After sitting out for months and watching his teammates prepare for the grand opening of Avaya Stadium earlier this year, Jordan Stewart would have been excused if he had tried to rush back from a troublesome calf injury in time to join his teammates for the 2015 MLS season. Instead, the veteran defender took a more measured approach, knowing that his 33-year old body doesn't bounce back with the ease it did when he started his career back in 1999.
So, with the Quakes season already eight games old, Stewart finally took to the pitch when he debuted for San Jose in the starting line-up against the Houston Dynamo on May 5. A few days later, he spelled starter Cordell Cato in a relief appearance against the Colorado Rapids. Stewart was finally able to put his injury-riddled off season behind him.
"It's always a nice feeling to come back from injury and to get back to playing," said Stewart on the eve of the Quakes contest against Columbus Crew SC. "Obviously, it was a difficult time for myself. It was the first time I have missed the first game of a season due to injury since my career started, so it was frustrating.
"I wanted to make sure I was ready to play, and maybe that's why it took me so long to get back. In my mind, maybe I could have been back in three weeks. I wanted it to be quicker, but I had to avoid breaking down again. It's great to be out there again."
Stewart made 29 starts in 2014, making the left back position his own after arriving in the summer of 2013 and edging out former Earthquake Justin Morrow for a starting spot. The Birmingham native had certainly not come to MLS as a late career vacation, and was expected to follow up last year with a another solid season for San Jose.
His calf injury, which did not respond to treatment as planned in the offseason, was worrisome enough that the Earthquakes medical staff ran a battery of tests to rule out other injuries, and it simply became a waiting game for Stewart as he had to let his body heal. A part-time participant in training even a couple weeks ago, Stewart slowly regained his fitness -- he didn't have a preseason like his teammates -- and is pleased that his injury is in the past.
"I've had a good couple of weeks," said Stewart. "Obviously, it is a bit demanding on the road. Coach changed things around for me and everyone so that we could deal with the humidity, the altitude. It was a grueling experience on the road, especially for me. It was the most grueling since I've been here. But I think we showed as a team that whoever comes in can get the job done."
The return of Stewart has given head coach Dominic Kinnear more options at fullback, a position that has seen quite a bit of turnover so far this season. Following his 90 minutes against the Dynamo, Stewart was rested by Kinnear to start the team's next game as Cato resumed his role as an emergency defender.
"I thought he had a good first game," said Kinnear. "With the game against Colorado and coming off a shutout, I felt with the quick turnaround it was probably not a good idea to start him. But he came in and played a good last half hour for us and came through okay."
His first game back since starting and playing the full 90 minutes in the Quakes season-ending 1-0 loss at now-defunct Chivas USA last October was fortuitously against the Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium. While the heat and humidity of Texas are not normally its selling points, for a player dealing with a tissue injury, the conditions were almost ideal. And other than some late-game cramping, Stewart emerged no worse for wear from the Earthquakes 1-0 victory over Houston.
"When you come back from injury and you've been out for a while, you don't want to come in guns blazing, you know?" said Stewart. "You need to take your time and ease into it. As an older pro, I think I can do that a bit better. If I was still young, I might to try run around too much!"
The excitement Stewart felt after passing the first test of his healthy calf will likely pale in comparison to the anticipation he is feeling heading into the weekend's match against Columbus Crew SC. Four games into the tenure of Avaya Stadium, and Saturday will mark the first opportunity that Stewart will get to play on the Earthquakes amazing new pitch. He has walked the concourses, strolled the stands, even staked out his place on the home bench, but not until now has he been able to lace up his boots and represent San Jose in match play.
"Yeah, it's exciting to finally get amongst it," said Stewart. "I've been on the sideline, just watching, and first I didn't think it would bother me too much, but the atmosphere with all the fans, it is going to be a great moment to finally get on the surface at Avaya Stadium."
And if it is as a starter as is expected, or potentially off the bench for reluctant but effective defender Cato -- Kinnear would only say that both players were available for selection on Saturday -- Stewart is ready to test himself against Crew SC and its impressive attacking corps of Federico Higuain, Ethan Finlay, Justin Meram, and especially Kei Kamara. After all, these are the competitions that fuel an athlete's soul.
"The more more minutes you get and the more training session you get as a player, you are going to gain more confidence," said Stewart. "I feel good going into tomorrow's game."
Earthquakes supporters feel the same way seeing Stewart back in the mix.