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October 27, 2009

Stewart Beating the Odds

With all the interest in Walter Stewart and his rise up the depth chart. We thought it would be fitting to repost a story we wrote over a year ago.

One of the budding stars in Cincinnati's 2008 football recruiting class is redshirt freshman Walter Stewart. The 6' 5"/210 pound defensive end would seem an unlikely candidate to physically whip the endless supply of 300+ pound offensive tackles in today's college football, but Stewart is beating the odds both on and off the gridiron.

Nichelle Stewart gave birth to Walter on June 21, 1990 as a single parent, and as Walt entered adolescence on the east side of Columbus with no male role model in his life, his relationship with his mother began to crumble with each advancing year. The deteriorating situation between mother and son came to a head the summer after Walt's eighth grade year at Eastmoor Middle School when he decided to run away. The stunt resulted in Walter being taken away from his mother and being placed in foster care.

The state of Ohio put Walter in the home of Keith and Lynn Fields. The young Caucasian couple lived in Franklin Heights (west side of Columbus) and had an infant daughter of their own at the time. Little did Stewart know then that his life was about to take a major turn for the better.

For the first time in his life, the teenager had a much needed father figure. Stewart has never met his father, and actually has no idea who he is.

Keith Fields could identity with the youngster's pain and confusion because Fields himself was in the foster care system from the time he was six years old until emancipating himself at the age of eighteen. But the successful florist and concessionaire also knew his task was a daunting one.

According to foster care advocates, one out of every four foster children who "age out" end up incarcerated within two years, and one out of five become homeless. Less than half graduate from high school or get a GED, and only 3% graduate from college.

Keith Fields paints an even bleaker picture. "Last time I looked, only 25% of all foster kids graduate from high school. I believe 75% of all foster kids end up in prison at some point in their life. I always tell my kids their ticket to making it in life is to graduate from high school. If they can do that, they have a shot."

As can be expected, there were plenty of problems during Walt's first two years with the Fields, but steady progress was made. After Stewart's sophomore year at Franklin Heights, he was faced with making a major decision. Walt and his mother had completed extensive counseling with both sides making the necessary changes in their lives to give Walt a new life option. He could return home with his mother or continue to live with the Fields.

Complicating an already tough decision was the fact that the Fields were preparing to move to Ashville, Ohio which meant the black, inner-city teen would be living in a community that was 97% white. In fact, Ashville's demographics don't even list "blacks" or "African Americans" as a group so there is fewer that 1% living in the town. Nevertheless, the fifteen-year-old still chose to stay with the Fields and face the unknown of living in a totally different environment and attending Teays Valley High School. He knew his life was on the right track and was willing to take a risk to keep it there.

"Franklin Heights was like and inner-city school, but when I went to Teays Valley, I thought it (race) could be a problem. But the people out there are good so everything was alright," said Stewart.

Walter wasn't the only person worried about how he'd be welcomed in the new school district. "It did cross our mind, and we worried about how he'd be accepted," said Keith Fields. "At that time, we had a few more black kids living with us so we were quite concerned."

Those concerns quickly evaporated as Walt won over everyone at Teays Valley High School with his performance in the classroom and on the football and basketball teams. Stewart became a captain on the football team, and it was not uncommon to hear the Viking crowd chanting his name at tipoff during most basketball games. Keith says Walt is still treated like a celebrity whenever he returns to his alma mater.

Fields believes Walt has become a positive role model for all the other children that have since been welcomed into the Fields' home. "Of all the kids we've had, Walt has excelled the best. He's had the best grades and the best attitude. He's helped the other kids we've had by being someone they can look up to. The last two or three kids we had were borderline if they were going to make it or not, but watching Walt helped them."

It would be easy to paint Nichelle Stewart as a villain in all of this since she obviously had her own demons to exorcise, but Fields believes Walt's mother deserves a great deal of credit for this happy ending. "We've had 28 or 29 foster kids, but she was by far the best parent because she always wanted what was best for Walt. From the first day we met her, she thanked us and told us that she loved us for helping her son."

Nichelle Stewart now lives in Atlanta, Georgia with Walt's younger brother and three half brothers, and the relationship with Walt has been totally rebuilt. Mother and son talk on the phone and plan to see each other this Christmas.

Even though that mother/son connection has been repaired, Walt's "home" is in Ashville, Ohio at the Fields' house, and he returns whenever he can. The family unit always varies in size depending on how many foster children reside with the Fields' biological daughters Logan and London and adopted son Blake. The Fields have had as many as five foster children at one time.

Legally, Walt has no connection to the Fields' family, but Keith always refers to the boy that became a man under his roof as his "son." And like an extremely dedicated father, he hasn't missed a Cincinnati football game this season even though Walt is redshirting.

Both Keith and Lynn attended Ohio State University and described themselves as "huge Buckeye fans," but Keith said they will be in Miami on New Year's Day to see Walt run onto the field for the Orange Bowl.

When asked about the most significant moment in Walt's development, Keith remembered an incident that occurred during Walt's freshman year. "I thought Walt was being too much of a follower, and Walt and I got into an argument about it. The very next day a kid called before school, and Walt didn't know I was on the phone listening."

Keith continued. "The guy asked Walt to come over and smoke some 'weed.' I didn't know how to handle it, but I drove by the guy's house and waited. About 15 minutes later, here came Walt and another one of our foster kids on their bikes. I stopped them and told Walt that was exactly what I was talking about. He wasn't being a leader. That night he came to me and cried and said he knew he wouldn't make anything of his life if he kept making those kinds of mistakes. From that point forward, he got it. We still had some mistakes, but he was headed in the right direction."

In addition to serving as Walt's father, Keith also occupies another important role, that of being the family chef. "I do all the cooking, and Walt is a huge eater. He came to us and he was about 6' 1" and 120 pounds. He was nothing but skin and bones. Four years later he had put on 80 pounds." Adding even more weight will be one of Stewart's biggest challenges as he prepares to compete for playing time next season.

Keith couldn't help but laugh when remembering some of Walt's unofficial visits. "Every school we went to- Northwestern, Indiana, Ohio State, they would all tell me, 'Coach, thanks for bringing him.' Then I'd say, 'Coach? I'm his dad!' I'm a white guy and I'm only about 5' 7". I'd ask them, 'You mean you can't tell?' Even at Cincinnati, Coach Hinton said the exact same thing to me."

Bearcat MVP Connor Barwin is excited about Walt's future at UC. "Having a guy like Walt has been fun for me. I see him kind of in the situation that I was in coming out of high school. He needs to add some weight to play on this level, but he's a guy that already has the athletic ability and speed to make him pretty good. I hope he looks up to me and tries to emulate what I've done."

With the help of a foster family and teammates like Connor Barwin, Walter Stewart isn't just beating the odds, he's totally destroying them. And the lanky kid that used to get into trouble could soon return to his olds ways and become the scourge of the Big East Conference.



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