Growing up in the San Bernadino Valley of Southern California, Texas A&M-Commerce Quarterback Harrison Stewart grew up seeing a lot of peaks and valleys.
The area around Yucaipa, California is full of stunning mountainous peaks and rich grassy valley that enhances the natural beauty of Southern California. For Harrison Stewart, this is not only his hometown, but where his journey began to collegiate gridiron glory. The scenic backdrop of his native state would provide to be a omen for how his future college football career would play out, full of both low, deep, and hard valleys, and some wonderfully glorious peaks.
“I will do it.”
It was the fall of 2008, Yucaipa High School was getting beaten badly by Corona Centennial High in the first round of the CIF State Football playoffs. At the half, YHS’s starting Quarterback was injured. There was no designated back-up, so the coaching staff asked, “Who is going to play quarterback the rest of this game?” One player, a 6’5 junior tight end raised his hand.
The Junior TE, Harrison Stewart raised his hand and said “I will do it.” That moment would put Stewart on a journey that would take him to the other side of the valley, Reno, San Diego, and eventually Northeastern Texas. Stewart stepped in and the beating his team was taking continued. Centennial was led by future University of Nebraska Quarterback Taylor Martinez. Stewart recalled “We got blown out. I don’t remember exactly the score, I think maybe 60 something to 14, but it was bad.”
His path would take a detour right after his one time appearance at quarterback. His family decided to move to Upland, a town 40 miles west. It was a tough decision that required sacrifice from everyone in Stewart’s family. “It was not an easy decision, and we all sat down and talked about it, but at the end of it, we felt it was better for everyone to make the move.”
Stewart would be moving schools right before his Senior year, but it would give him a chance to start fresh, including a shot to be what he wanted to be, a starting quarterback. Stewart sat down with his parents and told them he wanted to go for not only the starting job at Upland, but a potential spot playing college football. Most parents would have told their Son or Daughter to just play and graduate high school. Harrison’s parents, Harry and Sheree, told him not only to go for it, but to get ready to have a busy summer. He was going to be at a lot of quarterback camps that summer.
“I literally went everywhere on the West Coast for. I went to Stanford, USC, UCLA, Berkely, Arizona, Arizona State, Nevada, pretty much every Pac-12 school and some around the entire West Coast.” That would prove to be invaluable as he had a quite a slope to climb to get out of the valley he was in. Upland already had a starting quarterback. Stewart did battle with the incumbent QB for the first 5 games until he finally got to the top. Five games into the season, he unseated the incumbent and became the starting quarterback, something that many Southern California high school football analysts predicted might happen. With Stewart at the helm, the Highlanders finished the season 4-1 and went as a favorite into the CIF playoffs as a contender for a State Championship, but just as Harrison had gotten to the top of the mountain, he found out it was just as easy to get knocked off.
Prior the start of the CIF playoffs, Stewart was told by his coaching staff they would be reverting back to the old QB, as they felt it would give them a better chance to win it all in the Golden State. Despite his setback, he credits Upland Coach Tim Salter for supporting him and keeping him focused. “I was really disappointed to say the least, but it is in the past and is what it is.” The change proved to be something that would test the character of a young 17 year old. The Highlanders rolled into the State Championship game, but without Stewart as the man under center. “I had to put my feelings about starting aside and do what was best for the team. We were one game away from being State champions, I had to put it away and be ready if my number was called, Coach Salter really supported me and I am thankful to him for that.”
The Highlanders won the CIF State Championship a few weeks later, but it was not the end for Stewart, benched or not. A scout from Sacramento State University took a trek south to see what Stewart could do up close and personal, and offered him a scholarship on the spot, but when he was told that Stewart had an official visit to Nevada, the offer was suddenly pulled from SSU, but that would not be the silver bullet, as Stewart accepted an offer to Nevada from Chris Ault. Stewart graduated with a State Championship ring and headed east to Reno, where the ups and downs would become more frequent, and more challenging.
All the Way to Reno-
Stewart arrived on campus at Nevada and like any fresh faced 18 year old Freshman, he had to absorb his new surroundings, but unlike just surviving a first year, he had the task of playing Division I FBS college football, and the task of wondering if he even was in the right place. “Nevada ran a pure pistol option read, I mean the real thing. There was this guy who came in with me named Cody Fjardo who was also from California. He was fast and could run the offense better than any of the younger guys.” Fjarado would eventually become the starter and an All-WAC player. Stewart was starting to have serious doubts as to whether he had any chance whatsoever to play in an offense that did not play to his strengths, and eventually he realized that it was time to reset the clock, and go back down into a valley into his home state. After one Semester as a Division I player, his time in Reno was over and he moved back home to start over. “Nevada was a cool experience, and I don’t regret my time there. I learned a lot about what being a college football player. Getting to learn things from Chris Ault, and Colin Kaepernick, just getting to say I warmed up in practice with an NFL All-Pro is a blessing, and an experience that I will remember.”
