Inside The Chart: All In The Family
Georgia Tech football's Brad Stewart revives generations-old ties to former Gator Bowl
Dec. 29, 2016
Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart
Brad Stewart felt the weight of expectation long before he stepped inside Savannah's Benedictine Military School.
"When I got there as a freshman, everyone was like, `Oh, that's Jim Walsh's grandson,'" Georgia Tech's sophomore wide receiver recalls.
Stewart's grandfather, Jim Walsh Sr., was the legendary head football coach at Benedictine, winning 224 games at the all-boys Catholic school from 1970 to 1994. A former fullback at Auburn, Walsh's résumé included 10 city titles and six region titles. He was later inducted into the Greater Savannah Athletic Hall of Fame.
After retiring as Benedictine's athletic director, Walsh Sr. served as a volunteer coach for Stewart's middle school team. On the practice field, though, he didn't always play doting grandfather.
"He would always mess with me -- `That wasn't that good of a play,' `You could have done better,'" Stewart said. "That motivated me even more to try and impress him, and try to get his good word. When it was deserved, he did [give praise]. But he always came back with the fact that you can never be too good. You can never succeed too much."
Family will likely be on Stewart's mind this week when Georgia Tech plays in the 2016 TaxSlayer (née Gator) Bowl versus Kentucky in Jacksonville, Fla. When he steps out onto EverBank Field Saturday, Stewart will be the third generation of his family to play in the same bowl game. Jim Walsh Sr. played in the 1955 Gator Bowl for Auburn. Stewart's uncle, Jim Walsh Jr., was an offensive guard for South Carolina in the 1980 and 1984 Gator Bowls. Together, their family tradition spans nearly the entirety of college football's sixth-oldest bowl game (EverBank Field is also on the site of the original Gator Bowl stadium).
Stewart will try to have better luck than his forebears: his grandfather and uncle went 0-3 in their Gator Bowls.
"That's honestly one of the most unique situations I've ever heard of. That's really cool," Stewart said this week. His uncle will be among the more than dozen family members in attendance for the game. "I'm sure it'll bring back some memories," Stewart said.
Stewart had a decorated career himself at Benedictine, earning Georgia Class AA Player of the Year honors and leading the school to its first state championship in 2014. Academically, he may have been even more impressive: student body president as a senior, a 4.3 GPA and ranked third in his graduating class. He planned on gray-shirting at Tech before a scholarship opened up shortly before Signing Day.
As a sophomore, Stewart has emerged as a reliable presence opposite veteran wideout Ricky Jeune, hauling in 17 catches (at a robust 21.9 yards per catch) while also serving as Tech's primary punt returner. His career-long 64-yard reception against Georgia set up a first-half touchdown. He was also named first-team Academic All-District by the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA); Stewart carries a 3.58 GPA in mechanical engineering.
"He's done a really nice job of developing. He's doing some things that are more veteran-like that you want to see from a guy that's played a lot. He's getting tougher mentally to understand what he's got to do at certain points in the game," said Georgia Tech wide receivers coach Buzz Preston.
Added Jeune: "He has really great hands. His routes are almost perfect." He also marvels at his teammate's athleticism: at 6'1," Stewart can throw down windmill dunks with ease.
The desire to create highlights has grown stronger lately. Jim Walsh Sr., 84, is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. He was recently moved into an assisted living facility with his wife of 53 years, Barbara - Brad's grandmother.
Stewart says his grandfather still has his long-term memory, but retaining new bits of information is more tenuous.
"It's funny. Every time I have a conversation with him, we'll be talking. He always brings up, `So, where are you going to school?' I always tell him Georgia Tech. Because he went to Auburn, he's always like, `Y'all don't play Auburn anymore, do y'all?' And I always mess with him, like `No, Auburn doesn't want to play us.'"
On Saturdays, Stewart's parents, Brandon and Wendy, or a friend from Benedictine usually go to Walsh's apartment and turn on the Georgia Tech game for him. Watching his grandson puts a smile on his face (even if Stewart's leonine locks would no longer pass inspection at his old military school).
"Once he realizes it's me, he's just all for it and happy and supportive of me," Stewart said.
Walsh Sr. won't be coming to Jacksonville, but he'll likely be watching when Tech faces Kentucky on New Year's Eve. Perhaps the game will stir some old memories for him: he faced the Wildcats twice as a player at Auburn.
Whatever accolades Stewart achieves, he'll always remember the piece of advice Jim Walsh Sr. -- decorated coach, devoted grandfather -- drilled into him as a youngster.
"'Always stay humble,'" Stewart recalled. "Realize you've got to keep working as hard as you did before all of this happened."