His face and his name were on posters throughout Prince George's County, and he was well-known to many voters. But this might have been the only time Byron Stewart did not stand a chance.
It was 1990 and Stewart, a successful corporate sales representative, was challenging Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.--one of the most powerful politicians in Maryland--for Miller's state senate position. The result was equivalent to one of the many 70-7 routs Stewart grew accustomed to during his football career; this time, though, he was on the losing end.
Now, after 20 years in sales and one thrashing in a run for public office, Stewart is starting anew. He is entering his second year as the peer mediator at Surrattsville High School and, this fall, he will be the school's football coach.
"He is energetic and he is experienced," Surrattsville Principal Bill Barnes said. "He has walked the path before. And what really, really pleases me is he looks at the total kid--the kid's academics, his conduct in the building and his athleticism. . . . He is committed, no question about that."
Stewart's commitment never has been questioned, though none of his players are old enough to have seen their coach during his playing days in the 1970s. At Friendly High, Stewart set a state record for yards rushing in a game--347, a mark that stood for 24 years. At the University of Nebraska, Stewart was one of the Cornhuskers' featured running backs and he wears a Big Eight Conference championship ring to prove it.
After graduating from Nebraska and leaving the U.S. Navy's flight school because of allergies, Stewart spent two years teaching. He then made primarily a financial decision and went into a career in corporate sales. He always wanted to return to teaching, and last year--after 20 years of selling copiers, fax machines, computers, telecommunications equipment and commercial real estate--Stewart made the move.
Stewart estimated the change is costing his family about $17,000 a year. He works longer hours and has more responsibilities. And the 43-year-old could not be happier.
"This is more fulfilling than what I was doing, even though I was making more money," said Stewart, one of four new public high school football coaches in the county. "I loved what I was doing [when he first started teaching], but I just couldn't afford to teach at that time. I loved working with kids, but living on $10,000 a year and trying to start a family was very tough."
Although Stewart spent 20 years away from the football field, it did not take long for him to figure out what to do when he took over at Surrattsville. A self-described pack rat, Stewart still had his Nebraska playbooks and notes from when he was running backs coach at Eleanor Roosevelt in 1979. He also had maintained contact with former teammates from Nebraska; Tony Samuel and L.C. Cole, who played end while Stewart was at running back, are head coaches at New Mexico State and Tennessee State, respectively. On a shelf in his office are several videos produced by New Mexico State's football staff.
For stretching and conditioning, Stewart went into his archives and found a soft-bound notebook called "The Strength of Nebraska."
"There is no sense recreating the wheel," Stewart said.
Stewart said he also plans on borrowing some coaching strategies from Friendly Coach George Earley, for whom Stewart worked as running backs coach last season. In particular, Stewart said he plans to play his best 11 players both ways, if possible. Three of those players might be junior tailback Jerod Void (who reminds Stewart of himself), wide receiver Richard Burns and linebacker-fullback Traydell Bullock, who transferred from Lackey.
"We've got a lot of talent," Stewart said. "My thing is not to make it confusing so the guys can hit it."
Stewart may keep things simple, but he will still expect maximum effort. He knows no other way. In fact, Stewart must wear a bulky black brace on his left knee because of it. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in the knee last year when he slipped trying to make a catch playing slow-pitch softball. Reconstructive surgery will be necessary after the football season.
"I have to stop playing competitive sports," Stewart said. "My mind always goes back to Nebraska or Friendly, but my body says, 'Don't do that.' I just can't half do it."
The injury reminded Stewart of when he hyperextended a knee his first year as a teacher in 1979, the year after he graduated from Nebraska. Stewart was teaching history at Greenbelt Middle School (one of his students was Len Bias) and was an assistant football coach at Eleanor Roosevelt High. Stewart was working out daily, still hoping to get a tryout with an NFL team, so one of his co-workers suggested Stewart skip Roosevelt's student-faculty softball game to avoid risking injury.
Of course, as competitive as he is, Stewart didn't listen and he injured himself when he locked his knee breaking for a ball at shortstop.
"The fact of the matter is I tried to go light and I can't go light," Stewart said. "The true competitor, when it is fourth and one, says, 'Give me the ball. I don't know what I am going to do, whether I am going to go over the top or outside. . . . But I'm going to get it.' That's the persona I've always had."
Stewart no longer has the 30-inch thighs or the 7 percent body fat that helped him become an outstanding athlete. At 230 pounds, he is 40 pounds heavier than his playing weight as a senior at Nebraska. But his competitive spirit has not changed.
Despite a challenging first half of the schedule, Stewart has his goals set on finishing 13-0 and winning the Maryland 2A title. Among the Hornets' first five games are trips to Cumberland, Md., to play perennial state power Fort Hill and to the Philadelphia area to play Glen Mills Prep, as well as games against defending Maryland 3A champion Friendly and Douglass, which finished 9-1 last season. Surrattsville was 5-5 last season under former coach Jim Butler.
"I won at Nebraska and I won at Friendly," Stewart said. "I am used to winning. In the worst case, I want to have a winning season."
CAPTION: After setting a state record for rushing yards in a game for Friendly, Byron Stewart became a running back for Nebraska in the 1970s.
CAPTION: First-year Surrattsville coach Byron Stewart spent 20 years as a corporate sales executive.