Chance Stewart remembers a time when he was an “offer hungry” rising senior at Sturgis High School, doing whatever he could to be a Big Ten quarterback.
“If you want to play a Division I sport, that doesn’t just come naturally to anyone,” Stewart said. “A lot of work needed to be done.”
Whether it was driving to Detroit for 7-on-7 contests, or individual coaching with former Marshall standout and Notre Dame quarterback Evan Sharpley, Stewart was prepping for what he hoped would be a successful collegiate career.
The work did pay off for Stewart, just not the way he expected, and not in the Big Ten. Instead, after a de-commitment from the University of Wisconsin, and a transfer from Western Michigan University, Stewart capped off his career at Division II Hillsdale College.
And he did it in fashion.
Stewart became the all-time leading passer for the Chargers, throwing for 10,064 yards. Stewart excelled as a senior, throwing for school and Great Midwest Athletic Conference season record of 3,588 yards en route to being named the G-MAC Player of the Year.
“Back then, I thought (Wisconsin) was the place. Little did I know that five years later I would be graduating from Hillsdale,” Stewart said. “It’s funny how things work out.”
Stewart was a four-star recruit out of Sturgis, and along with Wisconsin, had other Big Ten offers from Illinois and Purdue. Stewart remembers sitting in then-head coach Bret Bielema’s office when he got the offer.
“My goal was to play in the Big Ten. That’s what I wanted. Sitting in Coach Bielema’s office and hearing him offer me a full ride scholarship to play quarterback was pretty cool,” Stewart said. “There’s a lot of moments in my life where I will look back and say ‘that was really cool I got to experience that.’ That moment will be one of them.”
Shortly thereafter, Bielema left the program to coach at Arkansas, and in comes Gary Anderson, who went from a pro-style offense to a spread system.
“It was a complete 180,” Stewart said of the anticipated change in offensive scheme. “I understood it and told them I was going to go my own way but thank you for being up front with me.
“I want to go to a program where I can use my talents the best, and help the team win…It was tough; that was Wisconsin. That was the Big Ten. That was really cool for me. In the end, I just had to go a different direction.”
That new direction led Stewart to a location close to home, thanks to a phone call with an energetic young coach at Western Michigan – PJ Fleck.
“I remember when I first got off the phone with him, I thought ‘holy cow – this is the kind of guy I want to play for,’” Stewart said. “I really bought into his mindset and vision for the program.
“He definitely helped me see I didn’t need the label of being a Big Ten quarterback. I could do everything I wanted in my college career right there at Western.”
With Stewart in the fold, Fleck and the Broncos secured what was, at the time, the highest-ranked recruiting class in the history of the Mid-American Conference.
Yet the fanfare of being part of that class, and being a highly-touted local product, wore fast during Stewart’s freshman year. Stewart didn’t see the field for the Broncos, as it became evident that Zach Terrell was the quarterback of the future.
Stewart didn’t leave WMU empty-handed, as he put on what he called a much-needed 50 pounds, and learned a lot from Terrell, who Stewart called an “unbelievable quarterback, and mentor.”
Yet here was Stewart, facing a third recruiting process, and trying to deflect a growing local perception that his best years were behind him.
“A lot of people loved to say I was a bust,” said Stewart, highlighting the mentions of his name on social media. “I was the four-star quarterback who couldn’t cut it at the Big Ten level. Couldn’t cut it at the MAC level.
“I knew eventually I was going to find a home where I could play quarterback and I was going to play quarterback at a high level.”
Following his decision to transfer from WMU, Stewart shut things down for a few months. Stewart granted no media interviews, and really didn’t talk to anyone, as he tried to plan the next step.
“I knew the type of player I am and the type of man I am. That wasn’t going to be the end of my career,” Stewart said. “I had to take that all in and just embrace it.”
Stewart visited Hillsdale and loved it. The only question was whether to go that route or try junior college with the hopes of getting back to the Division I level. It was during that time that Stewart realized his top priority was playing football – maybe not in the glamorous way he had imagined during his “offer hungry” days at Sturgis.
“At the end of the day, I was lucky and I was blessed just to be playing football,” Stewart said. “At 17-18 years old, I was more worried about playing in front of 40,000 people and flying to games. It changed my perspective that I really wanted to go out and play football. I didn’t need any of those other things.”
Things worked out okay. On top of being Hillsdale’s all-time leading passer, Stewart also led the Chargers to a G-MAC championship and the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs as a fifth-year senior. The program went 10-3 and Stewart completed 61.9-percent of his passes and finished with 28 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. After appearing in 41 career games with the Chargers, he totaled 10,064 total passing yards with 73 TD and 13 rushing scores.
Stewart is a finalist for the 2018 Harlon Hill Trophy, which is the Division II version of the Heisman. The Harlon Hill Trophy winner will be announced on Dec. 14.
“Looking back, sometimes I have to think that four years ago this almost wasn’t an option,” Stewart said of the winding path his collegiate road took him on. “Never in a million years did I think it was going to be an option, yet here we are. I’m really blessed this opportunity did present itself for me.”
It all started with those grinding summer days at Sturgis, and it was also aided by a turbulent recruiting process, and a less-than-ideal stint at WMU. It all made Chance Stewart the quarterback that will graduate from Hillsdale this month, and start gearing up for a pro day in the spring.
“One of my favorite things to say is ‘find a way,’” Stewart said. “No matter the circumstances, just find a way to make it work.
“College football is hard. I think that’s why it’s the greatest sport ever. The lessons you learn through this, they shape you as a man, and as a teammate and a brother. They help you become a better person for society once football is over. I will be forever grateful for everything the game has done for me.”
This feature series on local athletes competing at the college level is brought to you by Moso Village in Sturgis.