36 Wide receivers of all shapes and sizes, speeds and skill levels were taken in the 2020 NFL Draft — the most of any position — but Michigan State’s talented and resilient wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. wasn’t one of them.
In fact, out of the 255 players selected through the draft’s seven rounds, only two Spartans were drafted this year with Josiah Scott getting selected in the 4th round by Jacksonville and Kenny Willekes going in the 7th round to Minnesota.
Despite breaking his leg and missing the last four games, Scott finished his senior season with career-high totals in catches (49) yards (697) and TDs (4). Stewart returned from his injury to play in the Pinstripe Bowl and began preparing for his NFL opportunity. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound playmaker completed his MSU career, third all-time in receptions with 150 catches for 1,640 yards and seven touchdowns.
If not for the broken leg, Stewart probably would have been chosen within those seven rounds. The injury combined with the wealth of receiving talent in the draft contributed to Stewart going undrafted despite having obvious NFL talent.
A minor setback in his eyes.
“I definitely considered it (being out with injury and rehabbing) very challenging at times, but a lot of things in my life were,” Stewart tells The Shadow League. “So I just took it as a chance to show how strong I am in my faith and I have too much work to do to let that break me. I have been through tougher things in life. I believe what I learned early in my life has prepared me for the time to stay patient and keep working.”
Family Tragedy Builds Strength
Navigating this NFL maze is challenging, but pales in comparison to when Darrell’s father died in a tragic AV accident.
When Darrell was younger his father took a job as a government contractor overseas to provide for his family to have a better life. His father worked in Afghanistan and Iraq and sent money back home to his mom and siblings. He adored his father and describes how prominent his dad was in his life and was the ultimate leader. Darrell’s father was his everything and the inspiration to his childhood dreams of going pro. After his father’s death, Darrell, just a seventh-grader at the time, had to figure out his ascension into manhood without his guiding light.
“He was my best friend,” said Stewart, who has tried to follow in his father’s example of sacrifice, even joining a 10-person team of Spartans who volunteered with the Hurricane Harvey relief efforts during the 2017 bye weekend in Houston.
“He was everything to me growing up because he was everything I wanted to be,” Stewart fondly recalls. Great at sports, a phenomenal person and you always wanted to be around him. So him being taken from my life at a really important time in my life especially being a young boy in middle school and trying to figure things out without my Dad was rough.”
Prior to the draft, Stewart told The Shadow League that the “Jets, Ravens, Eagles, or Jaguars” would probably be his destination — in the late sixth or early seventh round. Not hearing his name called at all in the 2020 NFL Draft was another minor setback. Again, Stewart’s used to those.
“I want to get drafted, I feel like that’s everybody’s childhood dream is to get your name called,” Stewart told TSL on the morning of the first round of the Draft.
“I always understand that this is a business and everything doesn’t happen how you want it to, but you have to stay the course of the process. Whatever happens these next few days is not going to be my climax in football,” Stewart insisted. “I am one of the best receivers in this draft and my next goal after I make the league is to make the Pro Bowl.”
A Home in Green Bay
As you can see, these pitfalls don’t tatter Stewart’s confidence at all. When Stewart’s name wasn’t called over seven rounds of the draft, he stayed optimistic and was eventually signed as an undrafted free agent by the Green Bay Packers. The Pack conveniently have a Hall of Fame quarterback in Aaron Rodgers who desperately needs a dynamic playmaker at wide receiver.
So as he’s done many times before, Stewart — a quiet but confident kid born in Houston, Texas — will attempt to make lemonade out of lemons — this time in Wisconsin, where the fans love underdog stories and guys who can take an L and get right back up.
Stewart says his father’s death also put a huge financial burden on his family. Not only did he lose his idol, hero, best friend, and greatest inspiration, but his mom, two brothers, and two sisters changed locations often, trying to stay above water.
“I grew up in the Northside of Houston and moved around quite a bit,” Stewart says. Pitstops included the notoriously dangerous Greenspoint area, which at the time was known as “Gunspoint.”
“Fortunately for me, growing up as a kid I never paid attention to the negative things going on I was just happy for the fact that I had friends and activities. It was an amazing thing,” Stewart said.
It Takes A Village
“There’s an old saying that my grandmother and mom use: ‘It takes a village to raise a child,” said Stewart, who credits his older siblings, especially his brother Jeremy Johnson, with filling the void, supporting him in his Dad’s absence.
“They helped me take responsibility and made me pursue everything,” said Stewart. “My older brother has always been a great guy. He always showed me resilience and made me put my best foot forward regardless of what the situation is. I lost my Dad but he blessed me with a lot of great siblings”
Stewart’s family made sure that he took responsibility and continued to pursue his dreams.
“Not living in the best neighborhoods, living in different apartments and projects, they always told me the things I needed to hear and not that which I wanted to hear and it pushed me to another level,” Stewart graciously recalls.
That next level was at Nimitz High School in Houston, Texas, where Stewart carried on the tradition of family members who preceded him at the school.
“Going there I knew I had a lot to look forward to because I had people who set the foundation and laid the way and I didn’t want to let them down, I also had uncles and cousins who wanted me to do good because they saw the sacrifice my dad put into his family. They knew I had the talent and always pushed me so I could see the fruits of my labor.“
The next level was Big Ten power school Michigan State.
Stewart recalls his first game as a Spartan:
“I remember playing in front of 80,000 and I was just thinking to myself, you worked so hard to get here, don’t mess up.”
“Michigan State was an amazing experience, it was a bit different for me at first coming from down south in Houston where it’s hot all the time to a state where it was just winter every season. But from a football aspect God blessed me to go to an astounding program with great coaches and the entire Spartan family embraced me with open arms and I never had a bad experience there playing football.”
Now that he’s got an NFL team, Stewart would be lying if he said he didn’t want some get back against the many franchises that slept on his skills.
23 NFL teams selected a wide receiver. 13 receivers were selected in the first two rounds, which is the most in NFL Draft history. 10 teams picked at least two wide receivers and the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, and Oakland Raiders took 3.
Despite the shade from myriad NFL squads, falling into the lap of the Green Bay Packers is another blessing for Stewart. It’s almost too good to be true.
He will immediately get a chance to grab significant time at wide receiver alongside Davante Adams and inject some fresh, hungry blood into the Packers offense.
“Get the popcorn ready,” Stewart told The Shadow League, “because you’re going to be amazed by what I do in the NFL and if you doubted me I’m not mad at you I’m just gonna show you that doubting is just an opinion.
Still Laughing With Pops
Some guys would rest on their laurels at this point. Not Stewart, who can tell you exactly what his Dad would say during this moment if he was still here.
Stewart, who won the Doug Weaver “Oil Can” Award (team humorist) three years in a row (2017-19), gets his comical side from his Dad. “He’d probably say something sarcastic or funny like “good job but this doesn’t stop anything,” Stewart guessed. “He’d say, meet me at the celebration when they’re handing out gold jackets (for the HOF).”
A HOF jacket would be a fitting end to a journey for a young man who lost so much so early but was able to still rise above his circumstance to accomplish something remarkable. For now, Stewart’s going to make the most of his opportunity with the Packers. The best is yet to come