Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — Morgan Steward thought he would be doing this last August.
The Missouri junior was second on the team with 12 touches Saturday in the Tigers’ first fall scrimmage. His nine carries went for 17 yards, and he gained 14 more on three catches.
Those 31 yards were a year in the making.
Last August, in Missouri’s fifth practice of training camp, Steward injured his right hip. He never expected it might keep him out his entire sophomore season.
“When it first happened, I thought it was just a little (hurt), but I’ll be able to walk it off,” Steward said. “That didn’t happen. Thought maybe I’d be back in a couple days, four days. That didn’t happen. Then it was like, ‘Maybe I’ll be back in a week.’ And then a week or two. Maybe a couple more weeks. And then it went a month, maybe, I’m expecting.”
The team’s initial diagnosis of “day-to-day” became week-to-week for Steward, then month-to-month, before arthroscopic surgery in November ended his season for good, costing him a year of eligibility.
Missouri’s hope had been to give Steward second-string reps at tailback so senior Marcus Murphy could swing from running back to slot receiver and give the Tigers another much-needed passing threat.
With Murphy graduated, the role of backing up 1,000-yard rusher Russell Hansbrough is again there for the taking. Although sophomore Ish Witter, who had 27 carries as a true freshman, likely has a head start.
Still, if Steward hopes to get back in the swing of things, Saturday was a good start.
“It was neat to see him going, and that’s a big step for him,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “It’s been a long time for him, and he’s remarkably better than he was two months ago.”
Steward said Saturday was his first live contact of training camp.
“And I think if you asked Morgan, Morgan would be happy to tell you that he’s glad he got hit today,” center Evan Boehm said, “to know that he could take it and go and do what he needs to do.”
Sure enough, Steward’s hip passed the test Saturday.
“There’s just different twists and stuff like that that happens in football,” Steward said. “I’m grateful that I can respond to those just like a normal football player, just like before.”
There were plenty of firsts to get out of the way in Steward’s return to the field.
The first run: “It was a good cut upfield, and I wrapped around the corner and got to open up my legs a little bit and lower my pads at the end.”
The first tackle: “A little bit of jitters just about everything that was going on. I haven’t done this in a while.”
The first awkward hit: “There was one where I got under the ground and it kind of just got a little bit twisted and … I didn’t know how I was going to feel once I got up, but I got up and I walked off and I was perfectly fine, praise God.”
Steward didn’t know whether he would play in the scrimmage until associate athletic director Rex Sharp, with whom he has worked constantly throughout his recovery, told Steward shortly before the scrimmage. Steward said his 22 snaps were more than he expected to play, but he could have stayed on for more.
The next test is to see how the hip responds. Pinkel said there’s a chance Steward will practice today, and that’s the Kansas City native’s hope.
“I’ve gotten to learn a lot about my body through this process,” he said Saturday. “I’m going to wake up tomorrow a little bit sore, but it’s not going to be too bad. It’s going to take just probably that whole day to actually get full recovery so I can come back stronger on Monday.”
In addition to physical recovery, the junior had to toughen up mentally during the long trip back.
“Honestly there’s been a real whole peace that’s come through this thing,” he said, “and I just pray and go out and do my best. “
His best is still to come, Steward said.
“Every day, I feel it’s getting stronger,” he said. “At first when I went out in practice, I didn’t have as much pop as I wanted to, coming out of my cuts and coming out of my jog. Every day it’s a little bit more pop, a little more cut, a little bit more sharp. So it’s kind of chiseling down to actually getting to 100 percent everywhere.”
With an offense that’s currently re-tooling after an already underwhelming conference season, the Tigers could certainly use Steward at full strength.
“I think he’s improving, and I’m sure hoping for us he can continue to improve and get to where he was at,” offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. “Because I really felt like last year before he got hurt he was going to help us.”
However long it takes to get there, Steward is keeping faith.
“I don’t know how many bumps are going to be in the road to my destination, but I do know God has a plan,” he said. “And we’re in the making of it right now.”