For a large chunk of his life, Jonathan Stewart has enjoyed playing the piano because it’s a hobby that frees him from the competitive pressures of his sport.
“It’s always been something that I play just to have an escape,” says the Carolina Panthers running back, who started teaching himself to play after his mom bought him a keyboard in elementary school. “Especially with football, it’s nice to have a total opposite extreme – of peace and quality time, of just relaxing ... as opposed to going out on Sunday and banging my head against another person’s helmet.”
Then along came CBS’s “MVP: Most Valuable Performer,” a live interactive talent show – hosted by actor/rapper LL Cool J – that aims to crown the NFL player with the most off-the-field talent. Stewart and five other players will compete for bragging rights starting at 8 p.m. Thursday. A CBS.com viewer poll will determine the winner, and he’ll be revealed just before the show ends at 9.
That’s a big step up in pressure from his typical live performances, which have seen him tickling the ivories for a few dozen teammates at a time, in training camp at Wofford College.
It’s never been a secret that the 30-year-old Stewart, who has spent his entire career in Charlotte (10 seasons), has had a long love affair with music. The keyboard he got from his mother was a constant friend throughout his childhood; when he finally got the opportunity to play a real piano at the University of Oregon – in a dorm room downstairs from him – it was sometimes difficult to pull Stewart away from it. And upon arriving here as the Panthers’ first-round draft pick in 2008, one of the first things he bought was a Steinway baby grand piano that to this day he calls “Beauty.”
At the same time, it’s not something he makes a big deal about publicly.
He’s dabbled in recording some of his compositions, and over the years has teamed with N.C. native Josh Bush (a former Jet, Bronco and Bill) to produce R&B music. But the largest audience he’s performed in front of, he says, is maybe 60 people. So Thursday night is a significant step out of his comfort zone.
“I’ve never really been a big audience performer, besides football,” Stewart says. “Whenever you’re playing music – whether you’re singing or creating, whatever it is – you’re opening up a whole ’nother side of vulnerability, so that can be scary. It’s not an everyday thing where you’re opening yourself up to random people.”
This all came together pretty quickly. Thirty-two audition videos were submitted by NFL players late last year, and fans were asked to vote for their favorites at Sports Illustrated’s website. (For his, Stewart says he sat at the piano and “wasn’t really playing anything in particular, I just ... freestyled.”)
Five players made the cut, plus a team of twin brothers – singer Cody and guitar player Jacob Hollister of the New England Patriots, though they had to pull out because New England advanced to the Super Bowl. Facing off against Stewart are: Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams (singing); Ravens placekicker Justin Tucker (opera singing); Ravens running back Alex Collins (Irish dancing); Cleveland Browns guard Kevin Zeitler (dog tricks); and Denver Broncos nose tackle Domata Peko (playing guitar), activated this week as an alternate.
And Stewart seems to be approaching this competition – which will take place in an auditorium – the way he’d approach one in a football stadium. He had nothing to say about his fellow competitors, wouldn’t reveal what piece of music he plans to perform and, when asked about how he was feeling, gave a very pro athlete-y answer:
“It’s different, but I think ... there’s certain things I can take from my professional experience with football (that will help) this performance with the piano in front of the world.
“I’m just making sure that I’m prepared with what I’m gonna play, and mentally clear about what’s gonna happen, and doing whatever I have to do to be ready so I don’t go up there and freeze or anything.
“I’m preparing to win – that’s for sure. Just like anything else. You don’t prepare to lose. I’m preparing to win.”
‘MVP: Most Valuable Performer’
When: 8-9 p.m. Thursday on CBS.
How it works: The six finalists will perform live on the show, while a panel of celebrity judges critiques each player’s performance. Viewers will vote online (at www.cbs.com/shows/most-valuable-performer) to determine the winner, who will be revealed at the end of the show and will earn $50,000 for the charity of his choice.