A child of the Depression, Stewart’s calculated path of escape was college football. While he made that plan before he strapped on a helmet, he tumbled stumbling blocks like he did linebackers to eventually land in the NFL.
Saturday he will be inducted into his second hall of fame, Calhoun County Sports Hall of Fame.
Those who played alongside Vaughn Stewart in the era of the early 40s are limited. Don Salls, 93, jokes that’s one of the perks of getting old, being the only one left to talk about things. Even though it was 70 years ago, Salls recalls in great detail his Alabama 1941 national championship teammate.
“He had the most beautiful form of any center I’ve ever seen,” said Salls, Jacksonville State’s winningest coach. “He was picture of perfection.”
But it was just one detail in Stewart’s plan.
While his contemporaries are few, tales of Stewart’s time live on in an autobiography, “Anniston Memories.” In it, he lays out in great detail his life plan down to the admission he “even deliberately failed some courses to give myself an extra year in high school.”
His careful considerations of the sport and his talent worked, he made all-county and second-team all-state honors twice, but his growth physically never took hold. Alabama even tried a redshirt season and special diet to add weight. Again, it failed to work as — by his account — he played at only 171 pounds, called by Birmingham papers at the time the smallest center in 20 years. Stewart, though, was undeterred, earning a spot on the Southeastern Conference All-Sophomore team.
“He wasn’t a big man,” Salls said. “But he played like one.”
His play came from being a student of the game, Stewart wrote. Before he ever donned a varsity uniform at Anniston, he said he began studying the Anniston players of his day, the game and the nuances of his position — in those days both offense and defense.
“A guard coming out of the huddle would do one of two things. Look at the feet of the man directly in front of him to zero in on his proper position or to cast a quick glance out to the feet of the end to get the reassurance of what blocking him involved. I searched the eyes of all of them coming out of the huddle until I found someone who was giving the plays away and then I stayed with them. There was no use of going any further.”
His skills bordered on the clairvoyant, even drawing a 1939 practice to a halt at the direction of an up-and-coming assistant coach after making a lot of tackles in the opposition’s backfield.
“Bear hollered out: Hold everything … Alright Stewart … tell us who is giving the plays away,” Stewart wrote.
But that was just one way he used mind over athletic ability.
Stewart perfected snapping the ball and “crow hopping” the gap to get to defenders quicker. He, too, called himself immune to pain. Before it had been labeled trash talking, Stewart had perfected it, calling it, instead, abuse with a purpose — getting in a player’s head to take him off his game.
All of those attributes played a part in Alabama’s championship in 1941, but Stewart wasn’t around until the end. Military service took him off the field before Alabama’s Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M.
After his military stint, Stewart returned and played two seasons in the NFL. When he hung his cleats up, he stayed close to the game in his own way.
In his spare time he became a sports cartoonist for the Huntsville Times and was one of the founding members of the Huntsville-Madison County Athletic Hall of Fame, which he was inducted into in 1990. He died two years later.
“You really don’t see (athletes) with an artistic side,” said John Preuitt, longtime Times sports editor. “… but he had a real flair for it.”
But there was hardly anything Stewart couldn’t do — again, part of that plan and its root: positive thinking.
“You simply used your ego as a power device. You make a positive statement about what you planned to do in the way of career accomplishments and you challenge your ego to fulfill the prophesy.”
Bran Strickland is the assistant managing editor for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3590 or follow him on Twitter @bran_strickland.