Twenty years ago, Gary Barnett arrived at Northwestern to begin one of the greatest rebuilding projects in college football history, and Matt Stewart, formerly a morning news anchor at KCTV Channel 5, was in on the ground floor.
Stewart, a high school standout at defensive back in Omaha, Neb., walked on to the Northwestern program and grew along with the Wildcats, becoming a scholarship player as the team went from Big Ten doormat to conference champion.
His experiences are chronicled in The Walk-On, a self-published book available at
Q. What was the book’s inspiration?
A. Northwestern’s rise from the bottom of the Big Ten to the Rose Bowl is one of the most amazing football stories of all time, and no one’s really written about it, at least from a player’s perspective. And not many walk-ons have written about their experiences and the struggles of trying to earn playing time. Usually, it’s the stars who write the book, or have someone write it for them. I wanted to show others that no matter what your goals, if you work hard and believe in your abilities and never give up, anything is possible.
Q. Eventually, you received a scholarship. Were you treated differently, before and after?
A. Coach Barnett treated everyone the same. One time, one of our stars showed up late for a meeting and Coach Barnett threw him out. That sent us a clear message. Most of my teammates didn’t even know I was a walk-on. It’s not like I wore a scarlet letter. But I knew I was a walk-on and I struggled with my self-confidence. I didn’t get the same opportunities to play like my recruited teammates and I felt like I had to work twice as hard as everyone else just to get noticed.
Q. Gary Barnett seems to be a master at motivation. Which of his tactics was most memorable?
A. My junior year, we beat Notre Dame and jumped into the rankings for the first time in forever. We became cocky and lost our second game to Miami, Ohio. Our confidence was shattered. At a team meeting, Coach Barnett told us how in Africa, they catch monkeys with coconuts. They cut a hole in it and put a banana at the bottom. The monkey reaches in and can’t gets its fist out. They stay stuck. If they would let go of the banana they would free themselves. Coach Barnett said if we held on to that loss we would continue to lose. We had to let it go. And we won our final nine games.
Q. Upon arriving at Northwestern, did you think a Rose Bowl was possible?
A. When Coach Barnett arrived, he introduced the slogan “Expect Victory.” He engrained it into our subconscious and we learned to accept nothing less.
Q. Do you wear your two Big Ten championship rings?
A. I did the first couple of years after college to try and impress the women, but now that I’m married they stay in a box in the basement. I do wear them, though, when I give motivational speeches to young athletes and coaches.