In 1994, the University of Tennessee welcomed one of the top high school quarterback recruits to ever come out of the South. He was a consensus All-American, a Texas high school state champion pursued by the likes of Nebraska and Florida State. And he wasn’t Peyton Manning. He was Branndon (yes, with two Ns) Stewart, a 6-foot-3-inch golden-haired, rocket-armed, fleet-footed prospect out of Stephenville, Texas, and in his freshman year he came as close as anyone’s ever come to beating out the current Denver Broncos star for a starting quarterback job.
In the recently released ESPN documentary The Book of Manning, which generally covers the Manning quarterback dynasty in fascinating and remarkable detail, no mention is made of him. “All of a sudden,” one of the film’s talking heads says, in reference to Manning’s 1994 season, “Peyton is the guy.” But that’s not true. Manning and Stewart actually took turns helming the Volunteers’ offense for much of their freshman years. It wasn’t until the seventh game of the season that Manning seemed destined to be The Guy. In that game, Stewart didn’t play after halftime, and would go on to transfer — and hard as it might seem to believe now, many Vols players and fans weren’t happy about it.
When Stewart committed to Tennessee, in fact, he’d been thinking more about the legacy of Heath Shuler, who had just starred on Rocky Top for two seasons before becoming a first-round NFL draft pick, than competition from Manning. “Heath Shuler was leaving and he was very similar to me,” Stewart told BuzzFeed on Friday. “I was like, ‘I could see myself doing what he does.’ It seemed like a good fit for me.”
It did, until Manning subsequently surprised everyone in the recruiting world by choosing the Vols over his father’s alma mater, Ole Miss. Manning was a prized quarterback recruit in his own right, of course, the son of Southern football aristocrat Archie Manning. Stewart remained undaunted: “It’s hard now to imagine a world without the internet, but it wasn’t easy to find out how good this guy was. There wasn’t information readily available at every minute. I just knew that I was ready to go in there and compete with somebody.”
The Tennessee coaches, including then-head coach Phil Fulmer and offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe (now Duke’s head coach), promised both frosh a fair shot at competing for a starting spot. And neither Manning or Stewart likely expected that a starting spot was something they’d be worried about for at least a year: Tennessee had fifth-year senior Jerry Colquitt ready to start and backup Todd Helton — yes, that Todd Helton — ready to go in the fall of 1994.
All of that changed seven plays into the Vols’ season opener against UCLA when Colquitt went down with a season-ending knee injury. In a 25-23 loss, Helton, Manning, and Stewart each played. Helton soon dropped out of the picture, but the two freshmen continued to split time until the aforementioned Alabama game, in which Manning actually struggled mightily, going 10-for-18 for 138 yards with two interceptions with no touchdowns. Meanwhile, in his only series of the game, Stewart led the Vols on a 71-yard drive that ended with a field goal just before halftime. Manning especially drew the ire of Vols fans for failing to find a wide-open receiver on what would have been a game-winning touchdown. Afterward, it wasn’t obvious to everyone that Fulmer had made the right decision to stick with Archie’s son. Says Stephen White, a former Vols defensive lineman and seven-year NFL veteran: “Plenty of Vols fans were furious. I really do believe the fact that [Stewart’s] game so closely resembled Shuler’s had endeared him to a lot of our fans. I do believe had he stuck it out, then the guy who performed the best that spring would have gotten the job. Can’t turn back the clock, and I can’t say for sure he would have supplanted Peyton that spring, but I certainly would have loved to see it play all the way out.”
The way it played out was Stewart, feeling like the coaches had already made their choice, transferred after the season to Texas A&M, where he started parts of three seasons and led the Aggies to their last conference title — and only BCS berth — in 1998.
Nearly 20 years later, Manning remains one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks and seems destined for a bust in Canton. Stewart runs his own software company in Austin and is the married father of 3-year-old twins.
A self-proclaimed “quick study with computer science,” Stewart passed on a few opportunities to play football professionally and headed to Austin to join the city’s fledgling startup community after graduating from A&M. “I was excited to move on to the next chapter,” he said. “Plus, [Austin] is the best city in Texas.” (That’s something few Aggies would ever admit publicly.) He bounced from startup to startup working on projects involving sales and marketing. And he recently put all that experience to use to raise capital and create a company that handles marketing for small business owners. Stewart says the company, OutboundEngine, is growing at a rate of 300% a year.
He’s not bitter about that fall in Knoxville, though he notes Manning did once lock him out of the football facility to keep him from watching film. The account was verified in Peyton Manning: A Biography, which also recounts an occasion when Manning refused Stewart’s offer to watch film together and then watched two hours on his own to gain an edge. “He worked as hard as anyone I’ve ever been around in or out of football,” Stewart said. “I don’t think anyone could say he didn’t work for what he achieved. I learned a lot from him.”
Stewart also played a small role in the ascendance of another major figure in present-day football — Art Briles, who was his high school coach at Stephenville and later went on to coach Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback Robert Griffin III at Baylor and record-breaking quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and Case Keenum at the University of Houston. At the moment, Briles’ Baylor offense is the best in the country by some measures, and he’s always mentioned as a potential replacement for Mack Brown should the University of Texas coach resign or get fired after several down seasons. Stewart was one of the first quarterbacks to bring attention to Briles’ system, winning two straight state championships at Stephenville and piloting what was then the third-most productive offense in high school history.
“Branndon was a big, strong kid that could run,” Briles told BuzzFeed. “He was kind of a man amongst boys. He was a great fit.” Just not at Tennessee.