INDIANAPOLIS – Grover Stewart’s entrance to the NFL was overshadowed by a pair of orangutans.
In 2017, the league shook up the third day of the draft and allowed teams to host parties and announce selections from remote locations. It was a way to add color to a day often filled with more obscure prospects the average fan is likely unfamiliar with.
But it wasn’t a hit with everyone. Then-NFL Network analyst and current Las Vegas Raiders general manager Mike Mayock had his fill by the time the 144th overall selection came on the clock. The Indianapolis Colts had twice before announced picks from the Indianapolis Zoo with the help of button-pushing orangutans Rocky and Azy.
After watching the process play out with offensive tackle Zach Banner and running back Marlon Mack, Mayock wasn’t seeing the humor in the situation.
“If we’re going back to the zoo, I’m walking off the desk,” he said. “I’ve about had the zoo, OK? Enough. Enough, I mean, is this good TV?”
In fairness, Mayock tried to spin the conversation back to football – noting Stewart was a prospect who had garnered late buzz and had an intriguing mix of size and athletic ability.
But it was the orangutans – and Mayock’s reaction to their repeated appearances – that stole the headlines.
That was familiar to Stewart, who is used to flying under the radar.
“My biggest thing was to put in more work than everybody else,” Stewart said on a Zoom call Wednesday. “My mindset was to outwork everybody to get where I want to be. And I think I’ve still got a lotta work to get there, even though I am starting.
“But I want to be ahead of the game with everything. Behind the scenes, I do extra workouts. I do extra conditioning. I study film harder. I’m just trying to do everything extra to be on top of everything.”
The 6-foot-4, 315-pound nose tackle took the starting job away from Margus Hunt early last season and has continued to be a disruptive force through two weeks this year.
Stewart’s impact isn’t always quantified by numbers. He was credited with just two tackles in Sunday’s 28-11 win against the Minnesota Vikings, but his ability to clog the running lanes and tangle traffic at the line of scrimmage played a big role in Indianapolis holding the visitors to 80 yards on 18 carries.
His mileage can vary from week-to-week, depending on matchups. He played 60% of the defensive snaps in the opener at Jacksonville and 52% on Sunday against the Vikings.
But he’s earned the trust of the coaching staff with his unique skill set and relentless motor.
“Grover has always had the work ethic,” defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “He’s always had the desire, and he’s always had a lot in his body. Grover has a lot in his body for a big man, and that’s just what he’s been giving. And he’s worked harder to change his body in terms of his body makeup, his lean mass and to be more explosive.
“And he’s had a few years under his belt, and he’s starting to take off as a guy that’s a force inside and a guy that could help us on all three downs.”
He’s still driven by the doubters.
Stewart remembers the people who told him he’d never make it to the NFL out of Div. II Albany State, and even if he somehow did, he’d never last.
A desire to prove those people wrong drives him through those extra workouts and bonus film sessions. His game went up a level in 2018 with the arrival of veteran defensive lineman Denico Autry – whom he considers a big brother – and it took another leap last year when Justin Houston arrived as another mentor.
This year, defensive line coach Brian Baker has helped Stewart better understand how to use his gifts to make plays in the offensive backfield. And the two already have formed a bond so tight several teammates joke Stewart is the coach’s favorite player.
“I say, ‘He likes all of us, man,’” Stewart said with a sheepish grin.
All that extra work ultimately is focused on making the team better.
The Colts have long preached the need for eight starting-caliber defensive linemen who can rotate through the lineup and keep fresh legs on the field at all times.
With seven sacks through the first two games and the league’s top-ranked defense in yards allowed, it seems Indianapolis never has been closer to that goal.
“I think the defense sets the tone for any team, to be honest with you,” Stewart said. “I feel like we’re the one that drives the train, for real. … Everything starts with the D-line.”
Indianapolis re-signed wide receiver Marcus Johnson to the practice squad Wednesday.
Johnson has caught 23 passes for 379 yards and three touchdowns while making six starts for the Colts over the past two seasons.
Linebacker Matthew Adams (ankle), tight end Jack Doyle (knee) and cornerback Rock Ya-Sin (illness) did not practice Wednesday.
Rookie safety Julian Blackmon (knee), who made his NFL debut against Minnesota, continued to be a limited participant.