Football

Longtime Panther Jonathan Stewart says goodbye after a career driven by purpose

Tearful Jonathan Stewart says goodbye to Panthers nation

Longtime Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart retired this week, and was emotional as he considered his 10-year career and the relationships he’s built along the way.
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Longtime Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart retired this week, and was emotional as he considered his 10-year career and the relationships he’s built along the way.

Newly retired running back Jonathan Stewart said during his farewell press conference on Wednesday that he always wanted people to remember him for “running with purpose.”

Purpose.

That doesn’t just mean how he ran — though Stewart’s ballerina-meets-bulldozer style, punctuated by stiff arms, cracking helmets and popping bones is what seals him in place as the Carolina Panthers’ all-time leading rusher.

“Purpose” also means why he ran.

All day Wednesday, Stewart’s purpose — his “why” — was clear.

He hosted an NFL Play60 event for several dozen Charlotte-area children at Freedom Park in conjunction with his retirement press conference, and threw the ball, ran through obstacle courses, smiled for photos and signed autographs for two hours.

He partnered with “Inspire the Fire” for the event, a Charlotte-based nonprofit that is dedicated to teaching kids to follow their passions, especially in the arts. Stewart and his wife, Natalie, have been involved in “Inspire the Fire” for the past two years and their message to group members present Wednesday, as well as all of the children, was to be themselves no matter what.

And to give them all an important memory.

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Longtime Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart officially retired on Wednesday afternoon, but not before hosting a charity event for Charlotte-area kids. (Rodrigue) Jourdan Rodrigue jrodrigue@charlotteobserver.com

“At the end of the day, that’s what is important,” said Stewart, who spent 10 years in Charlotte with the Panthers after he was drafted 13th overall in 2008. “We’re responsible for pouring into our youth. We are responsible for nurturing and growing their potential. I think at the end of the day, involving some kids ... was very important to what I believe in.”

Stewart’s “purpose” was also embodied in his 2-year-old daughter, Kaia, who giggled and toddled all over the park, throwing footballs to her dad and getting scooped up and hugged lovingly by Natalie.

His purpose was embodied Wednesday in Natalie, too, who Stewart emotionally thanked during his remarks. She is his partner in life and love but also in creativity. The two acquired the local blog “Charlotte Lately” with the goal of uplifting positive, diverse voices throughout the city — one of Stewart’s major projects planned for post-football life.

“Charlotte is a city that is full of potential,” he said. “You don’t have to be a spectacular person in the eyes of anyone to do something spectacular. You just have to be yourself...I think that’s what Charlotte is all about. It’s a city that’s full of potential, that’s not screaming for attention...

“(It is) important for there to be (a platform) that shares nothing but light, and light in different ways. There are a lot of stories out there that people need to hear, so they can be inspired as well.”

His “purpose” poured forth in the little stories friends and former teammates shared throughout the day, like how Stewart always played the piano during lunch at training camp in Spartanburg, how he mentored younger players even if they were taking away his snaps or small, unheralded good deeds he has always done in Charlotte — like buying meals for strangers or making quiet donations to charity.

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And Stewart’s “purpose” was embodied Wednesday in his former teammates, who showed up to wish him well and support him. Current Panthers Christian McCaffrey, Luke Kuechly, Greg Olsen and Cameron Artis-Payne were present, as were fellow retirees Roman Harper, Ryan Kalil, Mike Tolbert, Brenton Bersin, Kurt Coleman and Steve Smith Sr.

Head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney were present as well. Rivera sat with Natalie in the front row.

Tears flowed freely down Stewart’s face and dried on his cheeks as he took several minutes to thank each of these men eloquently, with feeling.

“I’m honored,” he said, “I’m grateful to have this moment...This is my community that I love.”

Then, it was easy to see another word that describes Stewart, that he has always embodied. A word that, like “purpose”, will be always be attached to him as he eases out of the limelight and into retirement.

Grace.

Jourdan has covered the Carolina Panthers as a beat writer since 2016, and froze during Pennsylvania winters as an award-winning Penn State football beat writer before that. A 2014 graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, she’s on a never-ending quest for trick plays and the stories that give football fans goosebumps.
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