It’s impossible for most of us to imagine the anguish that Walter Stewart must have felt when he was informed that a congenital defect in his spine would likely end his football career.
But David Pollack can identify.
Six years ago in the second game of his second season with the Cincinnati Bengals, Pollack broke his sixth cervical vertebrae while making a tackle. It ended his NFL career after playing in 16 games.
Pollack met Stewart earlier this season while he was in Cincinnati to broadcast the UC-Pitt game on ESPN, and called the Bearcat senior this week to offer his encouragement.
“I’ve been through having football being a huge part of your life and then all of the sudden it’s gone,” Pollack told me. “That can be extremely tough, so I just wanted to reach out to him and tell him a little bit about my experience. I wanted to share any words of wisdom – which doesn’t come from my mouth very often – or anything that I thought was a big help for me during a time when I needed it.”
“They’ve really bonded and formed a close relationship,” said head coach Butch Jones.
“He’s a kid that I have a lot of respect for,” said Pollack. “When you see people and the way that they play, I think that tells you a lot about them and he’s one of those guys that plays really hard and loves the game.”
By all accounts, Stewart has handled the news of his injury remarkably well.
“I talked to Cincinnati trainer Bob Mangine and he told that he cried when he told Walter the news, but Walter didn’t cry,” said Pollack. “He’s handled it as well as you can when you get that kind of news.”
“He’s dealing with it in Walter Stewart fashion – very poised, very calm, very realistic, and just a model of resiliency,” said Coach Jones.
Stewart had five sacks in five games this season before suffering his injury and was likely to be a high NFL draft pick in April. But Pollack says it’s important not to dwell on what might have been.
“It’s always easy to look at a situation like that and see the bad,” said Pollack. “But I think it’s extremely important to look at the positive too. He’s in a situation where he can walk, he can move – he’s not in a situation as severe as Eric LeGrand or Kevin Everett several years ago – so I think right away you count your blessings. One thing that kind of gave me hope and clicked in my brain when I was going through my situation is that at some point, there comes a time when you’re going to have to hang your cleats up. That day will come. Whether it’s now or 10, 12, 15 years down the road, it will come. It’s about how you handle it and how you move on.”
Over the past several weeks, Stewart has remained an integral part of the Cincinnati football program as he has tried to lead his teammates in the locker room and on the sideline.
“I’m trying to convince him to give coaching a try because I think he can impact lives on a day to day basis,” said Coach Jones. “I think that’s his passion, I think he needs to be around the game, and I think he can be an asset to our profession. When he speaks the kids listen and he has credibility behind him. I fully anticipate him doing that – if playing football is out – I think you will see him on the sideline with us.”
“The most important thing to remember is that life is never going to be perfect,” said Pollack. “It’s never going to go exactly how you planned it, and it’s always important to know that God never closes one door without opening another one. Walter is a great kid with great perspective and I think he’ll be absolutely fine with whatever comes his way.”
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