There's a calmness to ArDarius Stewart when asked to explain his, at times, seemingly chaotic but impressive journey into professional football.
"Basically, it was just rough and tough. You know how football is. I mean, it’s a man's game and it’s also a business," Stewart said following Day 18 of Blue Bombers training camp Tuesday, the first at IG Field. "That’s something I learned growing up, going through the process. That's just what it is."
A standout receiver with Alabama, a football factory and the most impressive U.S. NCAA Div-1 school over the past decade, Stewart captured an SEC Championship in all three years he played for the Crimson Tide. He also won a National Championship in his second campaign, in 2015.
After a breakout season the following year, the 27-year-old native of Fultondale — a city in Alabama, about an hour drive from Bryant-Denny Stadium, where the Crimson Tide plays — Stewart was selected in the third round by the New York Jets in the 2017 NFL Draft. That May, he inked a four-year deal worth $3.25 million.
What followed was an up-and-down rookie season, a violation of the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances, resulting in a two-game suspension to start his sophomore season, followed by a transfer to the practice squad and then his eventual release. Stewart bounced around two more NFL spots, in Oakland and then Washington, before exiting the league in early January of 2019.
He now finds himself in Winnipeg after catching the eye of the team's scouting staff, having not played in a game for years, dating back to when he was with the Jets.
"They’re getting a professional," Stewart said, when asked what he felt he was bringing to his new team. "They’re getting a team player who is going to do whatever he has to do for his teammates."
Stewart said the suspension was an accident, that he took something he should have known he wasn't allowed, and he takes full responsibility for it. Interestingly, the NFL usually suspends players for four games following a PED violation, but since Stewart tested positive for a diuretic or masking agent and not a banned substance, the penalty was cut in half.
As for his shot at the NFL, Stewart didn't elaborate on his experience, other than to say he wasn't able to generate enough meaningful plays on film. He's played in 15 NFL games, all with the Jets, registering six receptions for 82 total yards and no touchdowns.
The last game he can remember playing in was against the Miami Dolphins, or at least it was the last time he can remember earning actual playing time. He was designated to the practice roster three days later.
Stewart said he has been welcomed by the Bombers with open arms. He's impressed with the team's talent at camp, and with the pace of practice, something he likened to his time at Alabama under highly acclaimed head coach Nick Saban.
And while he's certainly caught the eye of the Bombers coaching staff, he's careful not to put the cart ahead of the horse. With more cuts coming by the end of the week, there's still more work to be done.
"The first step is to actually make the team. We still in camp right now and we still have things to do, and we still have things to accomplish," he said. "We have to move forward and all the things in my past, I'm really not thinking about it right now. I'm a Blue Bomber in my mind, and I'm going to try to do the best I can as a Blue Bomber."
Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea has been impressed with Stewart, particularly his work ethic and attention to detail. He's also versatile, capable of running the ball out of the backfield — something he did a lot during his final season in Alabama — and, at 6-feet and 205 pounds, has the size and strength to block down field.
"He's certainly a guy with the complete package that has a good opportunity in front of him," O'Shea said.
The Bombers returned this season with all five starters from the 2019 Grey Cup game. But an injury to Darvin Adams last week, one that is serious enough to make him questionable for Week 1, has suddenly opened a potential starting role.
Stewart won't be the only player vying for that spot — Winnipeg still has 17 receivers in camp, even if some are vying for other roles within the team — but he does appear to have one of the inside tracks. Whether he can stay healthy, and how much he can improve over these next few days should determine his role come the season-opener against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats Aug. 5.
"Everyone has the ability to make big plays, and everybody moves fast and rushes to the ball, gets to the ball," Stewart said. "Man, this is a great organization, and I wouldn't ask to be anywhere different."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.