Jonathan Stewart set records when he played for Timberline High School, and he rampaged through the Pacific-10 Conference at Oregon.
Now the big running back means almost as much to the Carolina Panthers as they prepare for Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks.
“(He means) pretty much everything,” Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said this week. “We haven’t had him the past couple of weeks. … With the playoffs right now approaching us, it’s great to have Stewart back.”
Stewart had 78 yards on 20 carried in October when the Panthers came to Seattle and beat the Seahawks, 27-13. Newton was next with 30 yards on seven rushes.
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“It starts with Cam,” Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said. “… He’s going to dictate who gets the ball, whether he’s handing it, whether he’s keeping it. But you have to be aware of Stewart, because he’s been phenomenal this year: breaking tackles, he’s been running strong, running physical, so you have to be aware of tackling him.”
The Stewart legend was born in the South Sound where he became the leading career rusher in Washington prep football history at Timberline High School in Lacey.
His reputation grew at Oregon, where he became the Ducks’ No. 2 career rusher with 2,891 yards before leaving school after his junior season.
Now 28 and in his eighth pro season, Stewart remains a load: 5-foot-10, 235 pounds. He leads Carolina with 989 yards on 242 carries this season — despite missing the last three regular-season games with a sprained foot.
However, he has been fully involved in practice this week and sounds ready to pick up his normal duties as the top-seeded Panthers begin their postseason.
Whatever it takes to get this W, whether it’s 20 (carries), whether it’s 10. Just how I’ve viewed it my whole time here: I’m just going to do my job.
Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart, who is returning from a foot injury
“I’m here at my team’s disposal,” Stewart told the Charlotte Observer. “Whatever it takes to get this W, whether it’s 20 (carries), whether it’s 10. Just how I’ve viewed it my whole time here: I’m just going to do my job.”
Since being taken by Carolina with the 13th overall pick of the 2008 draft, he has done the job, rushing for 5,814 yards and 36 touchdowns. Those numbers rank behind only DeAngelo Williams for the club record in both categories.
Stewart returned to practice Wednesday for the first time after injuring his foot Dec. 13 against Atlanta. That game pushed the Panthers record to 13-0. They went 2-1 in his absence, the lone loss coming Dec. 27 in the rematch with the Falcons.
“People say, ‘Oh the layoff is going to hurt him,’ ” coach Ron Rivera said. “I say no not really, because if you go back to what happened last year, Jonathan was off for six weeks, and when we started our run he was our starting tailback and finished the season for us. So we feel pretty comfortable and confident having him back on the football field.”
Stewart feels the same.
“My whole thing was to get back for the playoffs (with) fresh legs and help my team,” he said.