From the very start James Stewart was the wrong guy in the wrong place. Jacksonville is a city in which Florida Gators rule and Tennessee Volunteers are treated like something Sigourney Weaver should've blown away in her Alien movies. Stewart happened to be one of Tennessee's best players ever, and as a running back for the Jacksonville Jaguars for the past five years, he learned that fans of SEC programs are fiercely loyal and have long memories.
After scoring a team-record five touchdowns in a 1997 game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Alltel Stadium, Stewart didn't win over the Jaguars' faithful. Even last season, when he tied Edgerrin James of the Indianapolis Colts for the AFC lead with 13 rushing touchdowns, Stewart had his detractors. Sitting in the Alltel stands and watching her husband play last year, Jennifer Stewart would mostly hear the crowd call for the return of injured running back Fred Taylor, a former Gator. Stewart never stood a chance in north Florida.
"I would get comments like, 'I guess you're all right even though you're from Tennessee,' " recalls Stewart, who still holds the Vols' career rushing record of 2,890 yards and helped Tennessee beat Florida once in his four years in Knoxville. "They were things that never should've been said. Jacksonville was a college town before the Jaguars arrived [in 1995], but I think they're learning how to be a pro town. I felt like saying, 'Grow up. I'm not in college anymore.' "
The 19th pick in the '95 draft, Stewart gained 3,793 total yards—but never the acceptance he yearned for—during his years in Jacksonville. Now, having signed a five-year, $25 million free-agent contract with the Detroit Lions in February, Stewart believes he's in a place where he has a fair chance to win that respect. By outbidding the Cleveland Browns for Stewart's services, the Lions all but signaled the end of the Barry Sanders era. "We have to move on, and we are," says Ron Hughes, Detroit's vice president of player personnel. "To constantly lick our wounds—that's the sign of a loser."
Tired of playing for mediocre teams in Detroit, Sanders stunned the Lions and the rest of the football world by suddenly retiring last July. Though one of his three agents, Peter Schaffer, has suggested that his client might report to training camp in July—presumably as a ploy, in an effort to fulfill contractual obligations and avoid repaying a portion of his $11 million signing bonus—Detroit expects to see Grant Hill in its backfield before it sees Sanders again. Nevertheless, the future Hall of Famer's electrifying running style won't be forgotten by Lions fans anytime soon.
Stewart is anything but electric. What he is, in fact, is dogged, a 6'1", 227-pound grinder. During a career with the Jaguars that spanned 60 games, he averaged 3.9 yards per carry. "I've told people that if you're looking for Barry, you're going to be disappointed," Stewart says. "If you're looking for a team-oriented guy who will work hard, that's what you'll see. I don't do razzle-dazzle. I play football."
Last season Greg Hill, Ron Rivers and Sedrick Irvin combined for 970 yards in a Detroit offense that ranked 28th in the league in rushing, down 18 spots from the previous season, when Sanders ran for 1,491 yards. The Lions believe they have upgraded the position significantly from 1999, but how will Stewart and his blue-collar style play in Motown? "When we brought him in, we told him he didn't have to carry the load [by himself]," says Detroit coach Bobby Ross. "We've got a good passing game. What we've asked him to do is be a big piece in the puzzle."
From a personality standpoint, Stewart and Sanders are similar—unassuming, selfless and publicity-shy. Stewart says he had one close friend in high school, another in college. In Jacksonville, he says, he confided in fellow ballcarriers Taylor and Natrone Means. That desire for privacy left many unaware of how adversity has affected him.
Stewart has played a full NFL season only once, in 1997, and has yet to have a 1,000-yard year. By the end of the '96 season he was suffering from turf toe on both feet and had to watch as Means rambled for 315 total yards in the two playoff victories that propelled Jacksonville to the AFC Championship Game. Two years later, after running for more than 100 yards in each of his first two games, Stewart saw his season end in Game 3 when he partially tore the ACL in his left knee on the Jaguars' third snap of the game. On his first carry as Stewart's replacement, Taylor, the team's rookie first-round draft choice, raced 52 yards for a touchdown, and he went on to set 29 team records that season.
Stewart never complained about his misfortune, but he believes the Jaguars lost faith in him way back in '95—the year he and the team were NFL newcomers—when he gained 525 yards on 137 carries. Jacksonville signed Means the following March, and by the start of the '97 season, Means was the primary back. "I never got the chance to improve," says Stewart. "I was a rookie on a franchise that was going to struggle. But it was like I was being evaluated off one year when everything was new and we had players who would've been third-and fourth-stringers on other teams. I felt they didn't stick by me."