Purple Mafia Profile: Matt Stewart, Author of “The Walk-On”

Walk On Book Cover

I know, it’s not about me. I get it. However, certain things set off the passion button for me and the word “walk-on” is one of them. I admittedly get choked up at Rudy every single time even though I despise Notre Dame. I’ve got an unofficial memory bank for NU all-time greats (ie Barry Gardner, Sam Valensizi etc..) that were once walk-ons. Why? Because in college I so desperately wanted to be one. Granted, it was for basketball, but the point remains this is soft-spot city subject matter for me. I was the last one cut from Bill Foster’s final year in Evanston. The list of 65 or so players was whittled down to three guys, with me being one of them and as a sophomore I was told Coach Foster chose Tommy Kramer, my fraternity brother, “because he is a senior and all things being equal, coach doesn’t want to have to make a multi-year commitment”. I was that close to actually dressing for the ‘Cats and toiling away for night and day at the mere chance of getting in a game at Assembly Hall down 30.  So, when a guy like Matt Stewart comes knocking about his new book “The Walk-On: Inside Northwestern’s Rise From Cellar Dwellar To Big Ten Champ”, I say “how can I help?”.

Well, for starters I read the book. This is must read material for any Northwestern football fan. Most of you have read Gary Barnett’s “High Hopes” (if you’re a younger guy/gal and haven’t, get it on Amazon – truly must-read material). This should be the companion book to it as Barnett offered his perspective, Matt Stewart offers his player perspective. I couldn’t help ying and yang between the two as the plot line is the same (rags to riches football story), but the journey line was incredibly different.

Stewart was an unrecruited walk-on – the ONLY unrecruited walk-on in 1993 as he details his trip from Nebraska to Evanston and the culture shock he experienced having grown up in Husker Nation. The Walk-On is very chronilogical in nature starting with his trip to college and then offering a blow by blow of each season.  What endeared me to this book was the unfiltered approach Stewart took. He pulls no punches and directly names certain players, like fomer OL Matt O’Dwyer (who I happened to live with freshman year, by sheer coincidence) and how his attitude was borderline cancerous to the team. He discusses his disgust with Dennis Lundy and the sense of betrayal he felt from the guy who was at the center of a point shaving scandal. Stewart candidly discusses moments where he was pissed at Barnett or Jerry Brown or Ron Vanderlinden and fesses up to the insecurities he had all along the journey.

To me, the two most poignant moments in The Walk-On are the moment Gary Barnett called Stewart in to his office after his sophomore year and Matt thought he might be getting asked to leave the team and Barnett offered him a scholarship. Stewart describes the emotion and how he was so moved he was almost in tears. Conversely, after suffering an injury and regressing in spring ball, the fear he had that Barnett was going to pull his scholarship (which nearly happened).

As a guy who was in school and personally knew many of the people in the book, this one hit close to home.  One of my favorite things about interviewing former players like Zak Kustok, Damien, Darnell and the host of others we’ve had on LTP is the additional insights or “I never knew that!” moments that surface from games that you knew so well.  For Matt, he describes how Keith Jackson called his name on national TV in the ’95 Penn State game and it was for infamy. You’ll remember the play where Penn State was punting and the ball richocheted off a punt coverage guy and Penn State recovered. Well, as you’ll learn in this book, it was Matt. On the flip side, there are some great moments he had springing Brian Musso on a punt return and he specifically recalls in the book one of the moments where he stepped up as an on the field leader and grabbed everyone together prior to Musso’s ’95 punt return TD vs Iowa and essentially called the shot. It is this type of nuance to a moment you already know that keep you wanting more in this book. I also came away even more impressed with Barnett’s motivational skills as you can feel the impact through Matt’s recollections. Simply put, take a few minutes, visit Matt’s website here and purchase the book for you and that NU fan in your family.

