WVU football: Oklahoma State wide receiver benefits from life experiences
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Beneath the helmet is a mind and under the shoulder pads is a heart. They are what make Oklahoma State's Josh Stewart one of the very best at what he does.
The feet laced into the cleats run the precise routes. The hands inside the gloves pluck passes out of the air. Both are meaningless if strength and spirit don't propel him through the unimaginable events the junior's life has already produced.
"You've got to understand where I came from, the way my mom raised me to be positive about stuff and don't get down about stuff," Stewart said. "You can't spend your life being down. Take the stuff that happened and try to make something positive out of it.
"I have the talent to play football and I can use that as a way to get my story out and to motivate people and to let them know they don't have to stay down. They can find a way to make things possible."
Stewart's mom, the one he credits for the life-shaping advice, is actually his maternal grandmother. Stewart never really knew his biological mother. She and Stewart's older brother were killed in a car accident when Stewart was an infant. Over time, Stewart learned the details and discovered he could have been in the same car if an aunt hadn't volunteered to take Stewart home from church in a separate car.
He calls his grandmother his mom because Valrie and her husband, Charles Stewart, raised Stewart.
Stewart's dad was accidentally shot and killed in an argument with Stewart's paternal grandfather when Stewart was 5 years old. Stewart was there when it happened, and he could tell Valrie what transpired.
Years later, he is open to discussing his life and inspiring others. It wouldn't be so easy, so empowering for himself and for others, had Stewart not learned how to live with and grow from his experience.
"You think about it, it's my parents, but then again, God turned it around for me in so many ways and I'm blessed to be able to have done so many things," he said. "It's a blessing to be here and to be doing this. I know I'll see them one day. For now, I keep my head on straight and do the right things because I know there's no telling how far I can go."
Stewart is the Big 12's leading returning receiver, with 101 receptions, 1,210 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore in 2012, and he leads the Cowboys in catches and yards this season. No. 11 Oklahoma State (3-0) makes its first trip here Saturday to play West Virginia (2-2, 0-1 Big 12).
The game will start at noon at Mountaineer Field and will be televised by ESPN.
A year ago against WVU, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Stewart had one carry for a 46-yard touchdown and 13 receptions for 172 yards and two touchdowns.
How Stewart, who was a longtime Texas A&M commit, came to star for the Cowboys is another extension of another hardship. He played his high school football in Denton, Texas, but only after Hurricane Katrina forced his family from its home in New Orleans when he was 12.
"That was just another one of those tests, one of those times when I had to keep a level head," he said.
The Stewarts would settle in Denton. Stewart played basketball and football in middle school and he'd make friends with the player who would go on to become Guyer High School's quarterback, J.W. Walsh.
Walsh is now Oklahoma State's starter and he has 642 yards passing and five touchdowns, plus a team-high 182 yards rushing in three games and two starts.
"Up until right before the football season when I moved down there, I wasn't that big on football," Stewart said. "I'd played since I was 5, but I didn't know I was really good at it until my freshman year of high school and my coach brought it to my attention and made me realize I could be really good at it and that this sport, if I took it seriously, could be my way into college."
Walsh was small, but he made plays for a team that made it to the state finals when he was a senior. There wasn't much interest in Stewart as a receiver, even as his best friend Walsh helped him with 56 receptions, 971 yards and 10 scores that season. He was going to play cornerback for the Aggies, until life took another one of those odd turns.
Walsh's father, John, was the head coach at Guyer. J.W. Walsh was committed to Oklahoma State. WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen was the Cowboys' offensive coordinator in 2010 and he watched Walsh and Guyer in person quite a bit and got to know Walsh and his father.
Over time, Holgorsen couldn't help but notice Stewart. John Walsh knew it and one day told Holgorsen he had a decision to make.
"You can either get him," Walsh said, "or you can play against him."
After a playoff game in December 2010, Holgorsen offered Stewart a scholarship. Stewart accepted on the spot.
"I didn't have one offer to play receiver in college, but deep down, Coach Walsh knew I wanted to play receiver and he did everything he could to help me," Stewart said. "Nobody is going to turn down an offer to go to college to play receiver when your best friend is possibly going to be your quarterback."
It was validation for Stewart and it reinforced the frame of mind he'd used to frame his life. He shares his story with people who he thinks are down or who ask for help in a tough time.
"I can say, 'I've been through this and that and you can get through it,' but there's no way I can tell what they're feeling because we're all different," he said. "What I say is, 'I don't know what you feel, but I know what I feel almost every day in my life and it's a pretty powerful thing for me.' I know if I can turn my life around and play football, anybody can turn their life around."