By Hannah Burleson // Athletic Communications
Senior linebacker Tony Steward had his choice of colleges coming out of Pedro Menendez High School. He was as a USA Today First-Team All American and rated as one of the best linebackers in the country.
Though Steward did not know much about the Tigers early on in his recruiting process, he quickly learned about the South Carolina institution after talking with some fellow athletes in his area.
“I didn’t know much about Clemson growing up in Florida,” admitted the Hastings, Fla. native. “Talking with some of the other guys from my area who were recruited by Clemson and some who ultimately came to Clemson opened my eyes.”
Steward decided to take a visit to Tigertown to see for himself what was so special about this place he kept hearing about. It did not take him long to realize that Clemson was where he wanted to be.
“I came to camp the summer heading into my junior year and that immediately put Clemson on the radar for me,” recalled #7. “I became very interested in Clemson. I was able to meet most of the coaches and got a feel for the place, not just the football aspect of things.”
Steward ultimately chose Clemson and wanted to be a part of the program Head Coach Dabo Swinney was building.
He contributed to the team his freshman year and was coming into his own under Kevin Steele’s system, but then an injury threw a wrench into his plan to contribute early and often. He tore a ligament in his knee, causing him to miss the last seven games of the 2011 season.
Along with rehabbing his ACL tear, his second in a year after tearing the other during his senior year of high school, Steward was forced to start from scratch and learn a new system when Brent Venables was hired as defensive coordinator prior to the 2012 season.
When asked what it was like to tear both ACLs and undergo a coaching change, all in a one-year span, he chuckled, “it wasn’t too bad.”
It turns out Steward liked the system that Venables was putting in motion, but the injury hampered him from adapting to the system on the gridiron, and not just by studying the playbook.
“The biggest thing after I got hurt and Coach Venables came in was catching on to his new system when I wasn’t able to get the reps,” explained Steward. “When I finally got in, repetition made a big difference in how I was able catch on so fast.”
Though Steward had heard about the Clemson Family, he experienced it first-hand after his injury.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a mentally-strong person, so that helped me get through that season, but also, all the support staff and coaches around here helped me mentally,” remarked Steward.
“I knew it would be a long process to get back on the field and contribute. I prayed a lot. It made me stronger in my faith. I continued to try to better myself and keep positive thoughts.”
After all of the adversity he faced, Steward is making great strides. Through the first three games of this season, he is Clemson’s top tackler with 21. Twelve of those came in the season-opener at No. 12 Georgia.
“It’s awesome to be back on the field and contribute to the team,” stated Steward. “It reassures me and hopefully everyone else that hard work does pay off. As long as you’re willing to work and put in the time, you will reap the benefits.”
During his injury and the transition period, Steward had support from the Clemson Family, his coaches and teammates. One teammate and friend who supported Steward along the way was fellow linebacker Stephone Anthony. Anthony and Steward came to Clemson in the same freshman class and bonded from the beginning.
“Stephone is an awesome guy,” smiled Steward. “When I got hurt, he reassured me that everything would be alright and we would be on the field together. Having him support me like that as a teammate and friend has helped bring us closer together.
“We are as close as anyone here. Because we play the same position, that helps a lot, too. We talk on the field and off the field. We are very tight.”
Now that Steward has hold of a starting linebacker role, something he has coveted, he plans to take full advantage.
“I hope to contribute to the team as much as possible,” he said. “I want to be a good player, but also continue to be a positive leader for the younger guys.”
Steward embraces the leadership role that comes with being a senior.
“I’ve always enjoyed being a leader. Most of my life I’ve been a silent leader, but here I have to be a vocal one. It hasn’t been too hard of an adjustment…I’ve eased into it. I have so many other good senior leaders around me that it makes it easy. We all do our part.”
Steward thinks this team has the potential to be special and is excited to see what the future holds for the 2014 Tigers.
“What makes our team special is the chemistry we all have,” stated Steward. “The sky is the limit for this team. As long as we continue working hard, everything should take care of itself.”
As far as plans after graduation, Steward hopes to stay around the game of football and be a positive role model for younger kids.
“I would love to pursue football at the next level, but if it’s not meant to be, I will use my degree to get a job in the sports field. I want to work with kids, whether it’s at a community recreation center, coaching, a boys & girls club or even athletes at the college level.”
There is no doubt Clemson is the place he was meant to be, and he now embraces being a part of the Clemson Family, something he only learned of in 2009, but cannot imagine his life without.
“The Clemson Family is an extension of my immediate family,” added Steward. “I’m from so far away, but it feels like I’m home here. Clemson makes it easy to be a part of the family and makes you feel welcome. From my first visit on, I knew this place was special.”
Tony Steward, the Clemson Family thinks you are pretty special, too.
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