By Tom Westerholm

ANN ARBOR–Three years ago, as Noah Stewart lined up for his first snap as a member of the University of Michigan football team, he knew he was in trouble. 

The North Muskegon native was a walk-on with the Wolverines, but he wasn’t an every-day prospect. Ranked as a three-star recruit by 24/7 Sports, Stewart was the No. 57 player in the state of Michigan and the No. 204 offensive tackle nationwide. In his senior season, Stewart was selected to the West Michigan All-Conference team. 

Still, as Stewart was about to discover, the lights shine a little brighter on Saturday nights in Ann Arbor than they do on Fridays, especially at a tiny high school of 390 students. Stewart examined his opposition on the other side of the ball. After outweighing his opposition by nearly 40 pounds for years at North Muskegon, Stewart was now staring at Aidan Hutchinson. 

 Hutchinson – the former Wolverines superstar defensive end – was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy that season. He outweighed Stewart by 30 pounds, all of it muscle. Stewart is 6-foot-7, which was often an advantage in the past, but Hutchinson is 6-foot-7 too. Hutchinson was bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced than Stewart – identified and built from a young age intentionally to be a highly-paid professional football player.

How the heck, Stewart wondered at the time, am I supposed to block this guy?

Stewart did his best – a member of the scout team throwing everything he had up against a superstar in a practice that didn’t feature full pads. Hutchinson threw him off. Worse, he noticed how hard Stewart was playing.

“Oh you want to go hard?” Hutchinson barked at Stewart. “I’ll go hard.”

“I knew at that point right there that I messed up big-time,” Stewart said. 

On the next play, Stewart experienced the fury of a future No. 2 NFL Draft pick. Hutchinson lifted Stewart off the ground and hurled him into the quarterback, forklifting the freshman. Shortly afterward, Taylor Upshaw – son of former NFL lineman Regan Upshaw who currently plays at Colorado – began yapping at Stewart too. 

“Come on, go hard,” Upshaw screamed at Stewart. “Go hard. Is that the best you’ve got?”

At the time, of course, it was.

“You have to grow up fast,” Stewart said. “You have to know how to play football, or else you’re going to get exposed.”

Photo courtesy of LSJ Photographer Jake Szetela

Fortunately, Stewart grew up fast. When he arrived at Michigan, the magnitude of the stage got to him briefly, but he adjusted. After his fateful showdown with Hutchinson, Stewart went through Michigan’s camp, and he improved both physically and mentally as a football player. 

“I remember as a senior [in high school] when I committed, it’s like, ‘Shoot, I’m going to be playing at the University of Michigan. I can’t even fathom that,’” Stewart said. “But once you get on campus and you start practicing, you start working out with the team, you just kind of get molded into it.”

On Saturday, Stewart – who is now entering his fourth year at Michigan – played in the school’s annual spring game. Like the rest of the team, Stewart came out healthy and excited for the upcoming year. The Wolverines are ranked No. 3 in early polls at various outlets. When Stewart and his teammates looked around the room at their fellow offensive linemen on Saturday, split into Blue and Maize teams, they realized their offensive line could make a run in the Big Ten Conference even when it was divided in half.

“This is the best we’ve been since I’ve been here,” Stewart said.

Stewart and the Wolverines have big plans for the season and no intention of replicating last year’s Fiesta Bowl loss. The goal of a national title hangs over everything down to the team’s menu, at the bottom of which the nutritionist writes “Houston or bust” every day – referencing the location of this year’s national title game. 

“Our mind has to be set on beating Michigan State, beating Ohio State, and winning the Natty,” Stewart said. “That’s what you come to Michigan for.”

Personally, Stewart is preparing for an interesting season. After years on the offensive line, the team plans to try Stewart at tight end – a switch Stewart’s former coach at North Muskegon, Larry Witham, always believed was possible for him. 

“As soon as Coach Harbaugh moved me to tight end, I immediately called [Witham],” Stewart said.

Witham wasn’t surprised. 

“I always knew it,” Witham said, according to Stewart. “I always knew you’d be a tight end.”

Per Stewart, Harbaugh wants to use him to replicate the success Michigan’s Joel Honigford experienced going from lineman into a tight end. The change is an exciting development for Stewart.

“I remember the day Joel got moved from the O-line room to the tight end room, and I was just like, ‘What, that can happen? We can move like that?’” Stewart said. “I was like, ‘Shoot, I want to do that.’”

Unfortunately for Stewart, the Wolverines have had a number of injuries on their offensive line, which kept him on the line so far. He’s hoping he can switch to his hybrid role soon. The success of that switch and the upcoming season will help determine his next steps. 

“I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do with my life after football, whenever that is,” Stewart said. “After I graduate, it all depends on how the season turns out. If the season goes well for me, I see no reason to leave.”

Noah Stewart with North Muskegon head football coach Larry Witham

After Saturday’s game, Stewart met with Witham outside the stadium – throwing his arm around his high-school coach with a big grin, eye-black still streaked down his face. 

Stewart loves North Muskegon – a small community where people approach him whenever he’s out to eat with his parents to inquire how he’s doing and how school is going. The community is so tight, his teammates – many of whom come from bigger cities – are sometimes jealous. 

“I’m not really a huge part of this offense, but I still kind of get exposure,” Stewart said. “They always read the articles and are like, ‘How do you get these articles?’ Well, I come from a small town. That’s what happens. …

“It’s really nice to have a community like that – that truly appreciates football and the guys who play football.”

Stewart has grown into his new football community too, and it didn’t take as long as he thought. He didn’t expect to play until his junior or season year, but late in Michigan’s blowout win over Northern Illinois in 2021, Michigan offensive line coach Sherrone Moore flagged him down.

“Noah, get ready,” Moore told Stewart. “You’re going in next play.”

As he prepared to run on the field, Stewart stared around the stadium – fully aware that if he made a mistake, everyone would see it. A community back home cheering him on. A sideline that included a number of future NFL players and a future No. 2 overall pick. A legendary coaching staff.

Then Stewart ran on the field, and all of the outside noise faded away. For the first time in nearly two years, Stewart felt something familiar – a feeling that “puts the energy back in your legs.”

“I was just playing football,” Stewart said. “Like I was a senior in high school again.”

All photos below are courtesy of LSJ Photographer Jake Szetela