From the very start, James Stewart was the wrong guy in the
wrong place. Jacksonville is a city in which Florida Gators rule
and Tennessee Volunteers are treated like something Sigourney
Weaver should've blown away in her Alien movies. Stewart
happened to be one of Tennessee's best players ever, and as a
running back for the Jacksonville Jaguars for the past five
years, he learned that fans of SEC programs are fiercely loyal
and have long memories.
After scoring a team-record five touchdowns in a 1997 game
against the Philadelphia Eagles at Alltel Stadium, Stewart
didn't win over the Jaguars' faithful. Even last season, when he
tied Edgerrin James of the Indianapolis Colts for the AFC lead
with 13 rushing touchdowns, Stewart had his detractors. Sitting
in the Alltel stands and watching her husband play last year,
Jennifer Stewart would mostly hear the crowd call for the return
of injured running back Fred Taylor, a former Gator. Stewart
never stood a chance in north Florida.
"I would get comments like, 'I guess you're all right even
though you're from Tennessee,'" recalls Stewart, who still holds
the Vols' career rushing record of 2,890 yards and helped
Tennessee beat Florida once in his four years in Knoxville.
"They were things that never should've been said. Jacksonville
was a college town before the Jaguars arrived [in 1995], but I
think they're learning how to be a pro town. I felt like saying,
'Grow up. I'm not in college anymore.'"
The 19th pick in the '95 draft, Stewart gained 3,793 total
yards--but never the acceptance he yearned for--during his years
in Jacksonville. Now, having signed a five-year, $25 million
free-agent contract with the Detroit Lions in February, Stewart
believes he's in a place where he has a fair chance to win that
respect. By outbidding the Cleveland Browns for Stewart's
services, the Lions all but signaled the end of the Barry
Sanders era. "We have to move on, and we are," says Ron Hughes,
Detroit's vice president of player personnel. "To constantly
lick our wounds--that's the sign of a loser."
Tired of playing for mediocre teams in Detroit, Sanders stunned
the Lions and the rest of the football world by suddenly
retiring last July. Though one of his three agents, Peter
Schaffer, has suggested that his client might report to training
camp in July--presumably as a ploy, in an effort to fulfill
contractual obligations and avoid repaying a portion of his $11
million signing bonus--Detroit expects to see Grant Hill in its
backfield before it sees Sanders again. Nevertheless, the future
Hall of Famer's electrifying running style won't be forgotten by
Lions fans anytime soon.
Stewart is anything but electric. What he is, in fact, is
dogged, a 6'1", 227-pound grinder. During a career with the
Jaguars that spanned 60 games, he averaged 3.9 yards per carry.
"I've told people that if you're looking for Barry, you're going
to be disappointed," Stewart says. "If you're looking for a
team-oriented guy who will work hard, that's what you'll see. I
don't do razzle-dazzle. I play football."
Last season Greg Hill, Ron Rivers and Sedrick Irvin combined for
970 yards in a Detroit offense that ranked 28th in the league in
rushing, down 18 spots from the previous season, when Sanders
ran for 1,491 yards. The Lions believe they have upgraded the
position significantly from 1999, but how will Stewart and his
blue-collar style play in Motown? "When we brought him in, we
told him he didn't have to carry the load [by himself]," says
Detroit coach Bobby Ross. "We've got a good passing game. What
we've asked him to do is be a big piece in the puzzle."
From a personality standpoint, Stewart and Sanders are
similar--unassuming, selfless and publicity-shy. Stewart says he
had one close friend in high school, another in college. In
Jacksonville, he says, he confided in fellow ballcarriers Taylor
and Natrone Means. That desire for privacy left many unaware of
how adversity has affected him.
Stewart has played a full NFL season only once, in 1997, and has
yet to have a 1,000-yard year. By the end of the '96 season he
was suffering from turf toe on both feet and had to watch as
Means rambled for 315 total yards in the two playoff victories
that propelled Jacksonville to the AFC Championship Game. Two
years later, after running for more than 100 yards in each of
his first two games, Stewart saw his season end in Game 3 when
he partially tore the ACL in his left knee on the Jaguars' third
snap of the game. On his first carry as Stewart's replacement,
Taylor, the team's rookie first-round draft choice, raced 52
yards for a touchdown, and he went on to set 29 team records
Stewart never complained about his misfortune, but he believes
the Jaguars lost faith in him way back in '95--the year he and
the team were NFL newcomers--when he gained 525 yards on 137
carries. Jacksonville signed Means the following March, and by
the start of the '97 season, Means was the primary back. "I
never got the chance to improve," says Stewart. "I was a rookie
on a franchise that was going to struggle. But it was like I was
being evaluated off one year when everything was new and we had
players who would've been third- and fourth-stringers on other
teams. I felt they didn't stick by me."
"We were satisfied with James's style of play," says Michael
Huyghue, Jacksonville's senior vice president of football
operations, noting that after last season, the Jaguars offered
Stewart $2.5 million per year to remain with the team and back
up Taylor. "We knew we couldn't play without two good backs in
this league. Chances are you're going to lose one along the way."
In fact, Taylor started only nine games last season because of
hamstring injuries. Stewart responded by rushing for a
career-high 931 yards, helping Jacksonville to a 14-2 record and
its first AFC Central title. "We wouldn't have done that without
him," says Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin. Still, Stewart was hurt
by comments in the media--some from his teammates--that the
offense would be better off with Taylor in the lineup.
Stewart won't have to worry about whether his style will suit
the Lions. Ross won in San Diego with big, straight-ahead backs
like Means, Rod Bernstine and Marion Butts, and he plans to
employ more of a power game this season. Detroit used its
first-round draft pick on Oklahoma tackle Stockar McDougle; he's
expected to start at left guard on a line that averages 6'4",
328 pounds. "Barry has an open-field style of running, whereas
James is more of a consistent runner who will get more four- or
five-yard runs," says Ross. "With James you have a guy who's
going to bend the pile back. I like that."
Ross also loves Stewart's character and notes how admirably the
28-year-old handled himself in Jacksonville in the face of
rejection. "I don't know what type of reaction I'll get here,"
Stewart says, "but I know one thing--it won't have anything to
do with my being from Tennessee."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER HOT COMMODITY Stewart has played only one full season since '95, but Detroit figures he's worth $5 million a year for the next five seasons.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER FITTING IN Plagued by a torn ACL and turf toe with the Jaguars, Stewart (34) has been a model of fitness at the Lions' minicamp.
"If you're looking for Barry [Sanders], you're going to be
disappointed," says Stewart. "I don't do razzle-dazzle."