Pigskin priorities

Stewart remains grounded as he launches pro career

The average career for an NFL running back is 2.57 seasons.

Over that span, should former Maryville High School star Carl Stewart obtain a roster spot with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the league minimum salary for an undrafted free agent is approximately $1,050,000.

A professional football career can be brief. The money made, while substantial, can be gone just as fast.

Stewart is well aware of those things. Before he boarded a plane for Buccaneer training camp on Sunday, his father, Dexter, made sure of it.

“Carl understands football is nothing guaranteed,” Dexter said. “Even if you get on a team, the (overall) average career is four years. I told him, ‘You need to think about what you’re going to do after football.’”

For now, there’s training camp for the next month. Having survived a mini camp following last week’s NFL Draft, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Stewart is returning to Tampa undaunted.

“It felt like a year,” Stewart said. “It was only a week.

“The most difficult thing was we worked in a fifth to a quarter of the playbook. A lot of guys fell off early because they couldn’t learn the plays.”

The post-draft was primarily for draftees and free agent signings like Stewart. The camp he’ll attend until mid-June will be a different endeavor all together.

“The big boys will be down there this time,” Stewart said.

Just learning their son had a shot at an NFL future was an ordeal for Dexter and wife, Margie.

Stewart followed the draft with his older sister, Kerri Prigmore, at their parent’s Alcoa home. Margie and Dexter were returning from a vacation in Las Vegas and had yet to arrive.

Round by round went by, with Carl’s name never scrolling across the bottom of the screen. Prigmore was none too pleased.

“We were all sick,” she said. “I was so mad when I didn’t see his name come across that ticker. His agent called and said he would go as a free agent.”

Signing as free agent was likely a plus for Stewart.

“If you’re going to be a fifth- or sixth-round guy, you’re better off being a free agent because you get to decide where you go,” Maryville coach George Quarles said. “Fullback is not one of those guys they’re going to spend a high draft pick on.”

Once Carl learned where he was going, Prigmore decided to spice things up for their parents. Dexter had been keeping up with the draft during layovers. He, like Kerri, was disappointed in not seeing Carl’s name.

“I was at the Charlotte airport,” he said, “mad!”

When Kerri picked her parents up at McGhee Tyson Airport, she said nothing of Carl’s free agent contract.

“We didn’t know until we walked in (the house),” Margie said. “Then they laughed at us.”

Dexter wasn’t laughing.

“He told us we were no longer welcome in his house,” Kerri said.

All was eventually forgiven, with the Stewarts throwing a goodbye dinner for Carl last Saturday prior to his departure.

“It feels good,” Stewart said. “It’s nice to know where I’m going. I’m actually getting the same deal as some people that were drafted.”

Stewart fielded several offers from teams looking for a fullback with running back speed who could get up the field like a receiver. He didn’t carry the ball nearly as much as he would have liked - or was promised - at Auburn.

“We had many father and son talks to get him through that,” Dexter said.

An unforeseen plus in fewer carriers was Stewart left Auburn in peak health. After red-shirting his freshman season, he’d had time to earn his degree in political science. Before he played his last game as a Tiger, he’d put nearly two years toward his masters degree.

Stewart was an All-SEC academic selection each of his four seasons at Auburn and was named to The National Society of Collegiate Scholars. All of it goes to why Dexter and Margie say they aren’t worried about their son betting it all on football.

As it had with Kerri, a teacher at Alcoa Middle School, academic success had always come first in the Stewart household. Margie is a teacher in the Maryville City Schools system. Dexter served on the Alcoa City Council for a six-year stretch in the early 1990s.

“We’ve been blessed with both our children,” Dexter said. “I think both of them got a lot more (Margie) than me.”

Stewart’s success on both the playing field and in the classroom dates back to his days at Maryville, and even that had a notable prelude.

“He sat on the sidelines in the eighth grade,” Margie said. “He sat on the sidelines in the ninth grade, too, drinking water.”

Come his junior year in high school, Carl was an established star with a work ethic that was genuine. His bursts off tackle were instrumental in the three consecutive Maryville state championships won during his stay. He won the state’s Mr. Football award his senior year.

At Auburn, things didn’t go as planned, but he emerged fit, healthy and a prospect pro scouts began to take notice of after the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in February.

Stewart finished first in three categories at the combine, including 30 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press. His 39-inch vertical jump and 11-foot 2-inch vertical jump was also best among running backs. All of it can only help his former charge, Quarles said.

“He’s a class act,” he said. “He’s a hard worker. He’s smart. He’s going to be able to pick up things really well.

“You’re always happy when good things happen to good people, and Carl’s a good person. I think he’ll have a very good shot.”

A better one, it turns out, than attending his dad’s old high school.

Dexter Stewart was a standout basketball player at Alcoa High, graduating in 1971. He met Margie when both were attending Warren Wilson College.

“It was hippy school,” Margie said. “It’s still a hippy school.”

The couple eventually found their way back to Alcoa. When Margie got a job in the Maryville school system, Dexter said he knew trouble was likely. Margie wanted Kerri and Carl to go to Maryville. Dexter wanted them at Alcoa.

Something had to give. Guess who won?

“That was one of our first disagreements when we got married,” Dexter said, “which school our kids would go to.”

If Margie and Dexter could weather the Rebels/Tornadoes rivalry and remain on speaking terms, their son’s chances at an NFL career are cake.

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