By Michael Grace-Dacosta
I t’s 5:30 p.m. in Kingston, Jamaica. The local school kids and police officers are playing soccer on the field outside of the Prime Minister’s office. The field does not have any nets so they’ve made their own goal posts using shoes and school bags. A 13-year-old Kyle Stewart is going into a tackle against an officer 30 years his senior and 100 pounds heavier. The officer body checks Stewart, which sends him flying a few feet in the air. Stewart doesn’t yell for a foul. He simply gets up and continues playing. He knows what to expect whenever he steps on to the pitch.
Stewart first started playing with the officers when he was 11 with six other kids from his neighbourhood. “Towards the end I was the only one that was left playing because everyone else thought they were too rough,” says Stewart. The officers, aged 25-45 years old, play a hard-nosed brand of soccer that repulsed others, but enthralled Stewart. Playing with the officers taught Stewart he doesn’t need to be the biggest or fastest player. If he works hard and plays physical he can beat even the most talented players. It also taught him how to be fearless. A month later Stewart went into another tackle with the same officer except this time the officer was the one who went flying. The officer cried for a foul.
N ine years later, Stewart, now 22, is sleeping blissfully in his room in Toronto when he’s awoken by a call. “Hello?” he asks, half asleep. It’s Ryerson Rams soccer coach, Ivan Joseph. He’s calling to ask if Stewart can play in the Rams game against Guelph later that day. Ten days earlier, Stewart had been cut from the team for the third year in a row.
Stewart and his family moved to Canada in 2010. A year later, he was at Ryerson, trying out for the soccer team. The first time he didn’t make the team, coaches told him it was because the team already had four players in his position, centre-back. The second time, in 2012, they told him he had really improved but because he was already in his third year of school, they preferred to develop first years. At that point Stewart wanted to quit, but Rams defender Cedric Wong convinced him to try out again in 2013. For the third time he was cut. “It wasn’t the time for me. That’s how I reflect on it,” said Stewart. “If you asked me when I got cut I would have said ‘the coaches are insane, they don’t know what they’re doing’”
“If you asked me when I got cut I would have said ‘the coaches are insane, they don’t know what they’re doing’.”
Walk-on players are players who become a part of university teams by participating in open tryouts for the team, which is no easy task. In the past three years, 85 players have tried out for the team during open tryouts. Only four have made the cut, according to Rams assistant coach Filip Prostran.
After a couple preseason games, the Rams are beat up and in need of players. So Joseph calls Stewart, who is on a short list of players to be contacted in these situations.
The game is being played in Guelph. The Rams are returning from a preseason game in New York so Stewart needs to meet the team there. Stewart doesn’t mind the hour and a half drive from Toronto to Guelph, or the fact that his body is still sore from the game he played the night before; he is ecstatic just to get a shot. He vows to play the game of his life.
“This has been my dream for the last three years. I don’t want to end my university career without trying to achieve this dream and saying I did not give it my all,” Stewart says.
“This has been my dream for the last three years. I don’t want to end my university career without trying to achieve this dream and saying I did not give it my all”
Stewart impresses the coaches and not only earns a spot on the team, but is penciled in as a starter for the season-opener. There is just one problem: the beep test.
In the beep test, participants run between two points that are 20 meters apart. These runs are synchronized with a pre-recorded audiotape, which plays beeps at set intervals. As the test proceeds, the interval between each beep decreases forcing the participants to run faster until it is impossible to keep up with the recording. The recording is structured into 21 levels that each last 62 seconds.
In order to officially make the team, Stewart needed to score a 13 on the beep test. He was given until Sept. 9 to pass the test or he would not be a part of the team.
S tewart is running out of gas. His tired body is drowning out the monotone British voice from the pre-recorded audiotape indicating his current level. Stewart has his head down and is on the verge of giving in to his heavy lungs’ cries for mercy when he hears “one more level, keep pushing.”
He looks up to see that the encouragement is coming from teammates Josh Kohn, Jacob O’Connor, Martin Dabrowski and Michael Carlucci who are now running with him on the Coca-Cola court at the Mattamy Athletic Centre. With his teammates cheering him on, Stewart ignores the pleas from his body to stop and runs until he reaches level 13. As soon as Stewart reaches his goal, his teammates surround him and give him a group hug while screaming. “It was like one of those movie moments,” Stewart says.
After three long years, Stewart finally accomplishes his dream of being a member of Ryerson’s soccer team. But as the old saying goes, one-step forward, two steps back. While Stewart was trying to pass the beep test, the Rams already played two regular season games. Because Stewart hadn’t passed the test, he was not allowed to play in those games, which gave other guys a chance to show their stuff. The player who replaced Stewart in the starting line-up excelled in relief duty. This, combined with the team’s original starter returning from injury, meant Stewart was the odd man out. “I went from supposing to start, to back up centre-back, to third string,” Stewart says.
His new role on the team is to come off the bench in the last 10 to 15 minutes of the match to preserve a lead. It isn’t the most glamorous role but Stewart isn’t complaining. He would rather be bench warmer for the rest of his career than go back to his days of being the team’s water boy.
After he was cut the first time, Stewart decided to join the team as an equipment manager to prepare for the next year’s tryouts. He watched their drills and played whenever they needed bodies in practice. Stewart’s determination didn’t earn him any respect from every member of the team. Some players intentionally kicked balls as far away from him as possible and demand he fetch them.
“It was probably one of the hardest times [at Ryerson],” Stewart says.
E ighty ninth-minute, the Rams are down 2-1 to their cross-town rivals the University of Toronto Varsity Blues in the 2013 playoffs. Associate coach Prostran turns to his bench, “Kyle you’re going on,” he says. Stewart is “shitting his pants.” Usually coaches put on an offensive player, not a defensive player, in this situation. But Stewart has the longest throw on the team. He estimates he can throw the ball 35 yards. Prostran tells him he is responsible for all of the Rams throw ins.
A minute after Stewart enters the match he throws the ball in to one of his teammates, who flicks it to Alex Braletic. Braletic puts it in the back of the net, tying the game. The Rams go on to win the game in overtime and eventually advance to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) national championships. Despite losing in the first round of nationals, Stewart played exceptionally in the playoffs.
“[I] got to start in the [OUA] finals. We lost 1-0 but that’s how it goes. I played both games in nationals,” says Stewart.
Heading into the 2014 season, Stewart, now 23, was no longer content with being on the bench. During the offseason he worked with Rams assistant coach Markus Molder on his ball distribution and first touch on the squash courts at the Recreation and Athletics Centre. His extra work payed off as he was inserted into the starting line-up and took the OUA by storm.
“Soccer is a way of life… Soccer is first, school is second. Maybe it shouldn’t be like that but it is”
His stellar play is an integral part of a defence that only allowed two goals during its 8-0 start to the season and only 13 goals in the year. He also scored three goals, two of which were game-winners. For his efforts, Stewart is named an OUA second team all-star. “He proved some times small doors open up into large rooms,” Prostran says.
S tewart is fighting back tears as he watches his teammates break down after a 4-3, penalty shootout loss to McMaster in the OUA semifinals in early November. For the fourth straight year the Rams season ends on penalty kicks but Stewart refuses to let his athletic career end in disappointment.
Instead of entering the workforce once he graduates from Business Technology Management this December, Stewart will return to school next fall. He will enroll in the Master of Business Administration in the Management of Technology and Innovation program as a part time student so he can use his remaining three years of eligibility.
“Soccer is a way of life… Soccer is first, school is second. Maybe it shouldn’t be like that but it is,” Stewart says.