The years fly by, his maturity escalates and suddenly Lee Stewart III is a senior, contemplating graduate school and dealing with the finality of his University of Saint Francis football career.
It's a whirlwind and he wouldn't trade it for anything.
“It's bittersweet being a senior,” he said. “It's your last year and you kind of don't want to leave it. You have to make sure you take that step to be a leader on the field, make sure everyone knows what they need and make sure everyone knows discipline is the key. To be a good team, you have to be real disciplined.”
Stewart, a safety from Lima, Ohio, is easy to spot on the practice field. He charges and tackles at 100 mph and if he's on the sidelines watching the second- or third-string defense playing, he's hollering, exhorting, staying in the moment.
“Especially as a senior, you have to make the most of every day,” he said. “It's starting to count down now.”
As NAIA No. 1 Saint Francis preps for its Sept. 2 opener at Jamestown, N.D., Stewart embodies the directive to attack and make every day count. He's a psychology major with an immediate goal of grad school, possibly at Georgia State in Atlanta, to become a forensic psychologist.
As a senior, he's a natural leader, and his job description as a boundary safety includes being a force in the run defense as well as the pass defense. He's taxed with handling both aspects of the defense, as well as understanding how to camouflage defensive coverage to confuse a quarterback.
“He's probably the best tackler at safety and one of the better tacklers on the team,” Saint Francis co-defensive coordinator Joey Didier said. “He does a great job of being that extra player in the box. As you see at practice, he's the energetic guy. He's more of an enforcer. He brings some excitement to practice.”
One of four boys raised by his single mother, Yolanda Gibbs, Stewart chose Saint Francis over three other colleges and battled the usual impatience to get on the field.
He was an outside linebacker as a freshman, then moved to free safety to back up then-senior Cale Tabler and finally moved to the boundary or strong safety role.
It wasn't always an easy path because Stewart is headstrong and competitive.
“He was about five or six minutes away from me telling him to go away,” Didier said. “We had some lack of communication issues between his freshman and sophomore year. We had some ups and downs, but now it's an extreme up. He's come a long way, and he's going to be a main key in our defense.”
Stewart and his three brothers play or played basketball, but he's the only one to develop into a football player. He said he was influenced heavily by a youth coach, Tony Wilkerson, and fell in love with the game. He became a standout player at Lima Central Catholic.
“Football is such a team atmosphere,” Stewart said. “You don't get that in basketball. You have five people on the court and one person can lead the thing. On the football field, it takes all 11.”
Stewart said he learned from Tabler, Seth Stuart and others when he was a younger player at Saint Francis, and tries to pass that on to players following him in the program, such as Blake Schumacher.
Stewart had a big interception late in Saint Francis' regular-season win over Marian in 2015 and became a full-time starter last season. He finished fifth on the team with 63 tackles (40 solo). He also had one interception and six pass breakups.
Stewart said the primary lesson he's trying to impart to younger players is the importance of daily work if the Cougars are going to repeat as NAIA national champions.
“We have to get better every day,” Stewart said. “We can't come out and practice and let a day pass us by. Being at the top of the mountain, we have a target on our backs.”
Stewart believes the Cougars' ability to push each other in practice is a huge help. He regularly must deal with quarterback Nick Ferrer and running back Justin Green, two of the best in the NAIA.
“It's very helpful,” Stewart said. “We ask Nick to come out and give us his best every day, because that'll take us to the next level. Tackling Justin every day and trying to read off Nick and all the play calling he's doing – you see a lot of things open up and things you don't realize. When you go up against quarterbacks and running backs that aren't as talented, things will seem a little easier.”
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