There were nights Tony Steward couldn’t sleep. He’d lie awake in bed for hours, writhing in mental and physical pain.
This is what a torn anterior cruciate ligament can do to any athlete: rock your psyche.
And this Buffalo Bills linebacker endured this torturous cycle twice. Steward tore the ACL in one knee his senior year of high school, and then the other as a freshman at Clemson. Each ordeal was excruciating.
“It’s one of those things you don’t want to have to deal with,” said Steward, selected by the Bills in the sixth round of the NFL Draft in May. “The mental is probably just as bad – if not worse – as the physical part of it because you need to stay positive and make sure you’re staying on top of everything.
“You might take a few days off and that could be the thing that makes it worse.”
This wasn’t the path Steward chose – far from it. Out of Pedro Menendez High School in St. Augustine, Fla., he was the nation’s No. 1 outside linebacker prospect, per Rivals.com. He tore one ACL, then the other, rehabbed, stayed patient and eventually regained his explosion to record 73 tackles and 3.5 sacks as a senior with the Tigers.
On a Bills defense where only four linebackers have NFL experience, Steward has a legitimate chance to play in head coach Rex Ryan’s 3-4 scheme.
And the reason Steward even has this chance at all is how he dealt with each setback.
“It just showed me that – no matter what – bad things are going to happen,” Steward said. “There are going to be bumps in the road. But as long as you do what you have to do, you’ll have a good opportunity. As long as you don’t complain, you put your head down and you work … and work, you’ll definitely have an opportunity.”
He characterizes both tears as “freak” accidents.
Right when the buzz of Steward being one of the best prospects in the state of Florida was reaching its fever pitch, he blitzed one game and, “out of nowhere,” felt an offensive lineman blocking him low. At the time, Steward had no clue he tore his ACL, playing that entire game on one healthy leg.
“The adrenaline helped out a lot,” Steward said. “And it helped that the muscles in my legs were really strong to keep it stable.”
Tests would later reveal the season-ending injury. Steward doesn’t believe the offensive player was intentionally trying to hurt him, calling it a “football play.” All of those college scholarship offers stayed on the table, too.
But the first ACL tear was the worst because he had nobody to talk to. Steward didn’t know anybody who had torn an ACL.
The lowest low? The day his doctor broke the news.
“After I found out,” said Steward, pausing for four seconds, “I started feeling sorry for myself. And then, I don’t know, I all of a sudden snapped out of it and told myself, ‘Things like this happen all the time.’ I wasn’t the first person this happened to and I won’t be the last person. I got back to work.”
Steward headed north to Clemson and then tore the other ACL. This one struck on Oct. 18, 2011, during a punt drill. Steward backpedaled, planted to change direction and … snap.
Part of Steward wallowed in “Not again” pity after the second injury – he vented to his girlfriend plenty. But again, he rehabbed daily and took many of those exercises back home with him each night. Each rehab took about 6½ months.
“Obviously, when you tear one and a year later you tear the other, that’s the last thing that you want. I was like, dang, I’ve got to go through this all over again,” Steward said. “I can’t believe this happened again to me. And then, I just put my head down and went back to work.”
At the Clemson facility, one person Steward leaned on was Jeff Davis, the school’s assistant athletic director of football player relations and a former NFL linebacker. The key, Davis said, was Steward understanding that football is “part” of his manhood, not “all” of his manhood. The two spoke on a spiritual level, keeping the focus on the future rather than the present.
Davis works with dozens of players who suffer serious injuries. Steward’s resolve stood out.
“I know there were dark hours,” Davis said. “There were times of being stressed, times of asking those questions – and there’s nothing wrong with those things. … I always tell guys, ‘I’ve never seen a screwdriver use a man.’ The bottom line is, the man always uses the screwdriver. Tony is wired that way. He never wanted the screwdriver to use him.”
Steward wanted to play the sport again, Davis said, but more than anything he wanted to compete again. He wanted “to compete in life again.”
“Tony had that special knack for understanding, ‘I made the decision to be great, and if I’m going to do that I’m not going to allow injuries or challenges to keep me from making that happen,’ ” Davis said. “No longer is playing football the carrot. The carrot is who I am as a man.”
So through the process, Steward found himself.
And by the end of the 2012 season, he trusted his knees again. His explosion, long dormant, truly resurfaced in 2013 and 2014. Teaming with eventual first-round pick Stephone Anthony last fall, he had a team-high 13 quarterback pressures.
Before the draft, Buffalo clocked him at 4.64 in the 40-yard dash with a 34½-inch vertical and 29 reps on the bench press. Now, Steward believes raw explosion drives his game.
“I think so,” he said. “Just being able to move and keep up with the offensive guys. It’s huge.”
Ideally, Steward would be in Anthony’s shoes. A first-round pick. A potential starter Day One in the pros. Instead, the back-to-back knee surgeries derailed his development. Steward insists he never grew bitter over his once-lofty expectations. Now with Buffalo’s new staff, with Ryan sending pressure from all angles, he’ll have a shot.
Up front, Steward says “the sky’s the limit” with this Bills defense.
Davis, once a four-year captain at linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, knows Steward emerged a better person through the injuries.
“These attributes that it takes to be successful are not limited to football,” Davis said. “They’re all transferable and I believe he’s the type of man that understands it’s not transferred with the sport, it’s transferred with the man.”
Of course, the Bills hope it all transfers to the field in some fashion. They’ll find out soon.