"Half the team thinks I'm crazy," says Stewart, who graduated cum laude last December with a degree in history. "Coach [Brian] Kelly was all for it, though."
At the end of the 2009 season Stewart applied for a fifth year of eligibility. Then Notre Dame's incumbent right guard took the LSAT and applied to Notre Dame Law School.
"I'll definitely apply for the NFL Draft after next season," says Stewart, who becomes the only returning player who started every game last season. "But since I'd already graduated and I intended to go to law school, anyway, I thought why not get [Notre Dame] to pay for it?"
The first year, at least.
While Stewart's story will certainly whet the appetites of NBC and ESPN College GameDay producers (pan exterior of Notre Dame Law School's Gothic structure as Tom Rinaldi begins his voiceover), he is not the first Fighting Irish lineman to attend law school. That would be NFL Hall of Famer Alan Page, who now sits on the Minnesota Supreme Court. Nor is he even the first such lineman named Chris. That would be former Lombardi Award winner Chris Zorich, who now works in the school's athletic department as the manager for student development. Unlike Page and Zorich, though, Stewart will attempt to tackle law school and football simultaneously.
"Chris is the consummate student-athlete," says Kelly, who will be undertaking a daunting task of his own come autumn. "He has excelled on the field and in the classroom and while I don't envy his workload this fall, I have complete confidence that Chris will balance law school and line blocking this year."
"If anyone can do it, Chris can," says Jeff Carroll, a former sports writer at the South Bend Tribune. "I remember we did a survey once on players' favorite TV networks and he answered, 'The History Channel'. 'Really?' I asked him. 'Yeah, I'm a nerd,' he said."
Carroll has a unique perspective on the daunting challenge that lies ahead for Stewart. For four years Carroll covered the Fighting Irish. Last summer he enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School, a top-ten program, embarking on a legal career with a wife and month-old son in tow.
Paul Kuppich is a classmate of Carroll's in Ann Arbor and a former teammate of Stewart's back in South Bend. "Chris will excel in law school because he is still playing football, not in spite of it," says Kuppich, a former backup tight end with the Fighting Irish. "The dedication, discipline and competition that he has faced over the past four years in football may not translate to listening to a lecture on some obscure legal doctrine, but it has certainly prepared him to be focused and confident in his abilities."
In short, how tough can Property and Constitutional Law be after you've wrestled with B.J. Raji and Everson Griffen?
According to director of admissions Melissa Fruscione, Notre Dame Law School has had a fencer and a track athlete, both of whom were still eligible, as first-years in the past decade. "We've had several leprechauns, too," says Fruscione.
But never a football or basketball player. This year, the school, which annually ranks among the top 25, received a record number of applications, 4,000-plus, for its approximately 180 first-year spots. While the school accepts more than that number, Stewart still had less than a 20 percent chance, speaking strictly numerically, of earning a spot.
"Dad! Guess what?" Stewart said. "I got accepted into law school!"
"Did you think it was going to turn out any differently?" his father, George Stewart, replied.
There was a time, however, less than three years ago, when the smart money would have been to wager against this outcome. It was September of 2007 and Notre Dame, in the midst of the worst season in its history, had already been rocked by the defection of opening-day starting quarterback Demetrius Jones.
Stewart, who had red-shirted in 2006, then been moved to nose tackle during spring practice only to return to the offensive line at the start of fall practice, had no sense of place. He left school and returned home to Spring, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Such exoduses often end in a permanent split.
"It was a misunderstanding," says George Stewart. "The coaches really didn't know Chris from an athletic point of view, only an academic one."
According to the elder Stewart, assistant coach Mike Haywood (now the head coach at Miami University) told him that they thought of Chris as a guy who was almost solely focused on academics. "I told them, 'Y'all need to sit down and talk to Chris'," says Stewart. "'He may not come out and tell you, but you put him on that field, he's gonna give 200 percent.'"
Stewart remained home for a week, accompanying his father, who owns Stewart Auto Sales, to work. "I kinda helped him to weigh it out," says Stewart. "There was no way I was going to let him give that up."
It would be facile to assume that the younger Stewart saw how hard his father toiled to earn a living. That the experience chastened Chris, compelled him to appreciate his opportunity. That assumption would be incorrect.
"I have made a very good living doing what I do," says George Stewart (Chris' mom, Sandra, is a teacher, as are all three of his older siblings). "Matter of fact, Chris will have to get drafted pretty high to make more than me."
Stewart returned to South Bend and, as so many underclassmen -- athletes and non-athletes alike -- eventually do, found his niche. He was an offensive lineman and an egghead, and that he just happened to be the largest man on the Fighting Irish roster was little more than an asterisk. Stewart started all 22 games the past two seasons for which he was able to suit up (missing three in 2008 due to injury). And, having attended summer school sessions, he graduated in three-and-a-half years.
"We were sitting in my office last winter, figuring out when he'd have to take the LSAT and the deadline for applying to law school," recalls Zorich. "And I said to Chris, 'Do you realize that when you get accepted that your life is going to change forever? That you're going to be an example to 16- and 17-year-olds as to just how much they can take advantage of a free education?'"
A graduate of Notre Dame Law School himself, Zorich does not minimize the difficulty of Stewart's undertaking. In his final season in the NFL with Chicago, Zorich began law school as a night student at John Marshall Law School but soon found the burden too much to, well, bear.
"Near the end of the first semester I realized that this was just too hard," says Zorich, a three-time All-American nose tackle for the Irish. "I had to set law school aside until after football was over."
Stewart was able to get a head start on law school this spring, as he is taking torts. That course is only offered from 2-3:15 p.m. next autumn and would overlap with football practice. His schedule in the fall will include four courses, Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. He says that a spring break trip he took to Haiti in 2009 helped inform his decision to pursue a law degree and explore a career in social justice.
"The history of Haiti kinda started me on this path," says Stewart. "How it went from the richest colony in the New World to the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere."
As for Stewart, he has gone from a DL to an OL to, come September, a 1-L. It is the unlikeliest of journeys and yet for Stewart, mixing a run at a BCS bowl with a paper chase seems natural.
"My mom always told me that you never want to stop learning in life," says Stewart. "When you stop learning, that's when you get old."