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Stewart Goes From Safety Valve to Lead Role in Ram Defense

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

You’re Michael Stewart, a 2nd-year safety from Fresno State. You haven’t started a game all year for the Rams. Unless Vince Newsome, an All-Pro waiting to happen, goes down with an injury, you’re going to spend the year on special teams.

Vince Newsome goes down with an injury. A neck problem, diagnosed earlier this week as a herniated disk, ends Newsome’s season.

Now you’re really nervous, right? The Seattle Seahawks are in town Sunday and chances are they’ll be picking on you. So you tossed and turned all Saturday night, eh Mike?

“No,” Stewart said.

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Well, then, you were probably up at the crack of dawn, right, thinking about what Seahawk wide receiver Steve Largent might do to you?

“No,” he said. “Matter of fact, I slept a little later than usual.”

Oh.

If Stewart was nervous Sunday at Anaheim Stadium, he didn’t show it--at least not to the Seahawks. The Stewart they saw stripped the ball from running back Curt Warner’s hands on the first play from scrimmage and recovered it, too.

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Four plays later . . . a Ram touchdown.

The Stewart they watched plucked a second-quarter Kelly Stouffer pass from the air and returned it 43 yards.

Nine plays later . . . another Ram touchdown.

Stewart had 7 tackles. He made an appearance on one of the special teams. Nervous? Stewart played as if he were trying to win a bet--which he was in a way.

Back in the summer of 1987, veteran Ram cornerback LeRoy Irvin took one look at Stewart during practice and decided he was watching a future All-Pro at work. Irvin even told him that; that it was only a matter of time before Stewart found his way into the Ram lineup and onto some postseason honor roll.

“We knew he was ready to play,” Irvin said.

Now everyone does, thanks to two plays that crippled the Seahawks and helped the Rams to their sixth victory in eight tries.

As play-by-play description goes, Stewart needs some work. His recollection of the hit that sent the ball squirting away from Warner was a fascinating, “Any time you create turnovers, it helps the ballclub.”

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His memory concerning the interception was slightly better. He saw Stouffer’s pass tipped at the line of scrimmage. Then he saw Irvin make his way toward the ball. Then, somehow, the ball was in his own hands.

“I just took off running with it,” Stewart said.

The Rams, of course, were thrilled with Stewart’s day. Why not? They lose Newsome and get a fumble recovery, an interception and 7 tackles from his young replacement. Even Newsome, who watched the game in street clothes, was quick with praise.

“He did great,” Newsome said. “He was kind of shaky at the beginning, getting his reads down, that sort of thing. Then when he calmed down, he played well. He played really well.

“He going to be a great safety in this league,” he said. “He’s going to last a long time.”

And this from Mickey Sutton, a part-timer who knows the feeling of abrupt substitutions: “As a backup, you’re always one play away from being in the game. I think (Stewart) performed well. It’s always a little hard coming in on short notice.”

Most proud was Ram free safety Johnnie Johnson, who spent most of his week as a tutor to Stewart, rookie Anthony Newman and James Washington. It was Johnson who spent almost 2 hours on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Rams Park with the three young defensive backs, reviewing Seahawk game film, Ram coverages, Seattle offensive tendencies.

You name it, Stewart, Newman and Washington looked at it.

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“It’s just a matter of them learning the system,” Johnson said.

Johnson does this sort of thing every week. But this time assistant coach Steve Shafer asked Johnson, a 9-year veteran, if he’d mind taking on a few students. Sure, said Johnson.

The result? “All three of those guys played extra well (Sunday),” Johnson said.

This isn’t the first time Stewart has moved from understudy to starter. Last year, when Newsome injured his knee in Week 11, Stewart made his first regular-season start. Newsome returned the next game, re-injured his knee and Stewart finished the remaining three games as the team’s strong safety.

That helped. After all, there’s only so much you can learn during a controlled practice session.

It might also explain why Stewart appeared as calm as, well, a regular. And why he slept like a log the night before.

“Last year, I wouldn’t have been able to say that.”

There are still some adjustments to be made. For one, someone needs to change the spelling of his name on the cover of his Ram playbook. Right now, it reads: Mike Steward .

And someone needs to tell Stewart that you don’t gently toss your first National Football League regular-season interception back to the referee.

You clutch it like a newborn and make sure it gets into equipment manager Don Hewitt’s hands. Hewitt and his son, Todd, are in charge of decorating the special footballs with name, date, place, etc.

Stewart can rest easy, though. If that was the worst mistake he made all day, the Rams can live with it. Anyway, arrangements are being made.

“Don’t worry,” Don Hewitt said. “We’ll get it painted for him.”

Just remember to spell the name right.


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