OSU football: After relocating because of Hurricane Katrina, Josh Stewart finds a second family in Denton
When Josh Stewart moved to Denton, Texas, after Hurricane Katrina, he became friends with J.W. Walsh, a bond that has continued as the two are now OSU teammates.
STILLWATER — Three days' worth of clothes. A cell phone. A charger.
That's all Josh Stewart packed. He and his grandparents had to leave. Quickly.
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Hurricane Katrina was heading toward their New Orleans home in August of 2005. But Stewart didn't believe the warnings he saw on the news. His family would flee to Dallas, then return once the storm had passed.
“The next morning, we look on the news and the city's really underwater,” Stewart said. “I tried to call all my friends to make sure they were all right. It was shocking, something you couldn't believe.”
It was the latest chapter in a childhood filled with tragedy. Stewart had already lost his mother, older brother and father before he turned 6 years old. Now he'd lost his home as a middle-schooler.
“I was just like, ‘What's next?'” Stewart said. “I didn't know if I had football as an option, because I was so small. I just didn't know what I was going to do. I had no friends.”
What he'd gain from relocation to the Dallas suburb of Denton, however, was a second family.
There he met J.W. Walsh, and the bond they share today is much deeper than a close friendship that has continued as teammates at OSU.
“Usually, when me and Josh are meeting somebody for the first time, we acknowledge each other as brothers,” Walsh said.
Valrie and Charles Stewart are listed as Josh's parents in the OSU media guide.
Technically, they're Josh's maternal grandparents. But to Josh, they're “everything,” because they raised him after the deaths of his mother, brother and father.
Josh's mother and older brother were killed in a car accident when Josh was a baby.
Then when he was 5, Josh heard the accidental gunshot that killed his father while he was arguing with Josh's paternal grandfather.
“It's a tough situation for me, but I had to use it as motivation,” Josh said. “I overcame that. It's a blessing to be where I'm at. I feel like everything's good, and you just got to move on from some stuff.
“You can't use it as something to weigh you down. You've got to use it as something opposite, to pick you up and motivate you to do better.”
Without both parents, Josh lived with Valrie and Charles, making their home in New Orleans.
Until Katrina hit.
The storm left half of Josh's house underwater. So he and his grandparents decided to settle in Denton, at least temporarily, because his uncle lived in the area.
Shortly after, Josh met members of the Walsh family for the first time.
And Josh and J.W. initially did not get along. In fact, they nearly exchanged punches the first time they met.
They were guarding each other while playing basketball for rival middle school teams. Neither player could stop the other. Stewart told Walsh his defense was too physical. Trash talking ensued.
“It was making us both mad,” Walsh recalled. “It aggravated us, so we started not liking each other. One thing led to another, and we almost duked it out right there.”
Both Josh and J.W. also played football, and J.W.'s father, John, was the head coach at Guyer High School. John had always known about his son's athletic ability, and he remembers middle school Josh as a kid who always seemed to make key plays despite his small size.
The summer before J.W. and Josh began their freshman year at Guyer, the fierce competitors on the basketball floor were suddenly placed on the same 7-on-7 football team.
After their first tournament, Josh came over to J.W.'s house. There wasn't anything particularly special about that visit — just dinner, some video games and family conversation.
But now they were teammates. A friendship was born. And Josh ended up staying at the Walsh house for a week.
“It was just a complete 180,” J.W. said. “Everything was completely different. He came over that day, and it's never been the same since.”
“Ever since then, he never left.”
John estimates Josh was at the Walsh house four nights a week during those high school years. He was there enough to know John can cook a mean steak and J.W.'s mom, Amber, bakes delicious banana bread. Or to have Wii showdowns with J.W.'s sisters, Samantha and Maggie. Or to do the dishes with J.W. after dinner.
“It seems like ever since that summer, Josh has been a fixture in our family,” John said. “I find myself looking out for him like I look out for J.W., not just in football or (on the) academic end, but just everyday dealings on helping a young man grow up.
“I think if you ask my daughters, they call him their brother, too. He's definitely a second son to us.”
J.W. and Josh can't exactly pinpoint why their personalities mesh so well. John thinks it's because they are both naturally friendly. J.W. points to their competitive side. Josh said he quickly trusted J.W.
“Seeing J.W. and really knowing his true colors…there was just an instant connection between me and him,” Josh said.
And as their friendship grew that first summer, Josh became comfortable enough to tell J.W. about his painful past.
“He started to explain to me that his parents were really his grandparents,” J.W. said. “He just kind of slowly opened up to me, and eventually he told me the whole story.
“At the time, I couldn't even comprehend it. I felt bad for him. I had no clue how to treat the situation. He could tell in my face I was shocked and didn't know how to react. He just kind of told me, ‘Hey, it's all right. It's in the past. I've moved on and I'm here now and just working on moving forward.'”
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