Let’s get in to the Q&A…

 LTP: My overall takeaway of the book was “unfiltered”. By that, I mean, you really told it like it was, you detailed your insecurities, frustrations and weren’t afraid to talk about specifics with players who were issues in the early Barnett years. I applaud you for that as it added to the authenticity. What was the motivation for writing this
book and why now?

MS: I always knew the story of Northwestern football’s turnaround from the player’s perspective would make a great read.  I just expected someone else to write it.  At our ten-year Rose Bowl reunion in 2005, I realized none of my teammates had any intention of writing a book – so I decided to do it.  It wasn’t a stretch for me to undertake this project – I do write for a living.  I’m a Medill grad and the morning anchor at KCTV5, the CBS-affiliate in Kansas City.  My mom had saved the tapes from every NU football game my junior and senior year along with the media guides and newspaper clippings.  I had all the tools to do the research and get my facts right, and I took my time putting it together.  But besides documenting an amazing time in Northwestern football history, I also wanted to share the walk-on experience with the millions of young athletes out there who are not being recruited or offered a scholarship but still dream of playing college sports.  It takes a lot of courage to walk-on.  It’s tough.  But with hard work and determination, anyone can find success.  I’m living proof of that.  And I hope this book inspires them to give it a try.

LTP: How did those years of slaving away with rarely making the field or even traveling with the team early on impact you in your life today?

MS: I started my college football career as the fifth-string free safety.  It‘s humbling when you’re looking up from the bottom of the depth chart, stuck on the scout team with no opportunity to play.  I wanted the coaches to notice me, but they didn’t and my attitude soured.  I was miserable!  But then I realized I couldn’t control what they thought of me.  I could only control what I did on the field.  So instead of sulking, I changed my approach and started attacking every play. I went after it. I got better The coaches began to notice and I quickly rose up the depth chart.  

My hard work and positive attitude paid off, and by my sophomore year, I was playing on Saturday afternoons.I’ve had the same experience with my career.  At every television station I’ve worked at, I’ve risen up the ranks.  The last three stations I worked at, I was hired as a photographer and worked my way up to an anchor.  I attack each day at work the same way I used to attack practice – I keep a positive attitude and I work hard to get better with the confidence that my boss will notice my effort and give me an opportunity to rise up the depth chart.  And so far, at every station I’ve worked, that’s exactly what’s happened.

Matt Stewart, author of The Walk-On donning his Rose Bowl season uni

LTP: Tell us about your perspective of Fitz from a guy who was with him in the lockerroom on a daily basis. What type of lockerroom guy was he? How did he go about his business? What signs did you see then, if any, that led you to know he would become the face of not only our program, but in some ways the entire university?

MS: I have always had the utmost respect for Pat Fitzgerald. From day one, he brought an intensity and focus to every meeting, every practice, every single thing he did. He wanted to win and had no patience for anyone with other agendas. He was also very humble and deflected praise to the rest of the defense. He’d be the first to say the reason he was such a dominating linebacker was because the defensive line and ends filled the lanes, took on the blockers, and filtered the running back to him.

When Pat spoke, everyone listened. He was very vocal.  Did I think that he would one day be the head coach of NU? Not necessarily.  But I’m not surprised. He has the qualities you want in a leader, and he knows more than anyone what it takes to build a championship team. If you polled every single player from the ’95-’96 years, I guarantee you 100% of the team would say we believe Pat will bring another Big Ten title to NU.

LTP: What did you leave out of the book that you really debated to have in? Why?

MS: That’s a tough question. I left some things out because I didn’t want to present any allegations without the facts to support it. For example, my freshman year, one of our top players was kicked off the team. I know why, but without any court documents to prove it, I didn’t want to risk any legal repercussions so I left the reason out. There are other allegations I’d rather not get in to because that’s all they were – allegations. But if I could prove it, I put it in. I also left out some of my personal experiences outside of football because even though the book is about me, I wanted the focus to stay on football. No one really cares about the names of the girls I dated. No one cares about what I learned at Medill to become a journalist. I just put in the personal experiences that helped shape me into the man I am today.

