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Perseverance pays off for Bengals running back

SUNY Buffalo State running back Dale Stewart says the greatest football moment of his life was watching his brother, James Starks, win the Super Bowl in 2011 with the Green Bay Packers.

“I went on the field, I met a number of players, it was awesome,” said Stewart, a high school senior at the time. “I was star struck. You see all these players you never think you’ll run into. I met Deion Sanders, James Harrison. It was pretty cool.”

The fact Starks helped the Packers to a thrilling, 31-25 win over Pittsburgh made it the experience of a lifetime.

Just a few days later, Stewart experienced one of the scariest moments of his life when he got back home to Niagara Falls. Stewart was sleeping at his grandfather’s house when three armed men broke in, awakened him and robbed the place. They stole Stewart’s computer, among other items.

“They knew who I was because they said my name,” Stewart said. “That freaked me out. Whoever the dude was, he said, ‘That’s Dale, he plays football.’ That’s exactly what he said, and he left. ... I thank God for the situation. I was scared but at the same time, I’m just happy to be here.”

Was Stewart spared injury because the thieves knew he was a star football player? He doesn’t know.

But the two events so close together represent the highs and lows Stewart has experienced on a long road to get onto the college football field.

Stewart is a star for Buffalo State. He got his junior season off to a big start Saturday when he scored four touchdowns to help the Bengals rally from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Otterbein, 29-26. Stewart rushed for 132 yards, produced 235 all-purpose yards and scored the winning TD with 34 seconds left.

Buffalo State (1-0) has a week off before facing Alfred at home Sept. 17.

Stewart, 24, is six years removed from his senior high school season. He was a first-team All-Western New York pick in 2010 after starring for Niagara Falls High at quarterback, running back, receiver, defensive back and kick returner.

“The first two times he touched the ball for the varsity, he scored,” said Niagara Falls coach Don Bass. “I’ve been coaching since the late ’90s, and for a complete package, Dale Stewart is the best high school football player I’ve ever coached. Absolutely.”

How high is that praise? Bass coached Starks.

Stewart was supposed to follow in Starks’ footsteps at the University at Buffalo. He accepted a scholarship offer from former UB coach Jeff Quinn. But when Stewart’s test scores came in that summer, they did not meet UB’s admission standards.

Stewart landed at Iowa Western Community College, a national junior college powerhouse. Over a two-and-a-half-year span there, Stewart earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice. But he never hit the field.

“I was on the roster, but there were a lot of great players,” Stewart said. “A couple players from Iowa Western who I stay in contact with are on my brother’s team in Green Bay now.”

“There were no issues with the coaches,” Stewart maintains. “I practiced and I lifted, and that’s pretty much it. It humbled me.”

Stewart came back in the summer of 2014, degree in hand, hoping and expecting that Quinn would take him back at UB. Then Quinn got fired midway through the 2014 season.

Late Buffalo State assistant coach Gene Zinni knew Stewart and encouraged him to become a Bengal. Stewart enrolled in January 2015.

“Isn’t that great how fate worked out for Buffalo State?” said Bengals coach Jerry Boyes.

Finally, Stewart hit the field a year ago. He split time in the Bengals backfield. In 11 games, he produced 831 rushing yards, 240 receiving yards, 628 kickoff return yards and 10 touchdowns.

Now he’s aiming to build on that showing.

“If you’re producing on the field and doing everything right in the classroom, you’ll have more eyes on you,” Stewart said. “I felt like I needed to be better as a leader this year. If I’m doing everything correct, then you should be doing the same. And if we’re all doing everything correct, things won’t go wrong. And if there is a sudden change, we’ll be ready for it.”

“He has tremendous talent,” Boyes said. “He has tremendous competitiveness. You’re going to get the most out of Dale on every play. Frankly, I feel Dale gets upset if he doesn’t score every time he touches the ball, which is what you want.”

As with so many products of Niagara Falls’ downtrodden neighborhoods, just getting to college was an achievement for Stewart. For most of Stewart’s youth, his father was in prison. He’s out now, and the two have a good relationship, Stewart said. But Stewart has leaned heavily on his mother, Lillie Hall, and his older brother in order to persevere.

“It’s a tremendous credit to Dale that he has survived – not necessarily literally survived but has endured through adversity,” Boyes said.

Stewart says he talks to Starks every day.

“He’s a big role model to me,” Stewart said. “It’s kind of a tough love thing. A lot of people just think because where he’s at, everything comes easy to him. But he has worked hard for all the things he has, and that’s what he has showed me.”

Stewart admits there were times he doubted if he’d hit the field again.

“I thought about it all the time,” he said. “Do I want to play football anymore? Is it for me? What people see in me, am I not seeing something?”

“But I love football,” he said. “If I ever had the possibility to make money for it, it would be great because then I could support my family. But in general, I just love football, ever since I was a little kid playing in the snow.”


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