It was early in the second half that an official came over to Sylvester Croom with a warning.
“He told me, ‘Coach, if you don’t get Stewart under control we’re going to put him out of the game,’ ” Croom recalled this week. “He told me David was doing some extra stuff.
“I called David over to the sideline and he is in one of the most intense states I’ve ever seen him in.”
It was not the fact that Mississippi State, which had lost its previous five games, was still in it against No. 20 Florida that day (Oct. 23, 2004) that had Stewart so worked up. It was not because the game was in Starkville or the product of any sort of motivational tactic by the offensive captain and third-year starter at right tackle.
“The deal was, he said they were picking on [on running back Jerious] Norwood in the pile and doing stuff to him,” Croom said. “He wasn’t going to let it happen. I just told him, ‘David, do whatever you have to do but don’t get thrown out of this game because we can’t win without you.’ ”
For Croom, in his first season as Mississippi State coach, the encounter provided some real insight into the soft-spoken anchor of his offensive line. For Tennessee Titans teammates, coaches and fans it is the same sort of thing they have seen time and time again since Stewart came to the NFL as a fourth-round pick in the 2004 draft.
Arguably, there is no better teammate … for those who actually are his teammates, that is.
Stewart’s discomfort with media inquiries is now the stuff of legend and has allowed him to maintain a large measure of anonymity despite the fact that he has started all but eight games over the last seven seasons. He wants no special attention or any sort of notoriety, which makes him unusual in an era when athletes’ star power is an increasingly valuable commodity.
That’s not to say he hides within the figurative shadows of the team structure, though. It’s more like he lurks there, a vigilante ready and willing to exact his form as justice whenever and wherever he perceives a wrong.
“Dave’s a good dude,” veteran backup tackle Mike Otto said. “It’s one of those deals. All the O-linemen know if anything happens the other guys are going to have your back. Dave is just a little more enthusiastic about getting in the scraps. He enjoys the physical part of the game and you know if anything happens he’s always going to be there and have your back.”
Norwood, who played six seasons in the NFL in his own right, and Stewart hunted together so they had a bond that extended beyond the offensive huddle, but the protective instincts of the man affectionately known as “Big Country” are not confined to his closest friends, and they don’t distinguish between games or practices.
Already during the current training camp he involved himself in a spat between Otto and Thaddeus Gibson. Following a brief physical encounter, the verbal jousting between the two continued. It was not long before Stewart had heard enough, stepped in and showed Gibson aside in a manner that signaled a clear end to the shenanigans.
Similar scenes have played out in previous camps, preseason games and regular-season contests throughout the years. Those who wear the same uniform, virtually regardless of position on the depth chart or time spent in the league, enjoy the same measure of security.
“Quarterback, running back and offensive lineman teammates — if anybody is going to try to do something he’s going to protect you,” left tackle Michael Roos said. “That’s the kind of guy you want on your side. You don’t want to go against it.”
Well, most don’t. Those who do, rarely have a choice in the matter.
“It’s always in the moment,” Roos said. “It happens. I don’t think it’s something he even realizes he might do. It’s just in his DNA and he does. We might watch something on film later and watch it and you maybe forgot he did it.”
The exception — on both counts — came Oct. 19, 2008, at Kansas City. That day the Titans rolled to a 34-10 victory and set a franchise record with 332 rushing yards.
At some point that day, Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard had enough.
“They were running the ball down our throat so I was a little hot at that and he was the first one I saw,” Pollard said. “You have to try to pick a fight. We were getting beat bad so somebody better pinch somebody. That’s kind of what happened.”
The moment was captured in a photo that hung in Stewart’s locker for years. The 6-foot-7, 313-pound offensive lineman and the 6-foot-1, 226-pound defensive back squared off like a couple of boxers, their dukes up, each daring the other to make the first move.
Pollard got a look at it not long after he signed with Tennessee as a free agent this offseason.
“That was actually hilarious to be able to see that picture,” Pollard said. “… He came over and had me sign it. Big Country is a good guy. You don’t really realize as far as the guys you play against until you’re on the same team and understand them.”
The view of Stewart by those who play against him is obvious. He ranked fifth on a list of the NFL’s dirtiest players last November in a poll of 103 players conducted by The Sporting News.
Those who play with him are equally certain of their position, which makes sense because everyone knows exactly where they stand with him.
“David is for the team,” said Croom, now the Titans running backs coach. “If he likes you you’re going to know it, and if he doesn’t like you you’re going to know that. He’s not going to be wishy-washy about it.”
As for the game against Florida nine years ago: Stewart did not get kicked out, and Mississippi State won 38-31 on Norwood’s 37-yard touchdown run with 32 seconds to play.
“David hasn’t changed at all,” Croom said. “He was Big Country. He’s still Big Country. Very quiet, hard working. Just a tough guy. A good person, but a very, very tough and as down-to-earth a guy as anybody I’ve ever been around. You can’t be around David very long without coming to like him and respect him as a man.
“He doesn’t say a lot of words but he says a lot by the way he handles himself. You respect him. You like him. He helps people. You just like being around him. Then when he gets in a game he is going to do everything he can to win his individual battle and try to help the team win.”