He was in one of three cars, packed into the backseat and certain this would all be temporary.
Behind him was the life OSU receiver Josh Stewart had always known— the New Orleans Saints, his friends, and Lynn Oaks, his school that sits just a few miles southeast of downtown.
A hurricane named Katrina was the cause. The storm slammed into the Gulf Coast as Stewart’s family slowly made their way toward Dallas.
“Every car was bumper-to-bumper,” he said. “I was thinking we’d come back in a few days after the hurricane hit, but that wasn’t the case.”
Ahead was a new beginning, though Stewart didn’t know it at the time, and a future that even he wouldn’t have predicted.
* * *
When Stewart is asked about that drive to Dallas in late August of 2005, he uses one word to describe it.
“Miserable,” he said. “It was just miserable.”
His family had seen the weather report and seen Katrina barreling toward New Orleans. They played it smart, packing away a small amount of their lives and their family into the car and headed for Dallas and, eventually, an uncle’s apartment in Denton.
“It was a lot bigger of a storm than we usually had there,” Valrie Stewart, Josh’s grandmother, said. “We usually got a category 1 or 2 storm, but this one was a 5 when we saw it. By the time it hit land, it had fallen to a 3 but it was still bigger than we had ever had there.”
Josh, a middle schooler at the time, was lucky enough to nab a window seat for the drive, but found himself folded into the backseat with three of his cousins.
That back seat is where he remained for 18 hours.
“The traffic was just so horrible,” Valrie said. “It took us 18 hours to make what’s usually an eight-hour trip. Everyone was going that way and the highways were just so packed.”
The receiver recalled the drive, remembering it as though it took a day and a half instead of 18 hours. Not only was the trip brutal, but also the thoughts that crossed his mind during it brought on more worry and misery.
“Just hearing about all the stuff that could happen on that slow drive and trying to make sure the rest of your family is alright was just too much,” Stewart said. “It seemed like it lasted forever and then some.”
But it never crossed his mind that Katrina would be the most devastating hurricane in US history. It never crossed his mind that he wouldn’t return home for good.
“Me and my buddies were messaging on MySpace talking about how we’d be back in a few weeks,” he said. “We didn’t think anything like that could have happened, we just thought we’d be back and everything would be back to normal.”
But reality quickly set in, and the receiver caught a glimpse of the suffering and devastation that had found New Orleans.
He saw his city—his home—drowning.
“When I saw it on TV, the whole city was underwater,” he said slowly. “I never thought it could’ve happened.”
He still held on to hope. Josh, Valrie and a small section of their family quickly moved from the uncle’s apartment into a hotel while their city sat crippled and swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico.
“Our whole family was there,” his grandmother said. “We had 15 or 16 people in a two bedroom apartment. There were just so many people there that we couldn’t stay, so my oldest son found a Quality Inn that we stayed in until we could find our own apartment and eventually our own house.”
They thought about a return to New Orleans, but reality quickly dismissed the option.
They simply couldn’t get back because of the destruction, and they began to accept that they were stuck for awhile.
“After it was delayed for so long, we decided I didn’t need to miss more school so I started at McMath Middle School in Denton,” Stewart said.
“We hadn’t made our minds up exactly what we wanted to do,” said Valrie. “We really couldn’t get back down there to even see what kind of damage had been done or if returning was even an option. The kids were missing so much school that we finally put them into one in Denton. That’s what really made our mind up for us.”
That’s where Stewart would first find his biggest rival, but eventually his best friend and quarterback, J.W. Walsh.
The two played against each other in middle school in just about every sport, and were constantly going at it as the two standout athletes on their respective teams.
“Josh played everything he could,” Valrie said. “They called him Willie Mays in baseball, and he was great in basketball… Those two used to play each other in everything, but when he finally went to Guyer they got put on the same team.”
The two were inseparable, and the chemistry created during that time was what caused Walsh to toss Stewart 56 passes for 971 yards and 10 touchdowns during their senior season.
“We were always together,” the receiver said. “I’d say I was going to J.W.’s house for awhile, and I’d end up staying for like four or five days.”
When the two landed in Stillwater, rumors swirled of Stewart moving in with the Walsh’s at one point during high school, but Valrie was quick to set the record straight.
“They said on the newscast last week that he moved in with him, but that was never the case,” she said with a laugh. “He always had a place to stay, he would just stay there on the weekends and sometimes during the weekdays. They were together that much. He didn’t ever actually move in with him, though.”
Now, they live in neighboring dorms on campus and continue to be together constantly.
When starting quarterback Wes Lunt went down with a knee injury against Louisiana-Lafayette and Walsh began taking snaps, it should’ve surprised no one that his favorite target would be Stewart. The two connected for two touchdowns in the game.
“That was great,” Valrie said. “It just brought so many memories back from Guyer, the way they were throwing and catching the ball. I never thought I would actually get to see it in college, but it happened.”
On the pair’s first touchdown, an opponent hit Walsh hard as he threw the ball to a streaking Stewart over the middle. Josh ran the ball in with ease while Walsh jumped off the ground and sprinted to the end zone to celebrate with his best friend.
“When J.W. ran to my baby, it just brought tears to my eyes,” Valrie said. “After the game he said ‘Momma, J.W. hit me harder than the other team!’”
The celebration continued after the game as the pair ran off the field together, overcome with excitement.
The two had dreamed of that exact moment for so long, and it had finally come.
It’s fair to say that everything has worked out for the receiver. He’s come from escaping Hurricane Katrina to waltzing into end zones on Saturdays.
“It all worked out too well,” Stewart said with a smile. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”