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Injury-prone Jonathan Stewart becoming a Panthers punch line

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/26/22/47/GEceS.Em.138.jpeg|418
    Jeff Siner -
    Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) sits on the sideline with an ice bag to his upper right leg following conditioning drills during the team's first practice of training camp on Friday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/26/22/47/fvSV3.Em.138.jpeg|210
    Uncredited - AP
    Jonathan Stewart

SPARTANBURG Jonathan Stewart pulls up to Wofford’s Campus Life Building Saturday afternoon on a Honda Ruckus. If a motorcycle and a Segway had a baby, it would be a Ruckus. The bike is black and has thick tires and a 49cc engine.

If the Ruckus is to Ruckuses what Stewart is to running backs, you could say that the engine will cease to fire, the gas tank will leak and the tires will go flat.

You could say that if you want to be mean. I don’t want to be mean. I want to be honest.

Stewart, 27, is Carolina’s best running back. He’s averaged 4.6 yards a carry in six seasons with the Panthers. He blasts into holes and shakes tacklers. And he can move. At 5-foot-10 and a solid 235 pounds, Stewart ran a 4.46 40 out of Oregon.

But in 2012 and 2013, and at least for the start of training camp, he’s become best known for what he doesn’t do – play.

After missing two games in his first four seasons, Stewart has missed 17 the past two. Separate injuries to both ankles undid him in 2012, he tore an MCL in 2013 and two weeks ago he injured a hamstring.

Stewart stands with coach Ron Rivera and running back DeAngelo Williams near the 30-yard line before practice Saturday night. He wears a white hat instead of a helmet. After a three-minute conversation, Rivera points to his right and Williams runs to his teammates. Stewart watches.

“Very frustrating,” Stewart says. “I had a good OTA, minicamp, and a good offseason, period – until two weeks ago, and I pulled my hammie. So it’s definitely frustrating but it’s nothing that I’m really too concerned about considering my past and my history and my ankles. And I’ve overcome that. This is, you know, an easy one.”

He says he’s been told he’ll miss two to four weeks.

This means that, at least at the start of camp, Stewart won’t supply punch out of the backfield. Instead, he’ll supply a punch line. Stewart is criticized the way former Panther middle linebacker Dan Morgan was. Morgan is one of the best defensive players in Carolina history but was perpetually on the sideline because of a series of mostly unrelated injuries.

Players are supposed to play and when they don’t we have to blame somebody so we blame them. If they cared, they’d be on the field.

Right?

“There are a lot of reasons players get hurt and in my opinion it’s how hard Jonathan plays,” Rivera said. “He’s one of those guys that’s always trying to get that something extra.”

Stewart was hurt against the New York Jets in the 2012 preseason “when he was trying to get that extra yard and a player rolled up on his ankle,” Rivera said. “Against New Orleans (in 2013) he caught the ball and was working the swing, trying to get that extra yard. That’s just the way some guys play. He’s always trying to better himself.”

Stewart ran for a career-high 1,133 yards on a career-high 221 yards carries in 2009. Last season, he ran for a career low 180 yards on a career low 48 carries.

If he’s healthy, “he and DeAngelo give us that different type of one-two punch,” Rivera said. “DeAngelo is a slasher, a vertical attack guy. And Jonathan can be that grinding, pounding guy. Those two guys could be a very formidable tandem.”

Lots of players play hard. Why do some avoid injuries and others collect them?

Is it luck?

“I don’t believe in luck,” Stewart said. “You get a hand in cards and it’s up to you to make the next best move. The last couple years, battling injuries and whatnot, is just something I’ve had to go through. It’s made me who I am now.”

Despite the hamstring injury Stewart says he is fresher than he’s been in years.

If he stays fresh, we’ll suddenly remember how effective he is. If he continues to get hurt, will the Panthers retain him in 2015? The days when they took care of injured players such as Morgan have ended, and they’re unlikely to come back.

But there is hope.

Stewart walks out of the Campus Life Building and gets on the Ruckus. The engine kicks in, and there’s nothing but open sidewalk ahead.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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