Sports-themed books cross my desk fairly often, though rare is the one penned by a former Omaha athlete who played Big Ten football.
Matt Stewart, now a morning show anchor at KCTV5 in Kansas City, Mo., has written about his experiences as an unrecruited defensive back out of Millard South.
“The Walk-On: Inside Northwestern’s Rise From Cellar-Dweller to Big Ten Champ” is a detailed look at Stewart’s four years with the Wildcats, 1993-96.
About 20 pages into the book — including then-coach Gary Barnett’s snoozer of a foreword — I wondered if this was going to be worth the time.
Man, am I glad I kept reading.
While not some ground-breaking expose, this is as honestly-refreshing of an “insider” book as I can recall reading in many years.
Stewart’s journey from fifth-string safety to second-teamer with a full-ride scholarship draws the reader into an unvarnished look at life on a college football squad.
He details issues with disarming frankness and sometimes jarring truth, openly discussing times he wanted to quit or tell off a coach or race home in tears on the next bus from Chicago to Omaha.
Stewart’s uncluttered writing style keeps you turning pages as you eavesdrop on college kids bumping into real-world issues such as race relations, drinking on campus, fraternity hazing, jealousy on the job and paying bills when money is scarce.
Even though this period of Northwestern football includes its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1948 and first back-to-back Big Ten titles since 1931, this book isn’t all about happy endings. That’s why it’s compelling.
Among the issues Stewart addresses:
>> How a losing mindset infected the team his first two seasons.
>> How the school handled a point-shaving scandal that involved a star football player and some men’s basketball players.
>> How the temptation of drink and drugs were often nearby.
>> How his 2.7 grade average after one semester at prestigious Northwestern let him know he wasn’t going to carry the 3.98 GPA he had at Millard South.
Stewart uncovered great anecdotes. Multiple stories about Gary Barnett’s motivational tactics and slogans — something Nebraska fans are plenty familiar with — are worth the price alone.
Add in an on-the-field encounter with Scott Frost at Stanford; a teammate going AWOL from fall camp in rural Wisconsin and paying $150 for a cab ride back to Chicago; and stories involving Stewart’s Nebraska and Millard ties and you have a strong read.
Yes, there is a lot of football in this book. Some of the game detail is a little long. But the inside look at an 18-year-old leaving home for the first time and trying to get settled at college would interest non-sports fans, too.
Congratulations to Stewart for a charmingly-blunt read and a healthy dose of inspiration as the next college football season begins.