When Austin Stewart chose to play college basketball at Central Michigan, he thought he had left football behind. The breakup turned out to be a hiatus.
Five years after his last game, Stewart is scratching his football itch as a graduate student, thanks to Chippewas’ coaches and a recommendation from CMU football royalty.
“It’s everything I imagined it would be,” he said this week. “Everyone took me in with open arms. They were helpful from the start. It’s a great group of guys to be around.”
Stewart is a reserve wide receiver working toward an expanded role, as Central Michigan (3-2, 0-1 Mid-American Conference) prepares to face Ball State on Saturday on ASN.
He is a bit player thus far, with just one catch for six yards in a loss to Virginia last month. But that doesn’t begin to convey the progress he’s made, or continues to make. Nor does it convey the will and work that allowed him to reach this point.
“The learning curve was as steep as it could possibly be,” Stewart said. “Going from high school football to college football is almost like learning a completely new game. There are things at my position that I’ve got to know. There are things at other positions that I’ve got to know, to help me do my position. There are in-play adjustments, pre-snap reads, learning how to run a route, learning how to keep leverage on your opponent. I had to learn the playbook. But I worked at it, I worked hard, and I’m still at it.”
As Stewart’s college basketball career progressed, he realized that he never let go of football. He was a two-sport star at West High School in Normal, Ill., where he concentrated on basketball and finished as the school’s career leading scorer, but also averaged 22 yards per reception, with 12 touchdowns, in football as a senior.
“It was the first sport I played,” Stewart said, “so I kind of had that history with the game. I never stopped watching. I’d come to the games (at Central Michigan). I watched college football. I watched NFL Sunday. I liked being close to the game, and I had played it. So it never really left me.”
Last winter, he approached the football staff about the possibility of coming out for the team. Head coach John Bonamego advised him to wait until after basketball season and they would talk again.
Stewart worked out last spring with former Central Michigan record-setting quarterback Dan LeFevour, who has played in both the NFL and Canadian Football League. LeFevour recommended that CMU assistant head coach and receivers coach Mose Rison give him a look. Rison saw an intriguing, if raw, prospect.
“I said, this young man has some ability and may be able to help us,” Rison said. “It’s been a good transition. He’s in a situation where he’s still learning, but he has a lot of great qualities, he’s an outstanding student, and he has a great work ethic. I can see him playing more and more as the season goes on. I see a role for him. It’s up to me to figure out what that role is, but I know that he can help us.”
Desire and a hefty dose of natural ability were critical to reaching this point. The 6-5, 215-pound Stewart is exceptionally long and springy for a wide receiver. He averaged 5 points and 3 rebounds per game in his career for the Chippewas’ basketball team. He started as a sophomore, but came off the bench his final two years and often was counted on to provide a spark, a role he accepted. He is a patient and willing student on the football field and in meetings.
“It’s taken some time,” Rison said, “but he’s so much further ahead now than he was back in spring practice. He understands where he is, but don’t think for one second that he doesn’t want to play more snaps. I know because we talk about it. He came into a situation where we had every wide receiver back and we were pretty good in that area already, and that didn’t turn him away, that didn’t scare him.”
Stewart said that there’s some carryover from basketball to football: leverage; spacing; using your body to shield opponents. He appreciates the mental component of football, in game planning, play calling and attempting to take advantage of favorable matchups. He understands that his biggest hurdles are knowledge and experience.
“I feel like I’m making strides, definitely,” he said, “and that’s what I’m working for, being able to become a contributor.”
Stewart and Rison are trying to accelerate the process as quickly as they can.
“He’s going to have an opportunity,” Rison said. “As this thing evolves, I see his playing time increasing.”