Iowa grappler still recovering

Sarah Mitchell

Jeff Stewart, a member of the Iowa wrestling team, has built his life around wrestling.
As a youngster, the Apple Valley, Minn., native was always on the mat, watching his grandpa coach high school teams within the state.
“He was kind of born into the sport,” said Pat Stewart, Jeff’s dad. “He really didn’t have a choice.”
From a spectator of the sport, Jeff developed into a participant. At age five, Jeff stepped on the mat again, this time as a tournament contender.
“He was wrestling a friend of my wife’s, her son. He pinned him, I think,” Pat said. “He got lucky.”
Eventually, the head start earned Jeff a roster spot with a state powerhouse — Apple Valley High School. During his four year stint, all of which he was a teammate with Gophers freshman standout Chad Erikson, the team claimed three state championship trophies.
“Wrestling’s like a family, especially in Apple Valley,” Jeff said.
As a senior in high school, the two-time high school state champion found himself with many college suitors. Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Minnesota topped the list. But before Jeff made any official visits, he saw something that swayed his decision.
“I went down to watch the National Duals, I think they were in Waterloo, Iowa, and the Hawkeyes broke a NCAA championship record for the most points scored with 170,” Stewart said. “They basically dominated.”
The following weekend, Hawkeyes coaches, players and tradition sold Stewart on going to the other side. The Minnesota wrestler crossed the rivalry boundary drawn between the Gophers and the Hawkeyes, opting to wear the black and gold singlet.
“He’s a good kid,” Gophers coach J Robinson said. “But Iowa’s got tradition. It’s sort of like Notre Dame football.”
With that decision behind him, Stewart’s wrestling career moved on. This time, however, it was more of a step backwards.
As a redshirt, Jeff’s first year at Iowa was quite a transition. Going against members from one of the nation’s best teams forced Jeff into a different role.
“I went from beating up people in high school to getting beat up in college,” Jeff said. “Then I started to turn the corner around Christmas, but got into a serious accident in the spring.”
Jeff and teammate Mike Zadick were returning to Iowa City on March 9, 1998, following a weekend visit with Jeff’s parents when Jeff’s car hit a patch of ice just outside of Rochester, sending the vehicle into oncoming traffic.
The first car struck the right side of the front fender, spinning the driver’s side towards the next approaching car. The second car struck, splitting Jeff’s car in half and the impact broke Jeff’s seat belt just above his left shoulder, throwing him onto the pavement.
“Actually I went down to see the car and it’s a good thing I wasn’t in it,” Jeff said. “There was only enough room for one person and that was Mike.”
Zadick walked away from the accident, suffering from bruises and shock. Stewart’s injuries were more extensive — a 90 percent tear in his aorta, a lacerated liver, lacerated diaphragm, damaged kidney and a removed spleen. Stewart remained in a coma for 29 days at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
Since then Stewart has returned to the Hawkeyes wrestling room, but won’t be given clearance to wrestle until the anniversary of the accident because university doctors still consider him high-risk.
“The more time the better I guess,” Stewart said. “I’m recovering faster than they said I would, but not faster than I thought I would.”
For the first time in his life, Jeff’s wrestling career has come to a halt. But he says there are no regrets, including his decision to join Iowa’s program.
“Oh lord no,” Stewart said. “I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else.”