When Liberty football coach Bryan Nixon begins to explain just how valuable and special Sam Stewart Jr. is, the part about Stewart being the best football player in Kern County comes up, but it’s not Stewart's defining feature.
That mile-wide smile, the infectious laugh, the long talks about life inside Nixon’s classroom over the last three years come off as what makes Stewart the person that he is.
And when Nixon does begin to explain the leadership and tenacity of Stewart on the football field, it becomes quite clear why the senior running back/linebacker was able to put together one of the top seasons for a two-way standout in the Central Section this year.
For his efforts, Stewart is the 2018 BVarsity All-Area Football Player of the Year.
“It’s his laugh and personality,” Nixon said. “All of the time we spent talking in my room about football and life. He’s just an all-around good kid. He has everything that you think about with his personality, attitude, effort and ability. He is savvy and a pure joy to be around.”
Stewart led Liberty with 1,972 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns, added another 26 catches for 301 yards and two scores, and racked up 49 tackles and two sacks as a starting middle linebacker. Stewart did all that despite not playing in the second half of seven games as Liberty continuously blew out opponents during a nine-game win streak.
“No matter what game it was, I went in with the mindset and intensity to go hard every play,” Stewart said. “Some games were a little easier than others, but I left it out on the field....I think my teammates appreciated me and I appreciate them for letting me lead them.”
The season-defining moment might have come in the most dramatic win for Liberty since the Patriots beat Clovis for the 2015 Central Section Division I title.
On the road at Clovis-Buchanan in the semifinals, Stewart ran the ball 36 times for 244 yards. He also carried the load on the game's final drive that ended with sophomore Brayden Blevins' 29-yard field goal as time expired, lifting the Patriots to a 24-23 win and a berth into the section finals.
“It was just a team effort,” Stewart said. “Coming into that last drive, I gave everything I had. We walked to the huddle and our offensive linemen said, ‘Let’s go.’ This is what we do (in practice) every Thursday night. After that it was just time to go.”
Stewart stood in the middle of the field with tears of joy rolling down his face.
“On the field after the ball was kicked. There were tears,” Stewart said. “People were throwing their helmets. You just don’t get those moments every game. That moment with the tears and all the hugging. It was amazing.”
After such a huge high, the Patriots gave up a halftime lead the following week in a 58-34 loss in the section championship at Fresno-Central. Stewart was able to only get on the field a handful of times in the second half because of cramps in his leg.
“I try not to think about it, but I know it’s going to haunt me,” Stewart said. “I never want to put myself in that position again. I don’t really know what it was. I go through the same routine from Thursday to Friday. But that’s the way life goes. We never let down, we never gave up.”
Regardless of the championship-game outcome, Stewart led the Patriots as a two-way starter the past three seasons.
“His savvy, his awareness and he gets stronger as the game goes on,” Nixon said. “His overall ability, he’s the guy that can be your power back. Guys don’t want to tackle him late in the game. He can catch out the backfield. And he gets the game. He needs to play at the next level. He is going to make somebody’s locker room and team better.”
Stewart is still without a college football program to call home at the moment. But he and Nixon both know that wherever he does land, that program will be getting a leader.
“I just want somebody to give me a chance. Just one chance,” Stewart said. “Give me the chance to let me do what I can do.”