In the seventh round, he heard from the Cleveland Browns, the Buffalo Bills, the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Jets. None drafted him, and his mother, Tamara Johnson, went to her room to pray. It was going to be okay, Stewart explained: Going undrafted didn’t mean his dream was over.
As the sun set over Houston, Stewart huddled with his agent and — because of how the team had used undrafted wide receivers in the past — decided to sign with the Green Bay Packers.
While his mother, cousin and four siblings celebrated around him, Stewart wished his father, his first football coach, could be there. Stewart lost Darrell Sr. years earlier in a fatal ATV accident, and though the family had fallen after his death, they pulled themselves back up. To Stewart, this moment meant carrying on a legacy.
“I just think about things he would say if he was here,” Stewart said. “I know he’d definitely be crying.”
‘I will be there for you’
Thirteen or so years earlier, a shorter, skinnier Stewart had waited for a phone call from Iraq. His father had left the punch-card jobs of his past — the railroad, FedEx — and joined KBR, a military contractor. Darrell Sr. traded time with his family for upward mobility. He worked roughly six-month shifts overseas so the Stewarts could move out of Greenspoint, a Houston neighborhood Darrell Jr. described as “rough,” with a riptide of drugs and violence.
“I didn’t understand at the time. You just want to be around your dad; he’s your best friend,” Stewart said. “But as we talked over the phone, he explained it to me: ‘Why is this important? To help provide for the family.’ ”
For the next couple of years, before school or before bed, Stewart and his father spent hours on the phone in 15-minute increments. Stewart told his father about football, how he was staying aggressive, just like he had taught him. Darrell Sr. told his son, whom he nicknamed “DeDe,” about the Book of Job. God let the devil take everything from Job, he said, but Job remained faithful.
In 2010, Darrell Sr. was home when, out with friends, he flipped his ATV and hit his head. DeDe, then in seventh grade, remembered a nightmarish scene at the hospital: aunts, uncles, doctors, tears. While the family grieved, the money dried up. Not long after, the Stewarts moved back to Greenspoint.
“Nobody wanted to do that,” Stewart said. “But we had to.”
Stewart felt angry. He didn’t understand why this happened to his family. Even when his dreams started coming true — electrifying Nimitz High as a freshman quarterback — he thought often about his dad not being there to see it. Early in his sophomore year, he told Coach Robert Toomer he wanted to quit.
Hold up, Toomer said. He called a meeting with Stewart and his mother. Stewart was rebelling at home, sometimes refusing to clean his room, other times getting an attitude. But now Johnson was struggling at work, and Stewart felt responsible, as the man of the house, to provide for the family.
In the meeting, Johnson told her son he couldn’t fix everything. She insisted he do what he loved as long as he could. Stewart cried because he didn’t want to see his mother struggle; Johnson cried because she wished his weight weren’t so heavy.
“Her doing that gave him permission to get through the struggle and enjoy his life,” Toomer said. “She said, ‘I will be there for you.’ ”
Afterward, Johnson asked Toomer for his help. The coach channeled Darrell Sr., reminding Stewart to be responsible in the neighborhood, teaching him how to give a good interview and preparing a 30-second “elevator pitch” to impress college recruiters.
Stewart, a chatterbox, responded. They talked about “girls, what was going on at home, the streets,” Toomer said. Toomer called Stewart on Father’s Day, when the teenager struggled the most, and Stewart realized his coach meant what he said about being there for him. Soon, Stewart had a new nickname for Toomer: “Pop.”
It was around that time that Michigan State assistant coach Terrence Samuel flew to Texas because he heard from a friend that Nimitz, his alma mater, had a wide receiver worth checking out. Within minutes of meeting, Samuel and Stewart were in discussion about old teachers and football rivals. They realized they both grew up in Greenspoint, not far from each other, and both played wide receiver and quarterback. Samuel, who had been a wide receiver at Purdue in the 1990s, found himself trying to persuade Stewart to follow his path to the Big Ten.
“It was like recruiting myself,” Samuel said.
‘We finally got us a crib’
Before Stewart left for Michigan State in 2015, his mother gave him a warning. If he tried to drop out of school and return to Houston, he couldn’t live with her. She believed the only way she had even gotten him to this point was divine intervention; she didn’t know how strong she was until Darrell Sr. had gone to Iraq.
“If it wasn’t for God taking me through [that], I wouldn’t have been able to handle it when he got killed,” she said. “I look at the situation like that. He knew this day was coming.” She paused. “I’m not going to say it wasn’t hard time for me. It was. But …” She trailed off.
Stewart knew he couldn’t return to Greenspoint. Days before graduation from Nimitz, his best friend, Terrell Payne, was murdered next door. Wrong place, wrong time. Stewart thought about that when he struggled as a freshman in East Lansing, Mich., as well as the sacrifices his mother made, the long days at the nursing home and late nights driving First Transit. He thought about his father, who had gone further for longer to provide.
In early September 2017, Hurricane Harvey forced the Stewart family to abandon Greenspoint and flee across Texas. Stewart later flew home to volunteer in his devastated city, and one week later, he caught his first career touchdown pass against Notre Dame. After that, those around Stewart saw him mature. He watched more film. He cared more about his grades. He spent more time with the team chaplain, understood the school was a resource and engaged more with the campus community.
“When the flood happened, when those things happened close to home, he understood the best way to take care of his family,” Samuel said.
The long, strong slot receiver became more consistent and developed into one of the Spartans’ top threats. This past season, he caught 49 passes for a career-high 697 yards and four touchdowns while battling a leg injury. Afterward, he returned to Houston where, about a year after Harvey, his mother had used money she saved to rent a house like they once had. The new neighborhood, about 15 minutes from Greenspoint, had a park and a tennis court. To Stewart, it was perfect.
“We finally got us a crib,” he said. “I felt like ‘Home Alone’ at one point. I could go sneak in the kitchen and grab cookies, and it felt so good because … it wasn’t the same room I was sleeping in.”
When the Packers called, Stewart was in the living room. He had waited his whole life for this moment. But when Stewart hung up, he smiled and hugged his family and felt a muted joy. On TV, in the little box where names had flashed for three days, it never said “Darrell Stewart.”
Not long after, around 8 or 9 p.m., Stewart hopped in his cousin’s Dodge Charger. They drove to “the sand pit,” a volleyball court that had been transformed into a perfect training spot when the nets were removed in mid-March. Stewart stepped into the sand, barefoot, and channeled the hurt. He thundered into routes, exploded through drills and exhausted himself with repetitions. When he got to the “fourth quarter” of his workout, he pushed harder.
“As you’re going through this whole thing, you put it in your head: Your name didn’t get called,” Stewart said. “It puts this feeling in your stomach, the motivation to go another rep.”
Stewart thought about the Book of Job. His father once summarized it like this: “A man is built by how he responds to adversity.” Stewart liked that. It was a lesson he had been learning his whole life.