The little boy walked across the pasture with his usual
purposeful gait, his face slightly crumpled but his eyes dry.
The tears wouldn't come even after he reached his mother and
made his horrifying announcement: "Mom, I've been shot."
It had been an accident; a young friend had pumped too much air
into a pellet gun and then, unaware the thing was loaded, shot
it right at nine-year-old Branndon Stewart's back, burying a
pellet deep into the muscle. So Branndon had walked across the
field to his parents' farmhouse in Stephenville, Texas, to let
his mom know. Vickie Stewart's knees weakened when she saw the
bloody hole in her son's back, but he remained as serene as a
stalk of wheat. "Look, Mom, it's no big deal," he said. "We just
need to go to the hospital and get it taken out. It'll be all
Twelve years later you can still say this about Branndon
Stewart, the 6'3", 214-pound junior quarterback who will step
into the pocket for Texas A&M this season: The guy doesn't
flinch easily. The most famous recent example of this occurred
in February 1994 after Stewart had led Stephenville High, a
school with a tradition of football mediocrity, to a 16-0 record
and the Texas 4A title. Stewart's 1,516 rushing yards and 2,558
passing yards accounted for more than half of Stephenville's
offense, the third-most productive offense in high school
football history. Stewart was a consensus All-America and the
hottest quarterback prospect in the Southwest. Nebraska wanted
him. So did Florida State and Texas A&M. But Stewart signed with
Tennessee, even though he knew that Peyton Manning, another
prized quarterback recruit and the son of Southern college
football icon Archie Manning, was about to do the same.
In retrospect, it seems like an extraordinarily brassy thing for
Stewart to have done, given Manning's skills, pedigree and
lifelong preparation for college football. But Stewart had some
notable attributes of his own, not the least of which was a
mobility that made him a more exciting, Archie-type scrambler
than Peyton. Most important, at least from Stewart's standpoint:
Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer assured him that he and Manning
would get equal shots at the starting quarterback's job when
their time came.
However, soon after the Vols' first- and second-string
quarterbacks, Jerry Colquitt and Todd Helton, were injured early
in Manning and Stewart's freshman season of 1994, it became
clear that Manning, who had displayed a quick grasp of the
Tennessee offense, would get his equal shot first. Against
Mississippi State in Starkville, Manning stepped in for Helton
and played well, while Stewart saw action in only two series.
Against Alabama three weeks later, Stewart took over for a
faltering Manning in the last series of the first half, passed
for 40 yards and positioned the Volunteers for a tying field
goal. Despite that performance Stewart got no snaps in the
second half. Instead, he stood silently on the sideline, helmet
on and arms crossed as the Manning-led Vols fell 17-13.
"I've never seen him more upset than he was at that game," says
Branndon's father, Redge. "It was becoming more and more clear
that it didn't matter what Branndon did or what the coaches had
promised him. Peyton was going to be the guy."
Stewart appeared in 11 of 12 games that season, completing 34 of
55 passes for 424 yards and one touchdown, with two
interceptions. (Manning completed 89 of 144 for 1,141 yards and
11 TDs, with six interceptions.) Disillusioned, Stewart asked to
be released from his scholarship, and he transferred to Texas
A&M for the spring semester of 1995.
"At Tennessee they said, 'You guys will have an equal shot,' but
it turned out to be a little different," says Stewart. "They
weren't able to make it equal. They were not able to make two
people happy. Obviously coaches have to make a decision on a guy
and stick with it. But the press was making it like I was in a
fight with Peyton, and I wasn't comfortable with that. I just
wanted to play."
The price of Stewart's transfer was high: a year of sitting out
and, because he left in the middle of the school year, a year of
lost eligibility. But he has been compensated by the welcome he
has received in College Station, which has been enthusiastic, to
say the least. "I was really disappointed Branndon didn't come
here originally, but I am thrilled to finally get him," says A&M
coach R.C. Slocum. "It would have made so much sense for him to
come here in the first place. He already had a growing
reputation in the state."
Not that Stewart's Tennessee detour did much to curtail that
growth. Though Stewart hasn't played a game in almost two years,
his legend has blossomed in the extremely fertile soil of A&M
football expectations. Last year when senior quarterback Corey
Pullig was struggling, some Aggie fans in the stands screamed
for Stewart, even though he wasn't eligible. And the faithful
who swarm around Slocum at alumni functions all want to know the
same thing: Is Stewart as good as everyone says he is? "I have
to tell them, 'No, he's probably not,'" says Slocum, "but so far
I've been impressed."
Even in the face of expectations so great that, Slocum says,
Stewart would have to be "10 feet tall and throw only bullets"
to fulfill them, the quarterback doesn't tremble. "That stuff
doesn't really affect me," he says. "I try not to read the
papers, and I never believe what people say anyway. I know what
I'm capable of."
Stewart seemed preternaturally self-possessed even as a child.
"He was always bigger and seemed older than other kids his age,"
says his mother. "At age six he was reaching such sensible
decisions that he'd make me feel immature by comparison."
Because he didn't watch much TV--he preferred to hunt or play
outdoors--Branndon had no sports idols. He decorated his room
with Baylor paraphernalia only because green was his favorite
color. But he was athletic and extremely competitive,
particularly with his sister, Tiffany, who is four years older
and liked to make taunting challenges that Branndon couldn't
resist. "I remember once she brought home a bronze medal she'd
won at the state track meet," says Stewart. "She dangled it in
front of me and said, 'You'll never win one of these.' But I won
one in football. And mine was gold."
Stewart prefers to make unspoken challenges, and these have
already had an impact on many of his Aggie teammates. His
achievements in the weight room, for example, have spurred more
than a few linemen to make gut checks. Stewart, who was a
competitive powerlifter in high school, has already broken the
squat record for Aggie quarterbacks, with 450 pounds, and his
341-pound power clean is just 16 shy of another record. "There's
nothing like the prospect of being outlifted by the quarterback
to get a lineman working," says strength coach Mike Clark.
Aggie defensive players probably owe Stewart something too.
While running the scout team last season, Stewart so severely
tested A&M's vaunted Wrecking Crew that before the Aggies' game
against Houston last October, A&M defensive coordinator Phil
Bennett told another Aggie coach that he feared his unit, which
had been getting shredded in practice, would not contain the
Cougars' offense. But after A&M mulched Houston 31-7, Bennett
understood his miscalculation. "One major difference," he said,
was that "Houston doesn't have Branndon Stewart."
"If you were to draw a picture of the perfect quarterback, it'd
be Branndon," says the Aggies' junior kicker, Kyle Bryant, one
of Stewart's housemates. "He's got all the physical and mental
ability, plus he's a great leader. And he's such a low-key guy,
you can't help but be friends with him. I mean, the guy never
gets mad! He'll just take a breath and say, 'Whatever.' And he's
a pretty good cook."
Make that barbecuer, since grilled meat seems to be the entree
of choice just about every night at the house Stewart and Bryant
share with two teammates. "I'm pretty good at steaks and ribs,"
says Stewart. "But I haven't really attempted anything like,
Baking a quiche? It's a prospect that might make even the
bravest among us quail.