To truly understand what has allowed Rodney Stewart to thrive as the starting running back for a Bowl Championship Series college football team when almost nobody believed he was capable of it, you have to see him on the field.

But not Folsom Field and not any of the other gridirons of the Pac-12 and Big 12 Conferences where he has zigged and zagged his way to 3,305 career rushing yards.

No, you have to see him in your mind's eye on the field at the elementary school around the corner from his childhood home on Brentnell Avenue in Columbus, Ohio.

Picture 10-year-old Rodney Stewart, smaller than most of the kids his age just as he is now. He has the ball in his hands in a game where everyone else on the field is trying to tackle him and prevent him from scoring.

He played it dozens if not hundreds of times each year on that field. He found himself in trouble with his mother more than once for coming home too late after the streetlights had come on.

Most of those he competed against were two or three years older than him and all of them had an edge to them having learned plenty of lessons in toughness on the hardscrabble streets of the neighborhood.

"It kind of de-sensitized me," Stewart said. "It just gave me a tougher way of thinking about things."

Learning to make those guys miss, taught him how to make middle linebackers miss the past four years in Boulder. And being driven into the ground or maybe receiving a bloody lip and or nose back then taught him he could take a beating and still flourish.

"I used to have grass stains all down my school pants, but I just loved football," Stewart said.

Informal polls on various Colorado football message boards this week have Stewart as one of the leading candidates for this year's Buffalo Heart Award. The honor is presented to one member of the Colorado team after the final home game of the year by the fans behind the home bench.

Colorado coach Jon Embree remembers the first time he saw Stewart's toughness. He watched him take a shot in a scrimmage situation last spring and pop right back up. Stewart earned his coach's respect in that moment and has continued to build a reservoir of pats on the back from Embree since.

"I thought, 'OK, this kid has something about him,' " Embree said. "Just his whole attitude. He exudes toughness. You can tell he's that guy. He wants you to pick on him so he can get after you.

"He's just such a good football player, good out of the backfield, good as a pass blocker."

At 5-foot-6, 175 pounds, it is remarkable that Stewart has survived so many hits and tackles at this level where those delivering the blows often have 50, 75 or 100 pound advantages on him. He has missed significant playing time only twice in his career, at the end of his freshman season when a horse collar tackle by then-Texas A&M and now Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller broke his leg in the ninth game of the season. And last month when he missed two games with a sprained knee.

"I would say growing up with my friends we always competed on who was the toughest," Stewart said. "I think I got being tough, it's a mental thing just from competing my whole life."

Stewart began this season chasing the Colorado career rushing record held by offensive coordinator and running backs coach Eric Bieniemy. It's highly unlikely Stewart will catch Bieniemy with just three games left and still needing more than 600 yards. But Stewart has continued to prove this season that he is one of the toughest players to ever wear the black and gold.

No other non-quarterback has touched the ball more in a CU career than Stewart, who has 754 carries and counting. Stewart has 15 career 100-yard games and 22 rushing touchdowns. But he is more than just a guy who takes a handoff. Only 17 other players have caught more passes than Stewart, who has 82 catches to his credit.

Stewart has put in the work in the weight room throughout his career and it has helped his durability. He is pound-for-pound the strongest player on the team, according to strength and conditioning coach Malcolm Blacken.

"He's unbelievable," senior quarterback Tyler Hansen said. "We were watching film of the SC game and he made some plays that were just, 'How did he do that?' You know?

"He's just grown every year. The first year he was splitting time with a bunch of guys and he made some great plays. The next year he was just progressing more and more. This year, he's that complete guy. He's the guy that defenses have to focus on and prepare for. You talk about trying to take away their best player. Well, he's our best player."

Stewart's biological father chose not to be a part of his life when Stewart was 5. While that decision hurt, Stewart said he has been fueled more by the people in his life, like his mother, Tiffany.

He said he is thankful for a family friend, Marvin Johnson, who always served as a mentor and helped him stay on a path that eventually led him to college. He said he owes an equal debt to his former step-father, Carl Wade, who held him accountable at home.

It is from them he always has drawn confidence, strength and desire to compete.

"You think about certain stuff when you're not on the field, like, 'Dang, I didn't get as many yards. Am I not really that good?' Stewart said. "But then at the time when I am on the field, I have this attitude like if I'm not getting as many yards, it will come. It's like a challenge when I'm on the field, too.

"What makes me a good competitor is I'm always fighting, I don't want to say physically, but there is always a challenge I'm trying to overcome."

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