WINCHESTER – Each Saturday during college football season, Casey Stewart dons the red, white and blue uniform of Shenandoah University and takes the field alongside his teammates. One weekend a month, the Front Royal native also reunites with a different team, one to which those same colors hold even more significance.
Stewart is a student-athlete and a college football player, and at the same time he’s a soldier in the National Guard. For the first time since enlisting in January 2017, he’s balancing those three responsibilities and finding a winning harmony that has him thriving on and off the football field.
“It’s like I’m living kind of a different life, a different lifestyle,” Stewart, a receiver for SU’s football team and a 2014 graduate of Warren County High School, said recently of joining the National Guard, a path he chose initially to help pay for school but has since found a great passion for. “I get to enjoy college and football, but sometimes it’s overwhelming. And when I get to go there (for his military duties) I’m around different people who still have the same goals, you’re all doing the same thing, you’re all suffering together, you’re all enjoying the good moments together and it’s kind of one of those things that I really took upon me that I enjoy. I love it now. I’m just making the best of it.”
In order to make his unique situation work, Stewart had to ensure that he could indeed give his best to all parties involved. That meant getting the OK from Shenandoah head coach Scott Yoder to pursue his military aspirations while remaining a member of the Hornets’ football team, and informing his commanding officer of his status as a college football player in order to figure out a way to work around the conflicting schedules.
Stewart was able to work out a solution, thanks to what he said has been a willingness on the part of the National Guard to make exceptions to his military obligations during football season. The junior is still required to report for drill once a month in accordance with National Guard standards, but Stewart won’t be asked to miss football games, and he said his status as a college student leaves him exempt from being called to duty in the case of a state of emergency.
Yoder, who offered his support of Stewart’s military venture, said his biggest concern was making sure his star receiver could “do both at the level he wants to and not short-change one or the other.”
Three games into the season, that hasn’t been a problem. Stewart, a big target for quarterback Hayden Bauserman at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, has caught 10 passes for 195 yards and five touchdowns, and he’s already one TD grab shy of matching his entire output from 2017, when he emerged as a dangerous red-zone weapon for the Hornets.
“It takes a special person to do it,” Yoder said of Stewart’s ability to handle his role as a National Guard infantryman in addition to being a football player, “and certainly I think it’s a really cool thing because first of all it’s needed, and second of all, obviously it’s not something you do lightly. So you wanna support the young people in that regard. I think they’ve gotta understand there’s always some give and take. If you wanna do something you’re gonna have to sacrifice something, and in this case it was ‘can we make preseason work and can we make the season work and you not kind of feel torn in two different directions?’ So far it’s worked out fine, and we like having him on Saturdays, so it’s working out pretty well for us.”
Stewart’s sacrifices during the season to this point have been minimal. His first drill for the National Guard since the start of the 2018 college football season came on Sept. 8, the same day the Hornets hosted North Carolina Wesleyan in their home opener.
Stewart reported to the Virginia Army National Guard Armory in Woodstock that morning to turn in some old gear and was back in Winchester by noon, in plenty of time for Shenandoah’s 7 p.m. kickoff. His next drill is scheduled for a Saturday and Sunday in October, he said, though he won’t report until Sunday, a day generally filled with film review and weight lifting for the Hornets.
At other times, Stewart’s college football career has taken a more direct hit. After enlisting in the National Guard at the beginning of 2017, Stewart shipped out to basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia, on the day after Christmas that year. He missed most of Shenandoah’s spring practice while he spent the next 14 weeks in boot camp, waking up each morning at 4:30 a.m. and training until 10 or 11 at night.
“It’s just every day you’re training something new, doing something new,” Stewart said of basic training. “You do a lot of stuff that you’ve never done before, you never thought you would do before. It’s one of those things, I’m a really competitive person, so I love learning new stuff. I love trying stuff that I never thought I would do. I’d never shot a machine gun before I went there, and learning how to do that was awesome. You have team-building exercises. You have individual exercises. How far can you push yourself? How far are you willing to go? Which I think relates to football a lot, because one thing I learned there is if you’re not mentally tough, you probably won’t do as much as you can.”
Stewart, who said he made an appearance at SU toward the end of spring practice to show his coaches and teammates that he was still invested in the Hornets’ football program, also was forced to miss the first week of Shenandoah’s preseason camp in August while at a two-week training exercise at Fort A.P. Hill, located about 21 miles southeast of Fredericksburg.
“It shows how hard of a worker he is,” Bauserman said. “He’s able to balance all those things, in school, in football, in the National Guard and everything. Obviously it’s a tremendous honor to play with a kid like that, who’s protecting our freedom and could get called at any point and is still coming out here and playing football with us and doing everything.
“Also, he’s become a bigger leader in the wide receivers room. He’s kind of taken over that role as the vet, kind of leading meetings and things like that, keeping guys longer to watch film. He’s a hard worker and he’s gonna get things done. As a teammate, seeing him grow as a leader is pretty special.”
Stewart said he has a six-year contract with the National Guard with an additional two years of inactive reserve if he chooses not to re-up his contract.
Stewart, who is studying criminal justice, said he wants to work for the federal government and plans to apply to the FBI, CIA and DEA upon his college graduation. If he doesn’t get accepted into those agencies, he said, he’ll attend officer candidate school, after which he’ll reapply for a federal government job. If that again doesn’t pan out, Stewart will consider active duty.
That last option would bring full circle a desire to pursue a military career that he held during high school, when he wanted to join the Marines. Stewart, who attended Skyline High School before transferring across town to Warren County for his senior year, can’t remember what exactly ignited that original desire to join the armed forces, but what drives him now is the knowledge that not everyone is cut out for such a lifestyle.
“I enjoy the challenge that it brings every day,” he said. “It forces me to want to better myself every day, because you get these guys in the National Guard who are just in it to be in it. They don’t really take advantage of it. I wanna take advantage of it and I wanna be the best soldier that I can be. I think it’s shown so far. I’m gonna keep trying to do everything I can and be the best soldier for them, for this country.”