Sept. 1, 2016
Andy Demetra | Inside The Chart –
Brad Stewart felt the weight of expectation before he ever stepped foot inside Savannah’s Benedictine Military School.
“When I got there as a freshman, everyone was like, ‘Oh, that’s Jim Walsh’s grandson,’” Georgia Tech’s sophomore wide receiver recalls.
Stewart’s grandfather, Jim Walsh Sr., was the legendary head football coach at the all-boys’ Catholic school, winning 224 games from 1970 to 1994. A former fullback at Auburn, Walsh’s résumé includes 10 city titles, six region titles and induction into the Greater Savannah Athletic Hall of Fame.
After retiring as Benedictine’s athletic director, Walsh served as a volunteer coach for Stewart’s middle school team. On the practice field, he didn’t always play doting grandfather.
“He would always mess with me – ‘That wasn’t that good of a play,’ ‘You could have done better,’” Stewart said. “That motivated me even more to try and impress him and try to get his good word. When it was deserved, he did [give praise]. But he always came back with the fact that you can never be too good. You can never succeed too much. Keep striving for more and more.”
That mentality has enabled Stewart, the last member of Paul Johnson’s 2015 signing class, to surge to the top of the depth chart when the Yellow Jackets open their season against Boston College on Saturday (7:30 a.m. ET, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network). The 6-1, 197-pound wideout says he’s ready to make an impact.
“Going into my freshman year, I knew the basics, but I didn’t know all the details and the options and the defenses. Going into this spring and after this camp, I feel like I’m going to be a brand-new player this year,” he said.
Stewart had a decorated career at Benedictine himself, earning Georgia Class AA Player of the Year honors and leading the Cadets to their first state championship in 2014. Athletically he may have been even more impressive: student body president as a senior, a 4.3 GPA and third in his graduating class. He planned on grayshirting at Tech before a scholarship opened up shortly before Signing Day. That may not seem like a typical trajectory for a freshman starter, especially on a team coming off an Orange Bowl victory. Yet when injuries racked the Yellow Jackets’ receiving corps, Stewart became the beneficiary, making his first career start against Duke on Sept. 26. He finished the year with seven catches for 93 yards; none was bigger than his 36-yard grab on a 4th-and-6 late in the fourth quarter of the Jackets’ upset over No. 9 Florida State. The catch set up Harrison Butker’s game-tying field goal.
His teammates believe he has more clutch moments ahead of him.
“He has really great hands. His routes are almost perfect. I think that’s going to help him a lot,” said redshirt junior wide receiver Ricky Jeune. Jeune also marvels at Stewart’s athleticism — at 6-1, he can throw down windmill dunks with ease.
The desire to create highlights has grown stronger lately. Jim Walsh Sr., 84, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He was recently moved into an assisted living facility with his wife Barbara – Brad’s grandmother – of 53 years.
Stewart says his grandfather still has his long-term memory but retaining new bits of information is more tenuous.
“It’s funny. Every time I have a conversation with him, we’ll be talking. He always brings up, ‘So, where are you going to school?’ I always tell him Georgia Tech. Because he went to Auburn, he’s always like, ‘Y’all don’t play Auburn anymore, do y’all?’ And I always mess with him, like ‘No, Auburn doesn’t want to play us.’”
On fall Saturdays, Stewart’s parents, Brandon and Wendy, or a friend from Benedictine will go to Walsh’s apartment and make sure the Georgia Tech game is on for him. Watching his grandson puts a smile on his face (even if Brad’s leonine locks would no longer pass inspection at his old military school).
“Once he realizes it’s me, he’s just all for it and happy and supportive of me,” Stewart said.
He’ll likely be watching when the Yellow Jackets kick off Saturday. Whatever accolades Stewart and Georgia Tech achieve this year, he’ll always remember the piece of advice Jim Walsh Sr. – decorated coach, devoted grandfather – hammered into him as a youngster.
“’Always stay humble,’” Stewart recalled. “Realize you’ve got to keep working as hard as you did before all of this happened.”