Self-expression has never been difficult for Jon Stewart ’84. Neither has finding a suitable venue. Unbeknownst to most, the College of William and Mary provided Stewart with his most unpredictable forum — an athletic stadium.
The Daily Show host is poised to headline the “Rally to Restore Sanity” on the National Mall Oct. 30. But unlike his peers, Stewart’s talents were not honed in a television studio. His wit originated while donning the College’s soccer uniform.
This setting furnished Stewart with an uncommon opportunity for expression of many forms, as opposing fans aptly demonstrated.
“Soccer was a gentlemen’s game, and occasionally there were times where the slur would be used,” Stewart recounted. “And my last name was Leibowitz and my nose was twice the size of my head, so it was not hard to figure out my ethnic background.”
In the 1980s, the Randolph-Macon College fans used to recline in lawn chairs along the sidelines and nurse a beer or two as they taunted opposing players. A young, bold Stewart refused to stand down the supporters’s brash remarks. Instead of replying with an insult, he responded with a quick-witted retort — emphasizing that size had never been an issue of his, drawing a roar of laughter from the once hostile crowd.
“From that point on, every time he touched the ball they cheered for him,” Al Albert, College men’s soccer coach from 1971 to 2004, said. “And that was his ability to make people laugh and to win people over without making them agree with him.”
Arguably the College’s most famous living alum, Stewart was a three-year letter winner for the Tribe. Even during the production of The Daily Show, habits he molded during his playing days, like his uncanny ability to entice people to laugh without necessarily making them agree, remain prevalent.
“I had a great deal of pride in working my way onto the team and becoming a starter,” Stewart said. “It gave me the confidence that there was a correlation between working hard and success and results and getting better at something.”
As a walk-on from New Jersey, Stewart was determined to play collegiate soccer in Virginia, for, as he puts it, “some stupid reason.”
“I visited U.Va. and got lost on the campus, and I got down to William and Mary and saw there was a brick wall around the campus and thought this would make it so much easier,” Stewart joked.
In his typical, self-deprecating humor, Stewart recalled walking into Albert’s office, informing his future coach that Albert’s dreams had been realized.
Albert was not as convinced.
“That’s great,” Stewart remembers Albert saying. “We don’t have a J.V. team, but we are kind of thinking of starting one.”
The rejection left a surprised Stewart on a newly formed freshman squad. After a season of hard work, Stewart found himself on the varsity team the following season.
“He was not a polished player,” Albert said. “He didn’t have the pedigree the other players had, but he had some talent and I think he made the most of the talent he had.”
Stewart played the wing, setting up the College’s firepower inside. And while his humor helped the 5’7” Stewart avoid tense situations with both fans and foes, at other times he let his actions handle the situation. Stewart recalls tussles at Randolph-Macon and Old Dominion University as especially memorable. The latter left him in the hospital with a self-diagnosed “mashed kidney.”
But those were different times, as Stewart points out, validating his claim with a confession of the typical away-game road trip, when athletes would take turns driving the vans.
“As you can imagine we would lose one or two vans every trip,” Stewart said. “‘Where did those guys go?’ ‘Yea, I think they might have gotten a flat tire …’ and they would show up later with 10 cases of beer.”
This provides a stark contrast to the rigid standards of athletics today, but Stewart said it was all in good humor. He admired Albert’s ability to keep his players alive and ensure that each player returned to campus in one piece. And that relationship and sense of reverence between Stewart and Albert has proven vital to the College, as the rest of his time on campus was less than memorable, Albert said.
“His overall experience at William and Mary wasn’t as positive as a lot of people’s,” Albert said. “If it wasn’t for soccer, he would have left school. But soccer kept him in here. His connection through the school is the program.”
Stewart avoided criticizing the College, adding that he was immature and described the College as a place he wishes he could have attended when he was older.
“[College] was the process where I was somehow trying to hone obnoxiousness into wit,” he said. “That is a process that doesn’t go easy, a lot of peaks and valleys. In general, William and Mary got more of my obnoxiousness than wit.”
Fortunately for the College, Stewart and Albert have maintained a strong bond. When a call needs to be made to Stewart from the school, it goes through his former coach.
“He will never want to be recognized for anything he does for the school or the team — you will never see his name on a building,” Albert said. “He is softening his attitude toward the school. I think a lot of people are like that when they get older.”
Stewart explained the disconnect in a different way.
“I have never been one to attach to institutions as much as people, and in that sense, if coach Albert was no longer associated with the College, my ties would be less,” he said.
When Stewart takes the stage at his Rally to Restore Sanity, it will be 150 miles away from this institution. But his coach will be in the audience watching with the eye of a friend, mentor and fan, as he has always been.