Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart
Brad Stewart, one reception led to an even bigger reception afterwards.
Moments after catching his first-career touchdown last Saturday, a 60-yard strike in the third quarter of Georgia Tech's 28-22 win over Virginia Tech, the junior wide receiver could barely reach the sidelines before getting intercepted by a mob of gleeful teammates. At least a dozen Yellow Jackets jumped up and down around Stewart, swallowing him up in a delirious, spontaneous celebration.
"That's a team moment right there," Stewart recalled. "A bunch of the guys had always been messing with me, like, `You still haven't scored? You still haven't scored? You're a junior?' Blah blah blah. Everyone was so happy for me. We just got excited as a team and I think it really helped us momentum-wise to keep moving forward and get that win."
It's also considered a breach of football etiquette to not toss the ball back to the nearest official following a touchdown. Stewart hung on to his. Few could blame him.
"I held that ball tight as can be. I ran it back to the sidelines. I found [Georgia Tech backup quarterback Matthew] Jordan. I gave it to him. I said, `Hold this for me.' I'm going to keep it forever and cherish it," he said.
Afterwards, Stewart met his family outside Bobby Dodd Stadium and presented the ball to his mom, Wendy.
"She said when [the touchdown] happened, she just sat down and started crying and tearing up. She knew how much work I had put in," Stewart said.
On the sidelines or in the stands, the moment wasn't lost on anyone. Thirty-four games into his Georgia Tech career, Stewart finally had his first collegiate touchdown, something that hadn't happened since the state championship game of his senior year at Benedictine Military School in Savannah, Ga. But the celebration was about more than the end of a drought. It was also an acknowledgment of the way Stewart is respected throughout the Tech program.
"Everybody loves him," said quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who threw the touchdown pass to Stewary. "He's a really good guy. He practices really hard. He's unselfish. He's all those things."
Stewart appeared in all 12 games as a freshman, moving into a starting role after injuries shredded the Yellow Jackets' receiving corps. He continued to emerge as a sophomore, finishing second on the team in receptions (19) while entrenching himself as Tech's primary punt returner.
It all seemed to foreshadow a breakout junior year for Stewart. Yet after catching three passes in the Yellow Jackets' first three games, Stewart went without a catch in the next five. It hadn't caused him any sleepless nights -- a mechanical engineering major with a 3.58 GPA last fall, Stewart has enough of those already -- but he admits the drop in production tested his resolve. He took pride in his perimeter blocking, as all Georgia Tech wideouts do, but the best block still doesn't compare to the feeling of running in a touchdown. All the offseason work, all the routes run during games -- as Stewart's junior year wound down, they had still failed to produce the ultimate reward.
"A lot of people from the outside world may not see as much as we do as receivers here at Tech. It's so frustrating sometimes when you're not getting catches as a receiver," he said. He took the teasing from his teammates in stride, but admitted in a postgame radio interview, "I've hit some ups and downs, and it's been hard for me."
"That's been kind of an ongoing thing for Brad," head coach Paul Johnson said of Stewart's touchdown drought. "He's taken a lot of ribbing for that and a lot of grief. I know that he's been wanting to get that monkey off his back."
The opportunity finally came in the third quarter last Saturday, with the Yellow Jackets facing a third-and-18 from their own 40-yard line. Johnson called a play-action pass that the team had practiced all week. Marshall knew it could hit for big yardage.
"I remember being in the huddle. I said, `Brad. Get. Open,'" he said, emphasizing each word.
As he lined up close to the formation, Stewart said, "I looked at the coverage and I was like, `I think this is actually going to work.'"
As the ball was snapped, Virginia Tech free safety Terrell Edmunds, an honorable mention all-ACC player in 2016, took responsibility for him in coverage. Using his eyes, Stewart baited Edmunds into thinking he would run a corner route. When he saw him hesitate, "I just dead bee-lined to the post," he said.
Marshall lofted it downfield to him. Moments later, a career's worth of close calls and season's worth of frustration melted away as Stewart dashed into the end zone.
Stewart, along with the rest of the Yellow Jackets, will try to check off another milestone this Saturday. At 5-4, Georgia Tech can become bowl eligible with a win over 4-6 Duke at Wallace-Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. (3:30 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network).
"They're going to be hungry for that win," Stewart said. "They've lost six-straight. They're going to have an edge to them. They're going to be playing at home. It's Senior Day. They're going to really want this win but, at the same time, what we've got to do is just focus on ourselves, like we did against Virginia Tech. We had a tough loss against Virginia. We came to practice [last] Monday and said we've just got to focus on ourselves. Don't worry about the other team. We'll scheme against them, but other than that we've got to make big plays," Stewart said.
He made a big play last Saturday, one that was a long time coming. Brad Stewart hopes he won't have to wait nearly as long for touchdown No. 2.