BETHLEHEM, Ga. -- The weightlifting session began at 8:30 sharp on that muggy May morning in 2007. Any student who intended to play for Monroe Area High's football team had to show up and lift. No exceptions. Stephon Tuitt's mother had forbidden her oldest son from attending. Tamara Bartlett, a Gwinnett County sheriff's deputy, had to work a shift. She couldn't give her rising freshman son a ride. Besides, she wanted Tuitt to spend his freshman year adjusting to high school coursework before he played any team sports. Also, Bartlett needed Tuitt at home to help take care of his younger brothers.
As a general rule, Tuitt did not disobey his mother. "No slipping," Tuitt said, laughing. "If you get caught slipping, Pow!" He disobeyed his mother that day. "I never did anything," Tuitt said. "I was never allowed to play sports. Just to be a part of a team, to do something other than just be in the house with my brothers, I really wanted to do it. I felt in in my heart. I said, 'I'm going to walk.'"
His mother gone, Tuitt walked out of the house on Marigold Avenue and turned left. He walked out of the Ivey Manor subdivision and turned left. Then he kept walking.
Today, Tuitt is a sophomore defensive end at Notre Dame. He stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 303 pounds, but he can outrun some skill-position players -- just as he did on a 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Navy on Sept. 1. On Jan. 7, Tuitt will test his progress against a group of potential first-round draft picks on Alabama's offensive line in the BCS title game. Next year, NFL scouts will salivate every time Tuitt runs down a tailback from behind or smashes a quarterback. Yet they probably wouldn't even know Tuitt's name if Tuitt hadn't taken that long walk.
When Tuitt tells the story now, he says he walked 12 miles. By the time he tells his children, the distance might be 20 miles. By the time he tells his grandchildren, he probably will have walked 30 miles uphill in a hurricane. Thanks to the magic of GPS and a comfortable pair of shoes, SI retraced the route recently and determined Tuitt walked 10.8 miles of two-lane blacktop that stretches from close to the Gwinnett County line into the center of Walton County. The shoulder on the roads Tuitt traveled is only inches wide, so narrow that a pedestrian gets blasted by the backdraft of each passing dump truck as he tries to avoid the fate of the raccoons and armadillos that didn't look both ways before crossing. The walk isn't entirely uphill. It only feels that way.
"He took the long way," Bartlett said.
She is correct in the figurative and literal sense. At the 1.5-mile mark, Tuitt should have stayed on June Ivey Road where it turns into Bentley Road. That would have taken him directly to Bold Springs Road, the long stretch that connects Bethlehem to Monroe, Ga. Instead, Tuitt turned onto Loganville Highway and walked an extra mile to Bold Springs Road. If he looked in the sky above the sprawling cow pasture to his right, Tuitt saw a line of planes in various stages of descent as they approached the runways at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport about 50 miles away. At the time, he had no idea his walk would set him on a path that would eventually put him on a plane bound for north central Indiana, where he would help a long-dormant power return to national title contention.
When Tuitt arrived at the Monroe Area High weight room dripping sweat, the players had finished lifting. Purple Hurricanes coach Matt Fligg remained. He saw the then 6-3, 200-pound freshman with long arms and huge hands that portended greater growth and asked where he'd been. Walking, Tuitt told him. Stunned by Tuitt's determination to join the team, Fligg forgave him for missing the workout and granted Tuitt a spot on the junior varsity. As for lifting, it wasn't necessary that day. "I had already done my workout," Tuitt said. Fligg immediately issued an edict. "I told him, 'You're not walking anymore,'" Fligg said.
The Tuitt who now stalks quarterbacks with the grace of a cat bears little resemblance to the gawky teen who first strapped on pads in 2007. "He was always very high off the ball," Fligg said. "He was tentative. He wasn't very physical. His sophomore year, we played him because he was so big. Then, between his sophomore and junior year, he really got into the weights. He really got committed. His junior and senior year, he just dominated." Tuitt's body filled out thanks to weight workouts and $5 Little Caesars pizzas purchased by coaches and gobbled by Tuitt during rides home from practice. The Purple Hurricanes grew with Tuitt. They went a combined 0-20 his sophomore and junior seasons, but they went 11-2 and reached the third round of the Class 3A playoffs his senior year.
Tuitt, who moved to the area from Pembroke Pines, Fla., shortly before he started high school, made friends easily on and off the field. "He's just a gentle bear," Fligg said. "He's a big old cuddly bear that everybody just loves. But put him in pads, and he's an animal." Though Tuitt didn't hit the camp circuit like most top recruits because he couldn't afford the cost, college coaches descended on Monroe to woo him because they so rarely find his combination of height, weight and speed. Coaches from several elite football schools didn't have to travel far. Remember when Tuitt took the wrong turn on Loganville Highway? Had he made his wrong turn left instead of right, he could have walked to the University of Georgia's campus in a matter of hours. In a car, he could have reached Athens in minutes. But Tuitt didn't consider Georgia. "He just never liked Georgia," Fligg said. "From the get-go, Georgia was off the list." Tuitt also only gave passing thought to Clemson, South Carolina, LSU and Florida.
