a fair catch, but I kept hitting my guy, and he said, ‘Dude, you don’t have to hit me,’ but all I wanted to do was hit him.”
Stewart knew he would not go on to play professionally, but he got to live his dream of playing Division I football. Stewart’s message in the book goes beyond retelling the experience of the collegiate football walk-on.
“I want my story to inspire other young athletes to chase their dreams,” Stewart said. “If you believe in yourself and believe in hard work, then anything is possible. My story is testament to that.”
Stewart is donating a portion of the book’s proceeds toward the Matt Hartl Scholarship Foundation. Stewart played with Hartl, whose football career was cut short at Northwestern when he was diagnosed his senior year with Hodgkin’s disease; he died a few years later.
For information about the book, visit Stewart’s web site at MattStewartbooks.com.