By Ashley Swafford for Titans Online
Memories like the cool feel of the Tennessee River and the sounds of fallen leaves under his boots on hikes with his grandfather are experiences that beckon him back to northern Alabama.
Another reason — his appearance on the Academy Sports + Outdoors Titans Caravan — took him there with stops in Decatur and Florence, Ala., on Wednesday. Each of those cities is less than 35 miles from Stewart’s hometown.
Moulton is where hunting and fishing lure every free moment. It’s where a first vehicle is a two-door pick-up truck and where grits and “thank you ma’am” are regularly exchanged at the breakfast table. Moulton’s one-light town is “Big Country.” Moulton is his identity.
As a child, Stewart grew up playing on the family farm with his grandfather and swimming in the Tennessee River. The bright Friday night lights that illuminated him on the football field never compared to the lights of a tractor revving up to start a day of plowing for Stewart. His high school teammates epitomized his country soul with his nickname.
Stewart decided to play college football for Mississippi State where he could stay relatively close to home and live in another small town where agricultural fields and wildlife were not too long of a truck ride from campus. His nickname eventually became how his new teammates referred to him, and he played well enough that the Titans drafted him in 2005.
When Stewart’s name was announced as the second of Tennessee’s three fourth-round picks, his mother Kathy Stewart said he immediately tried to figure out how long it would take to get from Nashville to the family home.
Stewart’s drive from Nashville to Moulton is usually about two-and-a-half hours, but on April 27, 2011, Stewart said he shattered his record.
“I got a phone call, and it was my dad,” said Stewart. “He said, ‘You need to come down here and help,’ and that’s it. That’s all he said. Then, I drove down.”
On that day, an EF-5 tornado ripped across Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, claiming the homes and lives. Although Stewart and his family fared better than others, his hometown of Moulton suffered extreme damages.
Stewart had more than 300 acres of forest that were destroyed by the tornado in just minutes.
He also lost part of his lineage: the family names deeply engraved in the trunks of hundred year-old trees across the farm were torn away and lost forever.
“The land, the large old trees are as big a part of the family as any one of us,” said Kathy Stewart. “We have all carved our initials, names and dates somewhere. David and Cheryl’s (Stewart’s wife) tree is one of the few left standing.”
The Stewart family farm that had been passed down for three generations was completely destroyed along with the house he grew up in, his parents’ house.
“It was devastating to see the place I grew up in nothing but shambles,” said Stewart. “I got to Moulton and checked on my family. Then, I got on a bulldozer and basically started cleaning right away. That’s all you can do.”
Kathy Stewart said “it took them three days to cut the trees off of the driveway so we could actually get to the house.”
On one of the three days Stewart was clearing off the driveway to his parents’ house, he found something that he thought was ripped away with the other parts of his childhood in Moulton.
|The top picture shows the house |
The bottom picture illustrates how much the storm changed the landscape. Even so, the farm is still home for Stewart and his family.
“David got off the bulldozer,” said Kathy Stewart. “He started pushing and digging through a pile. He worked on one spot with a chain saw for thirty minutes or so. When he came out, he had cut a huge trunk that had ‘David and Gramps’ carved in the side from one of their hikes years ago. That one made us all cry.”
In addition to that trunk, Stewart found one of his nephew’s names, “Chad,” who was killed in a motor vehicle accident and his parents’inscription of “Kathy and Benny, 1975.” The names on the trees keep the family’s good spirits alive through the passing years.
Although her house had to be completely rebuilt from the ground up, Kathy Stewart’s calm demeanor after the tornado didn’t just come from instinct. It came from experience. In 1974, she was just 15 years old when she was a victim of the “Super Outbreak,” the second largest tornado outbreak for a single 24-hour period that ripped away her childhood home.
With her childhood home less than a half-mile from where she lives today, the tornado of 2011 seemed to take the same path of the one that destroyed her family’s farm 39 years ago. In April of 2011, the Stewart family farm looked just as destroyed as it did in April 1974 with the loss of trees, a family home and some farm animals.
“This has always been our home,” she said. “What are we supposed to do? Just leave?”
Fortunately, Stewart’s offseason home, which neighbors his parents’ home, didn’t have any significant damages, and his parents moved in until they could move back to their own home in October 2011.
In the midst of the disaster, Stewart and his family still saw a glimmer of hope. Although he thought all of his farm animals were lost in the storm, Stewart did find a nice surprise waiting for him.
“Out of 320 acres, 300 of it needed to be fenced back in,” Kathy Stewart said. “There was one spot that didn’t get hit though. I don’t know how the cattle ended up there, but they did and they were all still there.”
In addition to having every single head of cattle still on the farm, Stewart also had one doe survive the storm.
“She came back a few days after the tornado and had her two babies in the barn,” said Kathy Stewart. “She followed us around like a dog would for months.”
Unfortunately, when hunting season started, Stewart no longer saw any deer on his property, but he was able to continue raising all of his cattle as usual and now plans to build chicken houses on his newly re-fenced farm.
“My grandfather always had chicken houses and cattle when I was growing up,” Stewart said. “I always enjoyed going over there and helping out. It’s still a few years off, but I am looking to build chicken houses someday.”
The Stewart family kept a positive outlook during the time of darkness, and Big Country has remained true to his roots. After he retires, he plans on going back to Moulton and farming fulltime.
“I love Moulton,” said Stewart. “It’s where I am from. I can hunt, fish, and farm. I just love being down there.”