Michigan fifth/senior Charles Stewart and his brother, Northwestern sophomore wide receiver Sidney Stewart, will face off on the gridiron this Saturday in what will likely be the final meeting between these great sibling rivals. They have a lot in common. The brothers both attended Harrison High School in Farmington Hills, were multi-sport stars, earned scholarships at Big Ten schools, wear number five, are having career years and love to talk junk. This week, Sidney will be lining up in purple and white on the offensive side of the ball, while Charles will be on defense clad in maize and blue.
"This one is for bragging rights for the rest of our lives," says Charles. "If he catches the ball, he's just number five in purple and I'm going to try to take his head off."
Though their rivalry may be heated, Charles and Sidney's unbreakable bond was born in the flames of a tragic fire seven years ago. On the night of September 28, 2001, the Stewarts' home caught on fire and Charles found himself in the front yard with his mother, two younger sisters and Sidney. Inside, their father furiously attempted to save the home by extinguishing a grease fire that started the blaze. In the confusion and without warning, Sidney rushed to the front door to rescue his dad before Charles or his mother could stop him. He grabbed the handle on the front door, pulled it open and was hit with a fireball.
The first time Charles and Sidney squared off wearing football pads was when they were young boys playing in the backyard with their father acting as the official. They ran the two-man "Oklahoma" drill. In this version, the boys lay on their backs and on their father's command, jumped up as fast as they could and engaged.
Sidney tucked a football under his arm, playing the running back and Charles lay on his back playing defense.
"My dad said go, I got up and I hit him," says Charles. "From what I remember, he started crying and he went into the house."
So concluded the brief first meeting between the Stewart brothers.
Oxygen from outside the burning home met the smoldering inferno within, creating a backdraft. Flames shot out the doorway and engulfed Sidney as he stood on the porch. In a panic, Sidney turned and ran down the street with his hair on fire. Charles, acting on instinct, wrestled his brother to the ground and extinguished the flames with his bare hands. In the end, Sidney and his father, who eventually escaped the house, suffered massive burns to their upper bodies, requiring extensive surgery and recovery.
"When something like that happens, it puts things into perspective," says Charles. "It's not worth arguing about petty things. There was a lot of pain in my family and I wasn't able to sleep around that time because I would wake up at night covered in sweat. We got through it and we're all stronger now."
Due to their age difference, the brothers didn't get a chance to compete against one another in many organized sports. Their rivalry was limited to pick-up basketball or video games. Charles tells a story of beating his brother so bad in basketball one time that Sidney went into the garage and came out with an axe, chasing him down the street. Charles also tells the tale of how Sidney was so dominant in video games that Charles stopped playing them altogether.
"Sometimes we can get carried away," says Charles. "This week, I intend to hurt him. Not injure him, but hurt him like when we were little. Big brother is going to handle his business. When they blow that whistle and sing the national anthem, there's no family. He's in purple and I'm in maize and blue."
Sidney's recovery was difficult with painful surgeries to his scalp to repair the damage. For a young man around high school age, recovering from such a graphic injury and giving up sports for a year in order to heal is a difficult road which Charles shared with his brother.
"You know how kids are," says Charles, "talking about people and teasing. Sometimes I wished it was me because I didn't want to see him go through that. He stayed strong and still went to the movies and kept his confidence up. The whole situation brought us closer together as brothers, but it was hard on me to see what he had to go through. I'm proud of how he handled it."
As sibling rivalries go in sport, Charles places his with Sidney among the most contested. Peyton and Eli. Ronde and Tiki. Venus and Serena.
"My rivalry with Sid is the top one, of course," says Charles with a chuckle.
It will be chaos and confusion Saturday when hometown acquaintances, relatives and friends gather at Michigan Stadium to see the brothers face off in what will likely be their final meeting against each other. Neither brother will accept defeat and both will do anything it takes to leave the Big House with a victory.
Charles and his brother share the family cheering section on game days, with their parents attending particular rivalry games and trying to split their support evenly. This year being Charles' last, his parents have caught as many of his games as possible.
"I imagine it will be bittersweet for my mom to see us play each other," says Charles. "She doesn't want to see me hurt him and she wants to see us both do well. My dad might get emotional, seeing his two sons playing Division I football and on their way to graduating from good schools and representing the family name well. It's going to be a good day for our family."
Charles has 30 tackles, one interception and two pass break-ups this year, while Sidney has 16 catches for 126 yards, one touchdown and one tackle.
"A tackle" Charles asks with a confused look on his face. "If he has a tackle, it's because I taught him how to tackle.
"Sidney is an elusive receiver with good hands who is not afraid to go over the middle," says Charles. "I played some offense in high school and I taught him everything he knows. He took his moves from me. I know all his shakes."
Charles isn't the only Wolverine looking forward to facing Sidney on Saturday. Wolverine fifth/senior cornerback Morgan Trent and Sidney have been trading jibes leading up to the game.
"It's funny," says Charles. "Morgan and Sidney talk junk back and forth to each other, but they're friends. Morgan did tell me to remind Sidney not to run any bubbles because of what Morgan did to the receiver from Minnesota last week."
It's also nice to have a brother on another Big Ten school when it comes to scouting.
"It's helpful to be able to ask Sid how a team is or how their quarterback plays," says Charles. "He can give me some insight into their how their receivers are and I can tell them what I saw from a defense."
It's also nice to have someone to root hard for on Saturdays, as Charles did when Sidney played an afternoon game against Purdue earlier this year, catching his first career touchdown.
"I went crazy," says Charles. "Morgan Trent, Doug Dutch, Brandon Harrison, John Thompson and I were in the hotel watching Sidney play Purdue before our game against Penn State. When he scored, we went crazy. I started texting him, calling him and leaving messages. Everyone went crazy."
When Charles recorded his first career interception against Wisconsin, his phone was buzzing with text and voice mail messages when he got back to the locker room.
"He didn't get a chance to see it, but he heard about it," said Charles.
Sidney, it seems, went crazy as well.
"The talk will start on Friday," says Charles. "I'm sure during warm-ups he's going to run his mouth and I'm going to run my mouth and on the whistle we'll start it. Just like when we were little, I'm going to do what I did then.
"I expect the same results like we had in the backyard that day," Charles continues. "I hope he doesn't start crying but if he does, I'll give him a hug after the game. This is my last one at Michigan Stadium. I have to let it all hang out."
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