For A.J. Stewart, the super-sized Merced High dynamo, the crossroad came after the car crash.
Stewart was seemingly headed toward a sparkling football career at Modesto Junior College, where second-year coach Rusty Stivers pushes the bounds of creativity and speed with his NASCAR offense, when the plan went sideways.
Like his car.
Without wheels or a place to live in Modesto, Stewart went back to the drawing board. The two-sport star examined all options, including basketball.
“Basketball has always been my go-to sport. It was a hard decision because I love football, but I love basketball more,” said Stewart, who was the Central California Conference co-MVP in football and an all-conference first-team pick in basketball this past year.
“I talked to my coaches, I talked to my mom and I talked to my friends. I talked to everybody. I slept on it for a while, because I didn’t want to make a decision right then and there. It was a long, drawn-out process.”
Ultimately, Stewart chose to stay home to chase his hoop dream. He will enroll at Merced College in the fall and play for longtime Blue Devil coach Bill Russell, turning Friday’s 31st annual North/South Rotary All-Star Classic into his football swan song.
Stewart will play for the North, a team that draws from the southern half of the Sac-Joaquin Section. The South will be comprised of all-stars from the Central Section. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. at Golden Valley High’s Veterans Stadium, also the home site for Merced.
“In the end, my family and friends told me to do what was best for me,” Stewart said. “There were people that said I’d get more looks with football than basketball. At the end of the day, you have to do what you love and I chose basketball.”
Stewart’s size and athleticism make him an intriguing prospect whether he’s in sneakers or shoulder pads.
He is 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds and moves like a player much shorter and lighter. For the three-time defending conference champion Bears, Stewart wore many hats, another testament to his athleticism. He was their top receiver, an all-conference-caliber kicker and an emergency quarterback.
Stewart is one of several pass-catchers for the North, coached by former Stone Ridge coach Art DeJager. Stewart is joined by Oakdale tight end Greg Hickman, Los Banos wide receiver David Walker and Hilmar touchdown artist Alex Chavez, among others.
With all that talent, Stewart hopes the Stone Ridge staff will give him a chance to shine in front of home fans in his final football game.
“I just need to go out and show them what I can do,” he said.
Rest assured, Stewart is no mystery to high school football fans in the Stanislaus District.
He shared the CCC MVP award with Turlock running back Danny Velasquez after amassing 934 yards on 50 receptions and 11 touchdowns. He averaged 18.7 yards per reception.
The Bears captured their third straight CCC title, and the one constant during that run has been Stewart. He is one of only two players in the Rob Scheidt era to win three consecutive conference championships. The other is Bernard Bolden (2006-08), a close friend of Stewart’s.
“I’m very content with how my career has gone,” Stewart said. “MVP of the league. I was the only kid to three-peat. There was only one other person to do that.”
And now the countdown to tip-off is on. After the all-star football game, the two-way talent will follow the bouncing ball down the street to Merced College.
“All my friends can come watch,” said Stewart, who averaged 21.4 points and 3.2 rebounds for the Bears in the winter. “It will be better for me.”
31st Annual North Rotary Football Classic
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Veterans Stadium (Golden Valley High School)
Cost: $10 for adults, $5 for students with ASB card
Rosters/more info: Go online to rotaryfootball.org