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 right."
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."