This has been a throwback week of sorts for Jonathan Stewart.
The Carolina Panthers running back returns to the Pacific Northwest, where he was raised, to face the team he grew up watching. He’s been listening to music from the late 1990s all week.
And he’s running the ball the best he has in the past five seasons. He hopes to continue that streak against a coach who heavily recruited him out of high school.
“He looks like he did running in high school. He’s just been ripping,” said Seattle coach Pete Carroll, who tried to lure Stewart to Southern California before he chose Oregon. “I watched him and recruited and tried to get him way back then.”
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How well did Pete get to know him?
“Not well enough,” he said. “We didn’t get him.”
Entering Saturday’s playoff game against the Seahwaks, the Jonathan Stewart that the Panthers know is a rusher who refuses to go down at first contact. He’s a player who has battled through injuries for the better part of three seasons and has grown tired of answering questions about his health.
One of the Panthers’ biggest stars, Stewart is also one of the team’s most reserved players. His relaxed demeanor in the huddle has a calming effect on his teammates, they say. And his musical talents outside of football impress those who are closest to him on the team.
Carroll didn’t get to know Stewart well enough, but the high school kid he recruited in the mid-2000s hasn’t changed much since then.
Stewart averaged 11.2 yards per carry in his senior year at Timberline High in Lacey, Wash., and was ranked as the top running back in the country by Rivals.com.
His commitment to Oregon can now be viewed as one of the recruiting wins that helped kick-start the program into national prominence: The Ducks prepare for their national championship appearance Monday.
Turning down Carroll and Southern California wasn’t hard, Stewart said, even though he did consider leaving the Pacific Northwest.
“In all honesty (my mom and I) just prayed about it, and it felt right in my spirit to go to Oregon,” Stewart said.
Stewart made an immediate impact with the Ducks. In his second game at Oregon he returned the opening kickoff 83 yards for a score.
“The moment Jonathan walked through the door he looked just like he does now,” said Panthers tight end Ed Dickson, who was part of Stewart’s recruiting class at Oregon in 2005. “He just did stuff that normal freshmen wouldn’t do.
“No wonder why he was the No. 1 running back in the country when he was coming out. He ran sub-4.3, he benched 400 pounds. I saw the guy power clean 408. So you knew he was special.”
Stewart was as quiet then as he is now. Dickson recalls Stewart not partying with his teammates at Barnhart Hall, the large concrete structure where the football players lived during college.
He stuck mostly with his running back group. With them, hecracked jokes and opened up, but he was reserved with everyone else.
“You could tell he came from a great household,” Dickson said. “His mom’s a great Christian woman and he was brought up in the church. Somebody that wasn’t a part of that party life, you can tell it’s like cold water to them.
“He had to ease his way in. It’s not a bad thing to get your work done and party a little bit. That’s what the college experience is about, but I know he had a great experience.”
In a lot of ways, that’s how Stewart, 27, is today. Teammates and coaches say he’s quiet and unassuming, but Stewart doesn’t think so.
Stewart says if he knows you, he shows his personality more. He chooses his moments, but he’s often guarded around those he hasn’t known for years.
The Panthers’ running backs pride themselves on being the most tight-knit group on the team, and they’ll do anything from dancing at a restaurant during training camp to attending a professional wrestling event together.
“DeAngelo (Williams) is definitely the full-go guy,” Stewart said. “(Mike) Tolbert is the comedian. Fozzy (Whittaker) is one of those guys who’s a very witty smart-aleck. And Darrin (Reaves) over there is just a rookie that doesn’t know much.”
As for Stewart?
“I’m just a guy that keeps things together,” he said.
At training camp each year, there’s usually one rookie that doesn’t know Stewart plays the piano. Sitting in the student center outside of the dining hall, his teammates listen to him on the keys before or after lunch at least once during the three-week camp.
Stewart has been playing the piano since third grade, and he has performed for friends, teammates and even at the Charlotte Symphony in 2013 for a fundraiser.
At Oregon, Stewart starting recording musical beats on his computer. But it wasn’t until he started getting an NFL paycheck to help him buy better equipment that he got serious about it. Now he has a small studio in a closet at his home.
