After becoming the Carolina Panthers’ all-time leading rusher last week in New England, Jonathan Stewart got dressed, did several media interviews and boarded the bus for the airport.
Running back Fozzy Whittaker was sitting next to Stewart, scrolling through his phone when he saw a tweet from the team’s account about Stewart’s record.
“I was like, ‘Hold on, bro. You’re not going to tell nobody?’” Whittaker said, laughing.
“That just shows you his unselfishness. He’s not worried about all the accolades. He’s here to win games (and) play football.”
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Over the 10 years and 6,868 rushing yards since the Panthers drafted Stewart in the first round in 2008, you’ve probably heard about his piano-playing ability, his bull-in-a-china-shop running style and the injuries that plagued him for two seasons after he signed a big free-agent contract in 2012.
What you’ve heard little of is Stewart talking about himself.
The self-described “even-keeled” back is not a fan of media interviews, preferring to let others in the locker room get in front of the cameras.
“That’s not what he’s here for,” Whittaker said.
As a result, the player who has been to a Pro Bowl, a Super Bowl and recently was named a substitute captain has kept a relatively low profile, despite playing 10 years in the same city.
Stewart was the strong, silent half of the backfield tandem with the louder, flashier DeAngelo Williams, whose team record Stewart broke.
In the locker room at Gillette Stadium and again this week, Stewart said he was more pleased with the 33-30 victory vs. the Patriots than his history-making day.
“As long as we’re winning, that’s when you really feel good,” Stewart said. “I could have got the record and we lost, and I would have been (mad).”
Putting the team first
Mark Rubadue, Stewart’s coach at Timberline (Wash.) High, gave Stewart some lasting advice that had nothing to do with cutback lanes or blitz pickup.
Before Stewart’s freshman year, Rubadue pulled him aside and discussed humility, something Stewart had also heard at home.
Praising your offensive linemen. Putting the team first. Being selfless.
“I learned what it is to be humble through football, and it actually registered on the day he talked to me,” Stewart said.
Stewart went on to a stellar career at Oregon, where his 2,891 rushing yards were the second-most in school history at the time.
The Panthers took Stewart 13th overall in 2008, adding him to a backfield that already included another first-round pick in Williams. Some players might have balked at splitting time with an established back.
“They knew who they were drafting, I guess. It didn’t really matter to me,” he said. “If anything it was just an opportunity to better myself and better him and better our team.”
Likewise, when Stewart learned the Panthers were interested in drafting Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey in the first round this year, he let head coach Ron Rivera know he endorsed the move.
“He thought he’d be a great changeup back,” Rivera said. “And ever since we’ve had him, he’s been supportive and Christian’s been supportive of him.”
During Stewart’s second season, Stewart and Williams became the first players in NFL history to each rush for 1,100 yards. They had complementary running styles, with Williams providing the speed and Stewart supplying the muscle.
The 5-10, 240-pound Stewart also returned kicks as a rookie, a fact that Whittaker still shakes his head about.
“I told him if I was covering those kicks and I had to cover him, that’s a handful,” Whittaker said. “I couldn’t imagine trying to bring someone like him down on kickoffs.”
Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Stewart reminds him of former Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott, but with a halfback’s skills.
“You just look at him and say, ‘That guy would be hard to tackle. I’d hate to face that guy in a hole 1-on-1 coming right at me,’” Shula said.
But new Panthers safety Jairus Byrd, who played with Stewart at Oregon, said there’s more to Stewart’s game than just power.
Byrd recalled a scrimmage during their freshman year when he and a defensive lineman both hit Stewart, who somehow rolled off their pads and kept running.
“His balance is so crazy, he literally did like a helicopter and like landed on his feet,” Byrd said. “It’s kind of freaky like a cat. But to be that heavy. We hit him and it was like ssshhooo.”
A long career
Sharing carries with Williams and missing time with ankle injuries in 2012-13 helped spare the 30-year-old Stewart some of the wear and tear that has kept many NFL backs from playing as long as he has.
Stewart is among 12 backs who are at least 30 on active rosters, although three of them – John Kuhn, Darren Sproles and Danny Woodhead – are currently on IR.
Stewart says he hasn’t done much differently in his offseason routine, but is eating better thanks to his fiancee.
“Instead of Papa John’s I can have some chicken and – what’s the stuff that replaces rice? Quinoa,” Stewart said.
Whittaker, 28, appreciates Stewart’s approach.
“Just seeing the way he attacks the day and the way he’s persevered for 10 years, that’s incredible,” Whittaker said. “Especially for a running back with the size and the physicality he runs with, 10 years is unheard of.”
Stewart, who has a 6-month-old daughter he dotes on, said he doesn’t have a timeline for how long he’d like to play. He’s signed through next season after agreeing to a one-year extension in March that included a pay cut that saved the Panthers $2 million against the salary cap.
Stewart’s rushing record is a testament to his staying power.
He’s only had one 1,000-yard season, although he fell 11 yards short of another one in 2015 despite missing the last three games with a foot injury.
But Stewart said his main goal is getting back to and winning a Super Bowl. After he retires, he’ll reflect on the records and other accomplishments.
“Those types of things are going to matter when you’re done playing. When you look back on your career you can say you’ve done this, you’ve done that,” he said. “I think if you’re a player that’s doing that while you’re playing, I think that’s the wrong mindset. Because there’s still a lot that you have to do. ...
“If you have that mindset, you’re settling. I believe in never settling. So I’m just going to continue doing my daily job.”