For college football players across the country, the demand can be physically draining. From summer two-a-days and regular-season early morning workouts to team and positional meetings, the enjoyment of the game can be difficult to find at moments — unless you’re UH senior linebacker Phillip Steward.
“I love playing football so when I go out there I’m always having fun,” Steward said. “You always see me smiling and talking because that’s what I like do. Every weekend I get a chance to play football, I’m excited.”
The outgoing Missouri City native has drawn praise from his coaches and peers for his performance on the field and leadership abilities off it.
“He’s a guy that’s very experienced and made a lot of plays so he needs to be a great leader around here and he’s done a really good job of it,” said defensive coordinator, Jamie Bryant. “He’s a very instinctive player and he’s playing harder than he’s ever played.”
Steward speaks about his admiration for the Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis, a 17-year NFL veteran known for his physical plays and inspirational speeches, and aspires to replicate his idol.
“I like what he brings to the game, how he gets his team motivated to get ready to play that day,” Steward said. “Just the stuff he says motivates you to want to go out there and play hard.”
Steward competed in 14 games as a freshman with the Cougars in 2009 and recorded a career-best 13 tackles in his first start against Northwestern State. The moment that sticks out most in his mind came from the opening kick.
“The very first kickoff I got hit so hard I hurt my ribs,” Steward said. “Coach Sumlin came up to me and said, ‘Welcome to college football.’ The rest of the game after that it was just playing football but I just remember that first hit on the kickoff.”
In high school, Steward was a part of a 15-1 Hightower team that competed in the state championship game. In 2009, UH found the national spotlight following victories over No. 5 Oklahoma State and Texas Tech but it was the disappointing 5-7 season the next year that taught Steward the most.
“That first year we made a bowl game, the championship game and I learned every year you’re not guaranteed to make it to the championship game,” he said. “You’ve got to put in work and keep fighting to get back to the conference championship.”
Steward is also familiar with UH football’s reputation of consistent offensive success and defensive struggles, providing ample motivation for the linebacker.
“There are a lot of people that talk about the offense and that’s all they ever talk about,” Steward said. “I know I heard from some old position players about the ‘Mad Dog Defense’ way back in the day. Let’s try to make it our show around here.”
Heading into the remainder of the season, the kinesiology-sports administration major focuses on his athletic and academic goals equally.
“I want to finish this season healthy and at least get this team to the conference championship game and get us into a bowl game,” Steward said. “After all that is done, I plan to try to get to the NFL and graduate in May.”