By: Justin Felisko September 04, 2014@ 07:00:00 PM
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Nine years ago, an 18-year-old Harve Stewart was an undersized outside linebacker patrolling the defensive side of the football field for Stephenville High School when a highly-touted quarterback from Highland Park High School named Matthew Stafford was lining up under center across from him at the University of North Texas’ Fouts Field.
It was the 2005 Texas 4A Division I state semifinal game, and Stewart, who had temporarily given up bull riding in the fall to focus on these kinds of moments, and his Stephenville teammates were coming off a thrilling double-overtime 26-23 win over Plainville High School.
They were one win away from the coveted 4A state title game.
“I was pretty nervous because we knew that was going to be the state game,” Stewart recalled. “Whoever won that game was going to win state. When we went into halftime we were down by quite a bit (27-17), so that kind of lit a fire under us.”
The Yellow Jackets rallied to take a 38-34 lead on Highland Park with 8:07 remaining, but Stafford would connect on his fourth touchdown pass of the game by finding Holt Martin for a 7-yard score with 37.7 seconds left on the scoreboard.
Highland Park defeated Stephenville 41-38 in one of the most thrilling Texas high school football games of the last decade and went on to win the 4A state title 59-0 against Marshall.
“We ended up losing that game right at the end,” Stewart said. “We were winning and we ended up turning the ball over and they scored to win it.”
Ever since that fall 2005 state semifinal game, Stewart and Stafford have both gone on to bigger and better things in their athletic careers. Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, has since made his NFL debut and kicks off the 2014 season under center for the Detroit Lions on Monday night against the New York Giants.
On the other hand, Stewart left his cleats and No. 23 jersey behind in Stephenville in exchange for a bull riding vest and chaps in the PBR and will be climbing aboard 2,000 pounds of muscle this weekend at the Jack Daniel’s Invitational in Nashville, Tennessee.
However, many years ago the tough-as-nails senior got a lick or two on the Lions’ now-prized quarterback on the University of North Texas field that Stewart passes every year on his way to the BFTS event in Thackerville, Oklahoma.
“I got to tackle him, so that was pretty cool,” a humble, yet proud Stewart recalled. “I don’t know if I ever got a sack, but I got a tackle or two (on him).”
There is no hiding the fact that Stewart, who is listed in this year’s PBR media guide at 5-foot-9-inches and 160 pounds, was completely undersized to play outside linebacker for the Yellow Jackets.
Stephenville High School football coach and Athletic Director Joseph Gillespie remembers, “He was about 145 pounds suited up soaking wet and played like he was 190 pounds and 6-foot tall. He was afraid of absolutely nothing and would stick his nose in there. He was just a tough kid and a lot of it probably has to do with that bull riding.”
Stewart began to demonstrate the same toughness he has inside the bucking chutes when he first strapped on his helmet and shoulder pads in seventh grade. He eventually worked his way up the Stephenville High School football ranks, earning a spot on varsity in 2004 before becoming an all-district first team linebacker during his senior year at a playing weight around 170 pounds, according to Stewart.
Even to this day, Gillespie shows his current players film of a relentless Stewart bull rushing off the line of scrimmage and leaping his way with outstretched arms to block an extra point, field goal or punt. Gillespie was coaching Stephenville’s linebackers in 2005 and on many occasions Stewart would try to get his good coach to suit on up inside the bucking chute to no avail.
“I am a ball coach, not a bull rider,” Gillespie would respond with a laugh.
Stewart was not the only bull rider to suit up for Gillespie over the years in Stephenville — a Texas town of more than 17,000 people that also produced nine-time World Champion Ty Murray and NFL quarterback Kevin Kolb.
Along with bull riders, Gillespie also coached some bronc riders and other rodeo athletes. There was always a common theme among the Western sport athletes that put on the navy and gold Stephenville helmet.
“The common characteristic with all those kids, and I can’t get away from it, is just their toughness,” Gillespie said. “That is the common characteristic with all those kids. They are not just good football players; they had a toughness about them physically and mentally.”
Douglas Duncan (Alvin High School) and Stormy Wing (Decatur High School) also played Texas High School football.
Stewart never complained about injuries, and if he was ever hurt, well, Gillespie wouldn’t have known.
One of the biggest lessons Stewart took away from his four years of high school ball was having a “no lose” mentality in everything he does. He knew all along in high school that he wanted to be a professional bull rider, so he didn’t pursue football in college, instead opting for Tarleton State University on a rodeo scholarship.
Still, sweating his tail off in those hot, humid days of Texas high school football taught him plenty.
“Man football has helped me throughout my whole life, just going at everything 100 percent,” Stewart said. “You know if you are going to screw up, screw up going 100 percent and things might work out. It teaches you a lot of life lessons. It has given me the same kind of mental attitude riding bulls that I had playing football.
“Just like riding bulls, you have to stay calm until the moment comes,” he said. “Relax on the outside, but on the inside you are ready to tear something up.”
All of the offseason and in-season training programs Stewart participated in at Stephenville also have helped him develop a solid foundation for how to weight train and remain in good shape as a professional bull rider. He is also one of a group of BFTS riders that have trained alongside NFL players at Michael Johnson Performance in McKinney, Texas.
Stewart is currently 33rd in the world standings and heads into Nashville this weekend looking for an important ride or two after being the last man added to the draw for this weekend’s event.
Originally, Stewart was the odd rider out, but Kasey Hayes had to withdraw due to a fractured jaw and that has given Stewart another opportunity to earn points to remain on the PBR’s top tour.
Following this weekend, Stewart, who still “loves” football and watches the NFL when he can, may even turn on the television on Monday night to see his senior-year-foe take the field in Detroit.
“It is cool to see someone you played against get that big and have that much success doing what they love to do,” Stewart said. “More power to him, I hope he kicks ass out there.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko.
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