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.
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.'”
On the football field, J.W. and Josh became two stars for a Guyer team that reached the Class 5A Division II state title game in 2010. J.W. was the athletic dual-threat quarterback. Josh became his No. 1 receiver while also playing cornerback and returning kicks and punts.
Their dream was always to play at OSU together after J.W. committed to the school in February of 2010. But the Cowboys never displayed much interest, and Stewart instead pledged to play cornerback at Texas A&M.
One night that December, however, former OSU offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen called J.W. and asked if Josh would thrive in the Cowboys' offense and if he would think about switching his commitment if an OSU offer came. Absolutely to both, J.W. said.
The next morning, Josh changed his pledge from the Aggies to the Cowboys, all but making it official that Josh and J.W. would continue their journey together in Stillwater.
“I couldn't believe it,” Josh said. “I knew it was bad that I was committed to A&M and to just decommit, but an opportunity like this, I don't care who's mad at me. You can't beat this.”
J.W. arrived first in Stillwater, graduating from high school early so he could participate in spring football in 2011. He knew he would redshirt, however, while superstar Brandon Weeden quarterbacked OSU to its best season in school history.
Stewart, meanwhile, became the Cowboys' most impactful true freshman last season. He caught 19 passes for 291 yards and two touchdowns, recovered a fumbled kickoff for a score against Texas Tech and averaged 20.1 yards per kick return.
None of that early success surprised John.
“He's just got great ball skills, great quickness and his football IQ is off the charts,” Josh's old coach said. “He's got a knack for making big plays at crucial times. I think the Cowboys are in for a treat with him for the next three years.”
But Josh gives a lot of credit to J.W., who naturally was his roommate during their first semester at OSU.
“The way he just leads me to do things,” Josh said, “the stuff he tells me to make me work harder is really the reason why I had a good season like I did last year.”
Josh and J.W. both needed each other's guidance and support during practice this spring.
Josh was sliding into a starting spot at inside receiver, a position previously occupied by the sure-handed Josh Cooper. J.W. was in a three-man battle for the starting quarterback job.
“He has always been the guy that's critiquing me the most, and always the guy that's supporting me the most,” J.W. said.
“He's always in my head saying, ‘Hey man, you're better than that, you can make that throw.' And he's always the first one to come up and tell me, ‘Hey, nice throw, good read.'”
Josh had an impressive spring and is expected to be one of the Cowboys' top receiving targets this fall. Wes Lunt was named the OSU starting quarterback, but with J.W.'s unique skill set, all signs point to him also being involved in the offense in some way.
That means the pair will likely share the field as college football players for the first time this season.
As Josh and J.W. prepare to start their second fall camp as Cowboys, their lives remain linked.
They spent plenty of time together this summer, both while running quarterback-receiver drills at home in Denton and while going through OSU's summer workout program.
They continue to be competitive and, well, act like brothers. If one lifts more weight, the other will put an extra plate on for the next set. They played each other in the finals of OSU's NCAA '13 video game tournament, a matchup Josh won 16-13. They'll argue about who can run faster, just for the sake of arguing.
“We've come to learn there's some things we can't bring up,” J.W. said. “Because if we do, we'll go on and on about it.”
But they also take care of each other like brothers. One day two weeks ago, Josh shot J.W. a text before workouts asking if he had eaten lunch yet. When J.W. said no, Josh showed up with food for both of them.
“There are just always those little things that he does that can almost change your day,” J.W. said.
Josh looks back on being displaced by Katrina as a bittersweet experience. The flooding didn't reach the second story of his old home, meaning his family was eventually able to retrieve photos and his Little League trophies. He misses his childhood friends, but knows he benefitted from playing high school football in Texas.
“I have friends back home that are still at home that were better than me at football,” Josh said. “I think it's a good deal for me and was a blessing for me to get put in that place (Denton).”
J.W. and Josh used to sit on the couch and map out their futures in the NFL. Josh vowed he would go back to New Orleans and play for the Saints. J.W. would suit up for the Dallas Cowboys. Their families would consistently reunite somewhere in between both cities.
Who knows what really will come next for both players? But they are both certain their friendship — their brotherhood — won't stop after Stillwater.
“It's definitely going to last forever, for sure,” J.W. said.
Said Josh: “The memories are only going to get better. Everything about it is only going to be better. To have somebody like that, especially as a best friend, it's like, how can you not like everything?”