FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Chris Stewart spent his last season at Notre Dame studying constantly.
Law textbooks and football playbooks. Legal defenses and defensive formations.
That was his life — morning, afternoon and night — as a law school student who also anchored the Fighting Irish’s offensive line.
“Everybody thought I was nuts,” Stewart said with a big smile. “I think people still think I’m nuts. I even think I’m nuts sometimes. It’s a good preparation for life, though.”
Especially for the rigorous summer days of an NFL training camp. The undrafted free agent left guard still wants to be a lawyer, but he’s got plenty of time for that. He’s focused now only on trying to make the New York Jets’ roster.
“If it’s not football, it’s not worthwhile,” Stewart said. “I never intended to go to law school and I never intended to do all this stuff. I was blessed enough to do it and I took advantage of it, but this has always been my dream. This is what I’ve always wanted to do was play football, and to actually play for the Jets is even better.”
The jury’s still out on whether he makes it past training camp and earns a spot on the team. Coach Rex Ryan likes Stewart’s aggressive nature. Offensive line coach Bill Callahan says Stewart is a talented, hardworking player.
“He’s an interesting prospect,” Callahan said. “I think he does have a future in this league, absolutely. I’m going to try to do my best to see that he makes it.”
Stewart, 23, is used to taking the difficult road to success, so this is nothing new to him. After redshirting during his freshman year at Notre Dame in 2006, Stewart considered transferring. He had bounced from the offensive line to nose tackle and back to offensive line. Stewart was frustrated and felt out of place.
“It was nerve-racking,” he said. “It kind of taught me how to stick through things, though. The toughest times in my life were probably back then as a sophomore and probably during the NFL lockout. You just have to keep working and try to emerge.”
That’s exactly what Stewart did, becoming a fixture on the Irish’s line and graduating early with a history degree and a 3.5 grade-point average. He then applied for a fifth year of eligibility after the 2009 season and was accepted into Notre Dame Law School.
Instead of choosing between football or law school, Stewart went with both — a rarity in major college athletics.
“I decided that if I was going to have this time and Notre Dame was paying, I might as well do something worthwhile,” he said. “I did a few internships and decided that was the route I wanted to go. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t fun at all. But, it was very worthwhile.”
After all, he couldn’t give up on his football dreams, and his parents mostly agreed.
“They were very supportive, but they also thought I was a little crazy,” he said with a laugh. “They basically said that if anyone can do it, I could, so they believed in me.”
Before marrying Stewart’s father, George, Lusia Harris was a three-time All-American in basketball at Delta State and helped lead the United States to a silver medal in the 1976 Olympics. She’s also a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and was the first and only woman ever officially drafted by an NBA team — by New Orleans in 1977.
“My mom has a lot of plaques and trophies and every Hall of Fame,” Stewart said, “so, it was a great thing to grow up with, to have that kind of background — to reach for a goal and continue with it.”
Stewart made it through his first year of law school and has about two more to go. But if all goes right, he won’t be finishing up anytime soon. He’s currently listed as second on the Jets’ depth chart behind starter Matt Slauson and should see plenty of time against Houston in New York’s preseason opener Monday night.
“He’s raw, but he also has really good tools,” Slauson said. “Brandon Moore and I talk about him all the time, and we think he actually has really good feet. His steps are perfect. He just has to figure out how to bring it all together.”
Stewart, who’s from Houston, said he’ll have at least 20 friends and family members at Reliant Stadium.
“It’s a dream to be able to do this,” Stewart said. “A couple of months ago, I had no idea where I was going to be and now I’m going to be in an NFL game.”
Stewart went undrafted and wondered when — and if — the NFL lockout would end. He also had no clue if he’d even be signed when he did. So, he filled his time interning as a clerk at the Lanier Law Firm in Houston and trying to stay in shape.
“That was life,” Stewart said. “I was pretty concerned. And then, the Jets called.”
For now, protecting quarterbacks is his top priority. Defending clients or prosecuting criminals — he hasn’t decided which — will wait until his football dream is over.
“Hopefully that’s not for a while,” he said. “I’ll definitely finish, though. One of my professors said it would be a very intimidating thing for me to walk into the courtroom as a prosecutor, so he’s tried to push me in that direction.”
Yep, imagine a 6-foot-5, 331-pound, muscle-bound mountain of a man arguing cases.
“It’s kind of so far down the road for me in my head, so if it happens, it happens,” Stewart said. “Hopefully I’ll still have hair then and my dreads, so that would be even more intimidating. We’ll see — someday.”