Jonathan Stewart’s message more than football

As his youth football camp continues to grow, Jonathan Stewart’s objective remains the same: teaching things beyond basic football skills.

For Stewart, a 2005 Timberline High School graduate who will enter his fourth season with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, it’s also about giving inspiration and encouragement to young athletes.

“Being passionate to give back to these kids, giving them hope and empowerment,” Stewart said. “That’s what it’s all about. Telling them, ‘If you bust your butt and do what’s right … that you can accomplish the dreams you want.’ ”

Partnering with Pro Camps, Stewart hosted his second annual Jonathan Stewart Football Camp on Wednesday at South Sound Stadium in Lacey, a place where he dazzled foes and fans alike from 2001-04 on the way to setting the state’s career high school rushing mark (7,755 yards).

One-hundred and ninety-three boys and girls ages 7 through 18 participated in Wednesday’s first day. The camp concludes today with a session from 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Last year’s inaugural camp drew 150 kids ages 7 to 14, and Stewart said he hopes to expand the camp to the fields behind North Thurston High School and next to Chinook Middle School, in addition to using South Sound Stadium.

“I want to give back to as many kids as possible, creating a legacy that will eventually be something that will be able to stick around as long as I can,” Stewart said.

The nearly 200 campers were mostly from The Boys and Girls Club of Thurston County, South Sound YMCA and New Life Baptist Church.

In addition to Stewart, the campers had other noteworthy NFL instructors, including Seattle Seahawks running back Justin Forsett, ex-Panthers teammate Kenny Moore, Stewart’s former University of Oregon teammates Dennis Dixon (quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers), and Jairus Byrd (defensive back, Buffalo Bills), and former Rogers High and Washington State receiver Brandon Gibson (St. Louis Rams). They took part in demonstrations and drills throughout the 31/2 hour camp.

A handful of South Sound-area high school coaches also were on hand as instructors, including Timberline’s Nick Mullen and Yelm’s Randy Swilley.

Stewart and the other NFL players spent time working with the kids in individual drills and showing hands-on technique – something camper Jay Carlton, a 12-year-old incoming seventh-grader at Lacey’s Komachin Middle School, enjoyed the best. He also liked the 2-yard touch drill, another favorite among the campers.

“It’s more fun that I expected,” Carlton said. “I didn’t know we would get to interact with the (NFL) players as much, but we actually do. It’s very exciting.”

Joseph Pati, a fifth-grader at Lacey’s Mountain View Elementary, got the motivation to come to the camp thanks to his cousins.

“They said it was a good camp,” said Pati, who has played football the past two years. “It’s been really fun.”

Although the NFL player lockout is in its 117th day, that hasn’t stopped players from working out with each other. Stewart has spent time training at Pro Active in Lacey, as well as training with Panthers teammates in Charlotte and Miami.

Carolina is coming off a 2-14 season, and its offseason has been a busy one. The Panthers have a new head coach in former San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, and selected Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton as the No. 1 overall pick in the April NFL draft.

Stewart, a 5-foot-10, 230-pound running back, was drafted by the Panthers at No. 13 overall out of Oregon in 2008. In three seasons with Carolina, Stewart has rushed for 2,739 yards and scored 22 touchdowns. In 2010, Stewart rushed for 770 yards (4.3 yards a carry) and scored two touchdowns.