“It started off as a hobby and now I’ve gotten pretty good at it,” Stewart said. “And I know some people in that whole music world over the last several years and hopefully one day I can get into that whole business side of things.”
Stewart works closely with Broncos safety and North Carolina native Josh Bush. Named Heart Grab Music, the group collaborates occasionally during the offseason. They produce R&B music and have posted several songs to their SoundCloud page.
Tolbert has seen Stewart in action in the studio. Stewart uses trial and error to lay beats over his piano instrumentals to decide what sounds right before recording it.
“In the studio he’s kind of like he is on the football field. When you’re in the running zone and groove, you’re going,” Tolbert said. “Whatever you’re doing is working. And he’s the same way. He closes the door and he starts playing on the piano and then he puts the beats behind it. It’s amazing to see because I can’t do that. My hands don’t work that way.”
R&B is usually what Stewart listens to, and this week he’s been on a Brian McKnight kick ever since the crooner sang the national anthem before the Panthers’ playoff win against the Cardinals.
After rushing for 123 yards against Arizona – the second-most rushing yards in a postseason game in Carolina’s history – Stewart went home and started playing McKnight’s hit single “Back at One,” which was released in 1999 when Stewart was playing Pop Warner football.
“It just brought back a lot,” Stewart said. “You have so many memories that you have connected to stuff.”
Stewart got the nickname “Snoop” in high school and college after people misunderstood his nickname, which was actually “Snoot.”
Snoot was short for “Snootie Pie,” which his mother called him when he was a shy, small middle-schooler playing football against much bigger boys.
His nickname changed, as did Stewart, growing into the 5-foot-10, 235-pound powerful runner that he is today.
Stewart wanted to be a running back like Barry Sanders growing up – quick and elusive with spin moves and sidesteps that embarrassed would-be tacklers. But as he learned more about football, Stewart decided to model his game more closely on Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s Chicago teammate Walter Payton, who was a straight-line power running back.
“Walter Payton was definitely one of the running backs I respected and understood what running the ball was about in a sense,” Stewart said. “(That’s to) not be tackled. That’s kind of the edge that I bring to my game and that’s what I like about Walter Payton.”
Rivera saw Payton-esque flashes in Stewart in Week 2 of the season when the Panthers played Detroit.
On a 2-yard touchdown rush in the fourth quarter, Stewart took a handoff from Cam Newton out of the I-formation and was met at the 2-yard line by four Lions’ defenders. He bounced off them, spun to his right and extended his body for a touchdown.
“Just watching him do those things because of the energy he ran with, I had a little flashback in my mind like wow, that was very impressive,” Rivera said. “He’s got that kind of ability to make things happen and keep the legs moving.”
Pro Football Focus, a football analytics site, says Stewart averages 2.6 yards after contact per rush. They gave him an elusive rating – a metric that takes into account forced missed tackles with rushes and receptions – of 72.8, the second-highest in the league this season behind Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch.
Stewart has caused 49 missed tackles this season, including nine in the playoff win against Arizona. He said the secret is to be ticked off.
“Somehow I’m able to find it in my soul,” Stewart said. “You just kind of have to have the will to not be tackled. Whatever it is, scratching, clawing, using people’s momentum against them and keep moving your legs.”
His teammates feed off his broken tackles.
“It’s like a momentum shifter,” Dickson said. “It’s a spark when we need it, and it comes out of nowhere. He’s always been like that. He’s so powerful, it’s hard for one person to bring him down. When he has his mind set on something I don’t think one person will take him down.”
In the past six weeks, Stewart has rushed for 609 yards, the most among all running backs in the league counting the playoffs. While ankle and knee injuries have slowed him the past three years, coaches like Carroll are seeing the Stewart of old.
“He just looks like the Jonathan Stewart we always thought he was,” Carroll said. “He’s very difficult to tackle, he’s very explosive in contact, he’s got good speed to get away from you and make big plays. When he gets the chance, he can really get out of there.
“He can change direction in one step and it causes a lot of problems in his running style. He can catch the ball nicely and blocks well, too. He does everything. To me, since he was a young kid, he was a great football player. I just see him the same and he’s doing it in great fashion here in the last (six) weeks.”