Junior College and Jaded
After realizing a DI team was not the in cards for his current situation, Stewart did what anyone who wants to play does. He transferred to a Junior College. Enrolling at Grossmont College in El Cajon, California, he was closer to home than he had been. The situation looked good from the outside looking in, with no quarterbacks returning. “I felt that I would compete well and probably take the starting job, but somehow and someway, the coaching staff kind of soured on me. I went from being a contending starter to nothing basically.” Stewart was relegated to end of game junk time during his one season. After thinking about it, he realized this was once again that he was not in the right place. “I realized I had to make a change, but it was not just about playing time. The living expenses were super expensive, and there was no point in me spending money to stay down there and not get anything out of it, from either an education or football.”
After leaving Grossmont after the Fall of 2011, Stewart decided to try again the JUCO route, and again, his potential situation looked great from the outside. Looking at his situation, he saw a potential shot at Chaffey College in Alto Loma, much closer to his home. “I wanted a situation where it would not be as hard on my parents. They were coming to all my games and doing so much for me, I wanted to have a chance to play and it not be so hard on them.” He enrolled at Chaffey in the Spring 2012 semester, and in fall camp finally got what he had so wanted to taste, something he had not had in nearly 3 years, being the starting quarterback. He had found a plateau, but it was not a smooth one. “The situation at Chaffey was just plain bad. A lot of infighting, the team was dysfunctional, people always at odds, it was super tough.” Stewart found himself in yet another impossible situation. Trying to lead an offense that could not get along with each other on the field or off, coaches that refused to control players, and playing in the toughest JUCO conference in California. He was a starter and playing, but as he would find out, sometimes even something one wants badly is not worth the cost. Exhausted, jaded, and disappointed, he finished the season, and then the thought of being done with Football was no longer a fear, but a real possibility. He left school when the Fall of 2012 was over and moved back home with no intention of returning to Chaffey, or possibly ever playing Football again.
Time for Texas
Stewart moved back home with his parents in the spring, taking a job at a lumber yard. He worked out and stayed in shape, but not for a scout or college, he was all but through with that. “I just did not feel like playing.” He recalled. “I had seen the toll it took on my family, and on me. I just did not feel like being in school had a point either. I was done with JUCO classes, they had nothing left to offer me, academically or athletically.” Not knowing where to go from there, one day a phone rang, it was a college coach, and he wanted Stewart to come and play for him. His name was Colby Carthel.
Carthel had been named the head coach at Texas A&M-Commerce, a Division II school 60 miles northeast of Dallas. A&M-Commerce had a rich football tradition, but like Stewart, the program had been in the valley for well over a decade. From 1931-1996 the Lions won 21 Lone Star Conference Championships, went to the post season 8 times, and won a national championship in 1972 on a team that featured future NFL legend Harvey Martin. After the departure of the high successful Coach Eddie Vowell in 1998, the Lions were mired in mediocrity for the better part of 15 years, but Carthel was familiar with the tradition of the Lions, and he knew the potential to make them a winner again was there. He just needed his guys and his way of doing things.
“When he (Carthel) called me, he told me that I had a good chance to start, there was no promise of it, but the offer of my education getting paid for was a huge part. There was just this confidence he had. It was not cocky, it was a pure confidence that he could and would have the program winning again, and I should sign with him and be a part of it.” Stewart’s parents wanted their son to finish college, and he had a chance to renew his Football career. Impressed by Carthel, he decided to give Football one more shot. “I mainly decided to go to a good school and get it paid for” he recalls.
He was in for much more than that.
Arriving in rural Northeast Texas in the middle of July, Stewart had high spirits and high hopes. Sizing up his competition, he was cautiously optimistic. Unlike the last two places, he knew he would have to beat out two native Texans who were high school standouts. They were Deric Davis, a high school record setting QB from Arlington who had been the starter the previous year, and a fellow transfer Tyrik Rollison, a state champion from nearby Sulphur Springs and former Auburn Quarterback. This would be the toughest, and longest hill to climb.