That probably was a result of Bartlett's influence. She wanted her son to attend a school where he could obtain a degree that would immediately impress future employers. The two schools Tuitt considered most heavily -- Notre Dame and Georgia Tech -- fit that description. "My focus was not a school that only focuses on football," Bartlett said. "I wanted him to go to a well-rounded school." Bartlett doesn't care if Tuitt makes it to the NFL. She never intended to raise a football player. She always intended to raise a college graduate. "I didn't want him to get off track from the real picture," Bartlett said. "The real picture is graduation. ... Just watch what I'm doing and strive to be better. I want none of my kids to struggle how I'm struggling. I work paycheck to paycheck. Who wants that? If you can do better, do better."
To make his mother proud, Tuitt had to first make her quite unhappy. Bartlett was furious when she learned her son had risked the walk. But she saw that football made her son happy, so she allowed him to play. Still, Tuitt couldn't shirk his other responsibilities. If chores went undone, Bartlett might appear at football practice, drag her giant son off the field and usher him into the car without giving him time to even remove his pads.
Bartlett is thrilled that Notre Dame's coaches have been equally strict with her son. In 2011, Tuitt overslept and missed a class. Coach Brian Kelly suspended him for the Purdue game. "He just needs to keep his head on right and go for the real goal," Bartlett said. "I don't care if he makes it to the pros. I don't care. I just want him to graduate. Just put that diploma in his hand, and I could die the next day."
The tug-of-war between football and academics will only intensify next year. After the 2013 season, Tuitt will be eligible to enter the NFL draft. Promises of millions will clash with his mother's edict that he earn a degree before pursuing professional football. If Tuitt merely duplicates his statistics from his first season as a full-time player -- 42 tackles, 12 of them sacks -- he'll be a potential first-rounder. If he makes a leap similar to the one he made between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Tuitt could be projected in the top five.
Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston believes that if Tuitt keeps honing his craft, he can evolve into an end who can stuff the run and chase the quarterback. "We don't want a guy who is going to be a monster against the run on first down but can't go out and pass rush," Elston said. "On the flip side, you don't want to get pushed around on first and second down and then turn on the jets on third down." In 2012, Tuitt showed flashes of dominance against the run and the pass. Against Miami, he took on a double-teaming guard and tackle, shed both and tackled the ball-carrier for a loss. Against Michigan State, Tuitt used a swim move to beat guard Jack Allen. Then he zoomed past center Travis Jackson and creamed quarterback Andrew Maxwell, knocking the ball free in the process. Those are just two examples of a freakishly gifted athlete who has only just begun to tap into his complete skill set.
Kelly hopes another fruitful offseason will allow Tuitt to raise his sack total without losing the ability to line up across from an offensive tackle and occupy two gaps in running situations. "He's only going to continue to get better as we move forward," Kelly said. "This is really, truly his first full year of playing the game. And he went through some ups and downs. You know, playing in a 12 game schedule was a little different. There were some areas where we had to get him through week eight or nine or 10.
So we saw a guy really maturing and developing, but more than anything else, accepting the role on defense is what we, as coaches, most appreciate."
Tuitt will do whatever Notre Dame strength coach Paul Longo prescribes in the weight room, but he also has plans for additional offseason workouts. On Sept. 19, Tuitt posted a message on Twitter seeking leads on volunteer work at South Bend-area farms. If someone nearby needs bales of hay toted, Tuitt intends to tote them for free. Why? Because in high school, the best offensive linemen Tuitt faced were the kind of country strong that only comes from intense manual labor on a farm. Tuitt surmises similar work will improve his functional strength.
Tuitt saw plenty of farms on his walk that day in 2007. He passed cows. He passed horses. He walked past the road that leads to the Providence Club golf course, but judging by Tuitt's swing -- think Charles Barkley with less coordination -- during a Fighting Irish trip to a driving range in July, he did not spend much time there. Tuitt walked past Baptist churches both modern and Primitive, but he had actually taken the first steps toward a starring role at the nation's most famous Catholic university.
According to the old joke in Georgia, it's virtually impossible to give directions to any point in the state without uttering the phrase "and then you'll see a Waffle House." If future football pilgrims want to retrace Tuitt's walk, they'll find one at the 10.25-mile mark. Tuitt found only an empty lot -- the scattered, smothered and covered hash browns came a few years afterward -- but a little more than a half mile later, Tuitt reached the end of his walk and found the coach and the team that would help him reach the kind of university Tuitt's mother always dreamed he would attend. "I'll always remember that," Tuitt said of the walk. "I get emotional talking about it. It started everything." Meanwhile, the mom who got so angry when her son defied her now can't hide her pride. "Dealing with me, he probably wouldn't have played sports," Bartlett said. "So I'm glad he went ahead and did it anyway."