In 1996, George Stewart arrived in San Francisco as the 49ers' special teams coordinator. One of his prized pupils was a young man named Anthony Lynn.
Now, 21 years later, the Chargers new special teams coordinator/assistant head coach sits in an office just a few doors down from his former player turned head coach. Although Stewart never imagined their paths would cross in this manner, he knew back then that Lynn was destined to be an NFL coach.
"Anthony was a special teams maven," he said. "There was nothing that I could put on him that he could not handle. I knew then that at some point he would be a coach because of his intelligence. He was very smart, always asking great questions. He was always our hardest worker. We had a good group, and he was our leader. He was our captain."
Stewart is highly regarded in league circles with 28 years of NFL coaching experience under his belt. He has coached under some true titans, including Lou Holtz, George Seifert, Bill Walsh, Dan Reeves and, of course, Chuck Noll. Stewart's NFL career began as a special teams coach in 1989 under the Pittsburgh Steelers legend, and Noll quickly became his mentor.
"I had the chance to learn firsthand from the four-time Super Bowl champion, and it was quite an experience. The thing I learned most was patience. His patience was unbelievable and impeccable. I remember my first game as a Pittsburgh Steelers coach was against the Cleveland Browns, and we lost 51-0. We went into the locker room thinking this is not going to be good. And Coach Noll walks in and says 'This just means we can't go undefeated. Let's go on to next week.' That is just the kind of mindset that coach Noll had, and I learned that from him in terms of patience."
That patience has served him well as he enters his 29th NFL season. After all, it took him 17 years to return to his original calling. Stewart transitioned from special teams to a position coach in the late 90s at the urging of Bill Walsh. He relished his time as a wide receivers coach, from his early years leading Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens to his recent stint with the Minnesota Vikings featuring Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
Yet through it all, special teams remained dear to his heart. Even as a wide receivers coach, Stewart assisted in the kicking game knowing one day he'd return to his roots.
"I always thought I would be (back in special teams) because it is my passion," he explained. "That is why I've stayed involved in it at other places. Even when I was in Atlanta and Minnesota, I always worked with the special teams coordinator on the field. On special teams we have a chance to have a big impact on the game. One play can turn it either positively or negatively, and I missed that part of it."
Still, for all his special teams' experience and passion, Stewart believes Lynn is taking "a shot in the dark" by hiring him. That belief fuels an insatiable drive to reward his former pupil's faith by putting him in charge of the kicking game.
"I think he took a shot in the dark because I haven't done it in 17 years. That is a long time, but if I had a first love, it would be the kicking game. So now I'm coming full circle, and I'm eager to get started with (Assistant Special Teams Coach) Marquice (Williams). We are going to sit down and analyze all the film."
While Stewart will watch the film with a critical eye, analyzing every bit of minutiae, he'll do so with core fundamental principals that construct his special teams philosophies.
"I believe that number one, we have to have guys with great character. We have to get with great toughness and a selfless attitude. If we have that, regardless of talent, they have a chance to be successful for us. Obviously talent works, but once you get to this level, talent is a commonality between all the teams. But character, toughness, smarts and so on aren't. So those are the things we are looking for."