LTP: It’s interesting that you detailed the specific plays that I’ve known well in my memory banks. You mention the Penn State puntrichocheting off your leg and Keith Jackson calling your name whichmany of us remember. You also mention several Brian Musso punt return and your role in springing him – several of which are memorable
including the Iowa TD. Which play is your alltime favorite and why?

MS: My all-time favorite play would be my last second interception against Purdue my senior year (ed: 1996) that helped us secure a second Big Ten title. It’s my favorite because after all the years of feeling disrespected, of not getting a chance to play more, of lifting, running, and working hard in the shadows to help our team win, I was finally able to get a moment in the limelight. It was the reward for four years of blood, sweat and tears. By the way, don’t tell the Big Ten, but I kept the ball and still have it in my basement! 

LTP: I won’t tell Delany. One of my favorite elements of this book was the player perspective of Gary Barnett and his masterful motivation techniques. I’d read about them in High Hopes and had also heard about several of them from
covering the team, however it was neat to see it through your perspective. Which motivational tactic do you remember being the most powerful during your tenure?

MS: Coach Barnett was a great story teller and did so much to prepare our minds to not only defeat our opponent but also the low expectations from the media and our own losing history. It’s hard to pick just one story because he had so many great ones, but the one I think inspired us the most was when he put the pennies on the scale.

My junior year, we were set to open the season against Notre Dame. The first day of camp, Coach Barnett pulled out a scale and put 19 pennies on both sides of it. It balanced out. He told us that we had 19 days of practice and Notre Dame had 19 days of practice before we played in South Bend. Each day we had a good practice, he would add a penny to our side of the scale. 19 pennies would give us a chance to beat them. But after one bad practice, Coach Barnett denied us a penny. Some of the seniors insisted we practice on Sunday, our off day, and we did. Then the day of the game, Coach Barnett pulled out the scale and put 19 pennies on both sides. “But,” he said,” we had an extra practice.” He put a 20th penny on our side and it tipped in our favor.  It gave us confidence, and then we went out and beat them.

LTP: What was the one moment that you came to that realization “I made it”?

MS: I honestly never felt that way. I always felt I had to prove myself every single day. The closest I felt to making it was when Coach Barnett gave me a full-ride scholarship after my sophomore season. But then I hurt my hip, had a bad string of spring practices and felt like he might take the scholarship back. I never rested on my laurels – I was always working hard. My last day as a college football player, after Tennessee beat us in the Citrus Bowl, I remember feeling “I made it through Division I football,” but I never really felt like I made it.

LTP: How has the role of the walk-on changed today. I just read that Fitz said this is the highest amount of walk-ons in his tenure at NU and it appears that nearly all of them were recruited walk-ons. Is it fair to say that in today’s CFB environement you might not have had the opportunity you did 20 years ago?

MS: The walk-on program at NU was pretty pathetic 20 years ago.  My freshman year, I was one of three freshmen walk-ons. Three!  And the only one in my class to stay all four years.  I think we had seven or eight walk-ons total on the team. No one wanted to walk-on at Northwestern because we hadn’t had a winning record in decades!  But ever since we won the Big Ten in ’95, it’s been easier for NU to attract walk-ons.   They want to play here now.  And because of that, the quality of walk-ons at Northwestern is a lot higher then when I was there.  It’s smart for Pat to recruit walk-ons because then they feel wanted and come in with a great attitude.  They practice harder and make everyone better. 

With that in mind, would I have been given the same chance to walk-on today as I was given 20 years ago?  I like to think that Pat would still invite the 18-year-old version of me to earn a spot on the team.  You still need bodies to have a good practice.  Once you’re in pads and on the field, then it’s your time to make an impression.  Whether you’re a walk-on or not if you’re making good plays during practice, the coaches will find a way for you to play on game day.

LTP: Who do you still keep in contact with from that team? Which game(s) do you reminisce about over beers when you get together?