Moving halfway across the country, Stewart did battle to get the starting job. As fall camp progressed, he found himself splitting reps with the first team offense along with Rollison. Stewart impressed the coaches, but Rollison was named the starter in the 2 weeks before the 2013 opener against Sul Ross State. Being the primary back-up did not mean he would never see action, regardless of the score. Carthel and Lions offensive coordinator Matt Storm created what is known by Commerce football fans as the “truck package.” With the Lions running a new offense, there was concern that the offense would sputter inside the 10 yard line. “We could move the ball really well between the 20’s, but so many of us were young, so we needed something simple to use to score touchdowns when we got down there.” The package would often feature 8-9 players lined up, with 1-2 receivers split out, and the quarterback typically in the backfield by himself. “Pretty much it was let’s line up, and either follow your blockers to the end zone, hand it off, or throw the ball on a predetermined route.” Stewart would be the QB running that package. “The staff felt that with my body build, I would be effective running it.” The Lions immediately turned their program around. After beating Sul Ross State 51-6, the Lions shocked the country by defeating a highly ranked Delta State team at AT&T Stadium. After 2 tough losses, they pushed their record to 4-2, but not without a price. In the middle of blowing out Texas A&M-Kingsville, Rollison went down with a high ankle sprain. Stewart took over the rest of the the game as the Lions notched their second straight Chennault Cup win. The next day the diagnosis was in, Rollison was out for the season, and now it was Stewart’s team.
“I was happy to be starting, but I felt like it was kind of cheap, not earned. I was in because someone else was injured. I did not want a guy to get injured just so I could play. The team was my first priority.” However that team now needed Stewart at his best for the rest of the season. His first start was against a potent McMurry team. “They ran the pure Air Raid, the Hal Mumme type. They had put up almost 60 points on West Texas, we knew they could score.” Making his first start, Stewart threw for 370 yards in a 65-43 shootout win. The next week, the Lions faced a much tougher test. Facing off against blood rival Tarleton State, the Lions had to take on a ranked Texans team on the road. In a defensive struggle, Stewart found himself driving for the game winning score and on fourth down and 13. Dropping back he fired a pass to WR Hayden Marsh from 22 yards out and the Lions held on to knock off their rival and beat Tarleton for the first time in 8 seasons. The rest of the season played out with two close losses to Eastern New Mexico and Angelo State. The turnaround of Lion Football had started with a 7-4 record and a bowl invite. The season ended with a 44-3 loss to Harding in the LiveUnited Texarkana Bowl. “We didn’t play well, to say the least, but the weather had delayed the Bowl nearly 2 weeks, but I had to learn that we needed to learn to play in the weather and in less than favorable conditions.” Stewart finished 4th in passing in the conference with 1,843 yards and 18 touchdown passes with 6 starts making appearances in all 12 games that season.
On the right road
After the 2013 season, Stewart had gotten back on track. He was not only a starting quarterback, but was getting his education paid for, admitted into the Business school at TAMUC, and felt at home in Commerce. Before the start of the 2014 season, Stewart had a sit down with Carthel who offered him an opportunity that was golden. “We found out that because I had not been in school during the Spring of 2013, I had one more semester that I could play Football. I was offered a red-shirt for the fall of 2014. That way I could absorb the offense and learn, and then compete for the starting spot in 2015. To me, it was a great plan. Now I see how staying out of school in 2013 ended up being for the better. I had planned on staying with Tyrik and Deric and graduating with them, but when Coach Carthel and I spoke, it was something I could not pass up.” Stewart suited up for every game, but never played to keep his redshirt status. He spent his time during the game with a headset on, learning about reading overages, play calling, and what the coaches were thinking. It proved to be an invaluable experience. The Lions went 9-3 and led the nation in passing and total offense, won the Lone Star Conference outright for the first time since the 1990 season and capped off the season with a bowl victory, the first post season win for the program since 1991.
The Peak-The 2015 season.
