STURGIS — An 18th birthday is widely accepted as the point at which a boy becomes a man. But the year leading up to that milestone for Sturgis High School senior quarterback Chance Stewart was what really forged a maturity not often found in athletes at the prep level.
A hometown hero bound for nearby Western Michigan University next season — a critical piece of a 2014 class currently ranked No. 30 nationally by Rivals.com (sandwiched by Penn State and Michigan State) — Stewart’s endured a blitz of untimely events in the past 12 months, starting with a mid-season coaching controversy last fall.
A well-documented rift between former Trojans head coach Bill Keim and district brass resulted in Keim’s resignation following a victory over Battle Creek Central on Sept. 21. He returned as an assistant two weeks later under interim head coach/offensive coordinator Jimmy Lamb, who was promoted to head coach this past winter. The saga took a toll on everyone involved en route to a disappointing 5-4 campaign.
“It was hard times all throughout the year,” said Stewart, who had verbally committed to play for Wisconsin and head coach Brett Bielema just a few weeks before the start of last season. “Last year was rough. It started at the beginning of the year when we lost our best receiver [Jalen Cox] in the very first scrimmage. First play he broke his leg. We didn’t have him all year, so right from the get-go it was kind of a struggle.
“And then the whole thing with the coaching staff. I feel bad for the seniors. It was more unfair for them that they had to go through that their whole senior year. For some of those guys it was the last time they’d play football. The captains — Jared Finnerman, Patrick Haas, myself and Tyler Bennett — it was hard for us to keep everyone together. Everybody wanted to point fingers. The seniors stood in there, hung with it, and we finished 5-4. It was a winning season at least. There were a few days that weren’t fun. There were some practices and things you would hear in the community and it was rough.”
The 225-pound Stewart was still trying to wrap his head around a junior campaign that featured more outside idle talk than passing touchdowns. The 6-foot-6 prospect threw for 1,300 yards and 10 scores — the lowest production of his three years as as the starter. And before he could even fully merge into basketball season, news broke that Bielema was leaving Wisconsin for Arkansas, putting Stewart’s future with the Badgers in major jeopardy.
Wisconsin’s hiring of former Utah State boss Gary Andersen, who values running ability as much as pocket presence from his field generals, meant Stewart would be forced to re-open his recruitment.
“I knew even after the season that we were probably going to have to re-evaluate things because the season I had my junior year wasn’t the season I wanted to have,” Stewart admitted. “My goal was to come out and have a big season, and stats-wise it wasn’t that big of a year. We knew that even after that I was going to have to show myself again to Wisconsin that I was a Division I player. When Brett left we knew I was probably going to have to go somewhere else. When Coach [Gary] Andersen was hired, we kind of got the feeling that [Wisconsin] wanted to go with more of an agile quarterback, dual-threat kind of guy.”
With the ouster of head coach Bill Cubit following a 51-47 record through eight seasons at Western Michigan, the Broncos made the somewhat surprising decision to bring in Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receivers coach P.J. Fleck last December. Fleck, 32, is the youngest Football Bowl Subdivision head coach, and in his eight months on the job so far has injected plenty of energy into a program that hasn’t won a Mid-American Conference West Division title since 2000.
And he hooked Stewart from the start of their relationship that began soon after Fleck’s arrival in Kalamazoo.
“The first time we met him they were about to go on vacation in February,” Stewart recalled. “We had a week where we had three basketball games and they wanted me to get up there [for a visit]. Every day wasn’t working. Finally, Coach Fleck said, ‘Hey, Thursday night I know you have a game. After the game, get dressed, come up to Western and stay as long as you want. We got there around 11 p.m. and stayed until 1:30 in the morning and met the whole coaching staff. After that is probably when I knew I wanted to go to Western.
“Just sitting and talking to him was unbelievable. I met the AD [Kathy Beauregard] that night — everyone was there. It was cool that, even though it was 1:30 in the morning, all the coaches were still there.”
On April 18 Stewart, along with members of his family and Coach Lamb, drove up to WMU and switched his verbal allegiance from Wisconsin to Western.
Soon to be a four-year starter in football, basketball and baseball, Stewart is on the verge of claiming 12 varsity letters — which tops his father, former three-sport Sturgis star Chad Stewart, who collected nine before playing baseball at Eastern Michigan.
Competing for a regional school would provide the Stewart family multiple opportunities over the next four-five years to watch the eldest of three boys in action on Saturdays. However, the joy of fulfilling a dream has been accompanied by the sadness of the family breaking apart.
The glue guy
Just as Stewart helped keep the Sturgis football program from shattering into pieces last season, he found himself in a position this August where he needed to be a pillar for his siblings when it was revealed their mother, Lesli, and father were splitting up.
It was another tough blow for a young man who had already endured and recovered from plenty.
“I know for the past year it just hasn’t been good in our house,” Stewart said. “It happens. Probably three or four months ago it was an eye-opener to me.”
After returning home from a concert on Aug. 13 — four days before Stewart’s 18th birthday — the house was half-empty, his mother’s belongings moved to her new residence.
“I’m not going to let it take me down at all,” he said. “The majority of my friends’ [folks] are split up. It’s something that happens in life. They’ve dealt with it and we’re going to be fine. We’re family and we’re always going to be family.”
Lamb has coached Stewart since the signal-caller was in eighth grade and the two have formed a tight bond. He was in the room when Stewart committed to Fleck and the Broncos — an invitation Lamb treasures.
“He does what leaders do,” Lamb said. “He’s got a mindset of a true champion. If there are cracks [mentally after all that has happened], you can’t tell.
Just like Stewart’s younger brothers and sisters, his football brothers can count on strong leadership. After all, he’s been “leading the team since he was a freshman,” Lamb said.
The journey continues
Stewart admits he didn’t even know what a three-step drop was following his freshman season, when he threw for a career-best 1,725 yards and 13 touchdowns. Under the tutelage of family friend, former Marshall standout QB and Notre Dame reserve Evan Sharpley, he began to sharpen an obvious, God-given skill set. Stewart followed his varsity debut with a sophomore year that featured 1,500 passing yards and 16 TDs.
“He’s very athletic. The first thing that jumped out to me was just his size at that age,” Sharpley said. “That’s obviously something you can’t teach. To have that initial frame, especially at the quarterback position, was very beneficial for him. He was very raw, and in my opinion he still is very raw. He would admit that, too. The biggest thing I’m always hammering home is to be more fluid.
“I’ve watched him play several times. He’s got that swag and confidence on the field, where you can tell he knows he’s the guy in the huddle with the way his teammates respond to him. I want him to kind of be a little smoother in the pocket with his throws so he doesn’t have to be so robotic.”
What Sharpley, Lamb and everyone else can sense is just how comfortable Stewart is heading into his final tour with the Trojans. From his decision to choose WMU, to his chemistry with the new Sturgis coaching staff, to what he believes will be a much improved receiving corps in 2013, Stewart’s banking on going out with a bang.
And getting back to finding joy in the game again while he’s at it, which seems to be the battle cry around the Sturgis practice fields these days.
“The kind of relationship Coach Lamb and I have is really special,” Stewart said. “And the staff he’s put together is phenomenal. We were all excited when he was named head coach. We know him and see him in the hallway all the time. When you see everything behind the scenes and know how hard he’s working and busting his butt, it makes everything so much easier to go out there and give him your all.
“Last year was a different mindset. This year was just coming out and playing football. I know where I’m going to school and it’s easy now. I can just act like a high school kid for a little bit longer. It’s fun. And it’s funny, looking back, how everything just kind of worked into place.”