Lions’ Steward braces for dangerous trenches

 

With his foot healed, lineman looks to lift Leos to playoff berth

 
 
 
 
Hunter Steward (67) of the BC Lions takes part in blocking drills during the team practice at their practice facility in Surrey, BC, October, 20, 2015.
 
 

Hunter Steward (67) of the BC Lions takes part in blocking drills during the team practice at their practice facility in Surrey, BC, October, 20, 2015.

Photograph by: RICHARD LAM, PNG

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Violence lurks everywhere on the football field, but nowhere are players more vulnerable than in that small space where giant linemen collide.

“It’s why they call it the trenches,” says Hunter Steward, the second-year offensive lineman with the B.C. Lions. “Shoot, there’s nine to 10 big bodies in there at a time. They’re all banging against each other. It can get pretty chaotic.”

Getting rolled up. It’s a phrase that haunts every O-lineman, the fear of having a limb snapped or a ligament shredded as they perform their unglamorous work, often with their backs to the action and mayhem where they can be blindsided by an opponent or even a teammate.

Yet, sometimes, injuries are just random, occurring away from the run of the play (Kirby Fabien), the repeated consequence of combat more than 60-70 times a game (Matt Norman), or simply by taking a false step (Steward).

All three up-and-coming Canadian linemen — considered the backbone of any CFL team — have been felled early in their careers by soul-sapping injuries.

Fabien, a first-round draft pick in 2012, started for the Lions in his first pro season before a crackjack block, while he was in pursuit after a Travis Lulay interception, shredded his knee on July 30, 2013, in a game at Toronto’s Rogers Centre.

More than two years later, Fabien, now the Lions’ starting left guard, still feels residual effects of the surgically repaired ACL.

“I still have to stay on top of it,” Fabien says. “It still gets a little bit achy and sore. I still get a little bit of fluid buildup. But I take care of it with ice, getting in the tub. It was a freak accident. For an O-lineman, you don’t expect to get hurt on a play like that. But probably every lineman who’s played the game has been exposed to some kind of severe injury.”

Norman, who arrived in the same draft year as Fabien, was groomed to replace Angus Reid, the Lions’ longtime fixture at centre, and started all 36 games at that position in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. With the arrival of head coach Jeff Tedford last December came other ideas. Tedford determined that an American — Jason Foster eventually won the job — was going to play centre this season.

Norman spent the early part of training camp alternating between right and left guard but never made it through. Three knee procedures, complicated by an infection, have wiped out his 2015 season and his recovery has been painstakingly slow. He only recently graduated to one crutch from two.

“My knee was kind of a long-standing issue — bone spurs — that needed to be cleaned up,” Norman says. “I couldn’t do what I was being asked to do. Things were looking up before the infection. I was extremely unlucky that way, the doctors told me. It’s rare. I have no idea if I’ll be back next year (he becomes a free agent in February). I have to be able to see if I can play first. I’m not looking too far ahead.”

Some offensive linemen wear knee braces to prevent — or lessen — roll-up injuries. Steward was required to do so at Liberty University, where he was an All-Big South first team left tackle when the Lions drafted him sixth overall in 2013.

He still wears the bulky, custom fitted DonJoy knee braces for protective purposes. He’s gotten so used to them, it’s as if “I don’t know they’re there,” Steward says.

But he has had no layer of security when it comes to his right foot. Twice, in two seasons, he has heard the fifth metatarsal bone go “pop” — the second occurring on just the second day of training camp this year. It had nothing to do with getting rolled up in a live scrimmage. It happened during a routine team period.

“It didn’t hurt quite as bad as the first one,” Steward says. “I was able to walk off the field. Once I got the X-ray, it was a pretty clear fracture.”

Steward understands more about the complications of foot injuries than he cares to know. Because his type of injury — a “Jones fracture” — is slow to heal, he had a bone graft taken from his ankle to speed the process. But it’s Oct. 24. Steward is only now returning to service from an injury that occurred on June 2. He dressed for the first time this season, Friday, against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, as an extra lineman.

Still, Steward now has dressed for just eight games (he’s started in six) of a possible 34 in his first two seasons, not the kind of early return on a first-round draft pick the Lions were expecting.

“It was discouraging to happen a second time,” Steward said. “But the more I thought about it, it’s not a very severe injury. It’s kept me out a long time. But once it’s healed, it won’t affect me whatsoever. It’s not like I blew my knee out. And I only turn 24 at the end of this year (on Dec. 23). I’ve got a lot of time left to develop.”

The Lions are counting on it. The team that lost 2010 first-round pick Danny Watkins and 2015 second-round pick Brett Boyko, both to the Philadelphia Eagles, has been rolling snake eyes when it comes to drafting Canadian linemen. Last year’s first pick, Tre-J Player, taken in the second round after the Lions traded their first-round slot to the Saskatchewan Roughriders for quarterback Kevin Glenn, has taken a step back this season and been replaced by undrafted Cody Husband as the starting right guard.

“Do we need to improve (on the O-line)?” asks GM Wally Buono. “Definitely. Does a healthy Hunter Steward give you options and make you better? I think he does.”

“Move your feet” is the mantra linemen use to survive after the snap. Finally, Steward has the confidence they won’t fail him again.

mbeamish@vancouversun.com

Twitter.com/sixbeamers

 
 
 
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Hunter Steward (67) of the BC Lions takes part in blocking drills during the team practice at their practice facility in Surrey, BC, October, 20, 2015.
 

Hunter Steward (67) of the BC Lions takes part in blocking drills during the team practice at their practice facility in Surrey, BC, October, 20, 2015.

Photograph by: RICHARD LAM, PNG

 
Hunter Steward (67) of the BC Lions takes part in blocking drills during the team practice at their practice facility in Surrey, BC, October, 20, 2015.
Hunter Steward (67) of the BC Lions takes part in drills during the team practice at their practice facility in Surrey, BC, October, 20, 2015.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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