Stewart knew that he had to win the starting position and faced stiff competition from red-shirt sophomore Gabe Rodriguez. This was not the first time the two faced off, Rodriguez was the QB for McMurry during the 2013 season and had scored 43 points on the Lions defense. “I knew he could play.” said Stewart. Keeping his focus, Stewart was named starter. Many people had picked the Lions to be good but not great in 2015. A lot of firepower was gone, but the expectations in the program was still there to win. Stewart took the field as the uncontested starter in a 48-13 win over Adams State. The Lions suffered a setback the next week as they were downed by Delta State in a wild and controversial shoot-out, but as conference play started, the Lions kept on winning. On a cold and rainy homecoming game against Midwestern State, the Lions took down the 10 ranked team in the country, and Stewart celebrated with his family. “My Mom was crying she was so happy for me, and for the team. For what all of us had been through, it was just something amazing and to share it with my parents, who mean so much to me was extra special.” The season was not over yet. The Lions had to play Division I-FCS Sam Houston State in Huntsville. Falling behind early 21-3, Stewart and the Lions roared back in the third quarter. His 39 yard touchdown pass to Lance Evans to tie the game at 24 sucked the air out of Bowers Stadium. “Their fans were in shock. We were not, we wanted more.” Though the Lions ended up losing the game, the Lions were not just in the national playoff conversation, they were in the national title conversation. Midwestern State came back to Texas 2 weeks later in the conference playoff championship game, and took revenge, and the top seed in the playoff region 4 in a heartbreaking loss. Heartbreak turned quickly back into joy as the next day, the Lions were selected into the Division II playoffs. Their road was going to be tough, they had to head to Big Rapids, Michigan for a date with the number one team in the country, the Ferris State Bulldogs and Harlon Hill winner Jason Vander Laan. Oh, and it would be snowing heavily too. The Lions led at the half, but in the end the weather and Vander Laan’s superb play was too much for a Lion program back in the D2 playoffs for the first time since 1995. Stewart’s College journey ended with a 48-30 loss. Stewart had nothing to hang his head over. He had quarterbacked the Lions to their 24th conference/divisional title, was the top passer in the conference and would leave Commerce third in total passing yards. His final numbers were 5,016 yards and 48 TD passes and 11 wins as a starter.
Thankful to all and for it all.
If one word could describe Harrison Stewart, it would be thankful. He is thankful to his parents, Harry and Sherry for all the support and sacrifices. He gives them most of the credit for being where he is at now. “My parents, I just cannot say enough. I love them and what they have done for me and the support has just been unreal. They did everything they could possibly do for me. They are amazing.” Stewart also wants those from the outside to know how much support his entire family gave him during his journey that has spanned 7 years. He credits his older brothers Danny and Jason and younger brother Taylor for the support and love, despite being so far away. “Taylor was in Spain and would check to see how I was doing. That is brotherly love there.” His extended family also means a great deal to him. “I did not walk this alone. My papa (Tom Rundle) and nana (Bonnie Rundle) were always there for me. My Uncles (Jim Whitaker and Clem Gaul) and Aunts (Debbie Whitaker and Heather Gaul) were too. They never stopped supporting me, through everything they were there, and David Petta, he is my best friend who has seen me through all of this. I just cannot say how much I love all of them and how thankful I am to all of them for all they have done for me.”
Stewart is also eternally grateful to his private QB Coach, Coach Rossi. “Every opportunity I ever got was due to him, I owe him everything”, and Bobby Pleasent, who help see the transitions from the schools he had previously attended were as smooth as possible. “None of this would have happened without him helping me.”
Finally, he is thankful for his time in Commerce and the men that brought him there. “I am thankful first to Coach Carthel for picking up the phone and offering me the opportunity of a lifetime, and for always being honest and up front with me and teaching me about earning things. Also Coach (Matt) Storm and Coach Jared May. I spent so much time with these guys honing my skills and they were such a big part of my success. They all took a chance on me and gave me what I needed to succeed on the field and off, and very thankful to my teammates for voting me captain my Senior year. That meant a lot to be voted on by your peers and be given that opportunity to serve.”
As Harrison Stewart stands by Storm and May on the field at Memorial Stadium in Commerce, he is trying to pay it back by helping with the team in his final semester as a college student. He is working with the QB’s, getting them ready for the spring workouts and scrimmages to follow. With the North Texas breeze blowing and a championship ring on his finger, he is focused on finishing the last leg of his journey as he graduates with a Bachelor’s degree from A&M-Commerce’s Business School in May. He came to Commerce, America with just hoping to maybe play and get an education, and he got so much more and continues to get more than he bargained for.
A week ago, his phone rang, it was a scout for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. He will work out for the team in mid-March in Oklahoma, a stout mountain to climb.
But if Harrison Stewart faces this mountain the way he has faced the ones in the past 7 years, he can expect a beautiful peak at some point in the near future.