MS: Life has taken all of us in different directions, and I am the only one from the team living in Kansas City, so I don’t have anyone to get together with for beers. Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter help us stay connected. Over the past few years, I’ve run into guys like William Bennett, Kyle Sanders and Jason Ross. I did a radio interview with Darnell Autry a few weeks ago – he has a podcast out of Phoenix – and we reminisced about our time together. But we’re family for life. We could go 20 years without seeing each other and the minute you got us in a room together, it would be like yesterday.

LTP: Anything else you’d like to add?

MS: Coach Barnett was so gracious to read an early draft of my book and he offered some great insight into how I could make it even better.  He even wrote the Foreword.  Also, I am donating a portion of the proceeds to the Matt Hartl Scholarship Foundation through Northwestern.  Hartl was an amazing teammate, and he unfortunately passed away from Hodgkins Disease at a very young age.
While my book might be about Northwestern football and the walk-on experience, I believe it transcends that. It’s about life. It’s about setting high goals and doing whatever it takes to get there. It’s about believing in yourself no matter what anyone else thinks. There are many guys from my high school who laughed when I told them I planned on playing Big Ten football. If I’d let them define me, I never would have taken the chance. Instead, I ignored the criticism and took a risk and it paid off in big ways. All of us deal with doubts in our lives. All of us fear failure. But, what coach Barnett and my teammates taught me is that if you put your heart and soul into something, success will naturally follow. Heck, in 1994 Sports Illustrated ran an April Fool’s Day cover that said the Cubs won the World Series and Northwestern went 8-0 in the Big Ten. No one believed we could do what we did – no one but us. We proved everyone wrong, and hopefully our team and my experiences can continue to inspire others to reach their potential and find success no matter what the odds.

LTP: Thanks Matt. I appreciate you sharing such a candid insider’s perspective that will now become another vital piece of Northwestern Athletics history. LTP readers, let’s add this to the courtship of new season ticket holder process. Perhaps buy a copy of a book and give them the primer to buy season tickets? Simply go to www.MattStewartBooks.com and purchase a copy. Tell him LTP sent you!

  • http://LakeThePosts DT

    Great interview and feature, LTP.. Despite our history, I had no idea your attempt to walk on the hoops squad… I’m looking forward to reading Mr. Stewart’s book.. Congrats and high marks to Matt for his intrepid and successful pursuit of a career in television news post NU and his “Walk On” experience… Note to Matt… You should be thinking about a screen play on that book as well… Very interesting perspective on College Football’s version of “Miracle”…

    Interesting stuff, guys… Mahalo!

  • GreenLantern

    Off topic:

    I am trying to entice some friends into buying season tickets, and one of my selling points is that single game tickets for Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois are actually quite highly (I would argue correctly) priced this year. I know NU had a promo sheet that came out announcing all the ticket prices but after looking on the nusports.com site for a while I can’t find it. Anyone know what each game is selling for/have a link to that sheet?

  • Steve Z

    I was thinking the same about a screenplay while reading the interview. Great stuff – I’m looking forward to reading the book!

  • Steve Z

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/college/chi-nus-phillips-eyeing-chicago-venues-yankee-stadium-for-football-20120516,0,748236.story

    Not really too much in this article – except maybe for the last line of the Extra Points:
    “NU’s Board of Trustees will meet in June and might approve spending for the school’s ambitious facilities upgrade.”

  • CATSFAN02

    Quite the market maker LTP. The Walk On jumps from #200000 to #20000 on amazon’s paid book list the day it’s featured on the site! Still a ways to go to catch the hunger games series, but fingers crossed on catching them.

  • Draz

    Read the book and concluded Matt could have used the services of a fact checking editor. 1. Didn’t know Dyche Stadium had a west end zone underneath McGaw Hall? 2. Loyola is in a Chicago suburb south of Evanston? 3. Penn St’s colors are black and white?

    Expected better from a Medill grad.

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