Before he was Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show," he was Jon Leibowitz, winger of the William & Mary men's soccer team. As a scrappy 5-foot-6, 140-pound walk-on, Stewart worked his way up from the junior varsity team to a starting spot on the varsity team.
We caught up with his college coach, Al Albert, on Thursday afternoon, just hours before Stewart's final episode as host of "The Daily Show."
Albert, who coached the William & Mary men's soccer team from 1972 to 2003 and amassed more than 400 wins, has fond memories of his time working with "Leibo."
Stewart thought he'd make varsity as a freshman walk-on
When Stewart arrived on the Williamsburg, Virginia, campus of William & Mary in 1980, he had experience playing soccer at Lawrence (New Jersey) High School and on a Lawrence Hamnett Soccer Association club team. In Stewart's mind, those were varsity credentials.
"We had a pretty good team coming back in 1980," Albert said. "He probably was little naïve, a typical high school kid 30 years ago before the whole recruiting carnival got going. He probably figured, 'I'm coming in and I'll be on the team and everything.'"
Stewart recalled his first meeting with Albert in the foreword he wrote for his former coach's book about the William & Mary soccer program.
Wrote Stewart: "I walked into his office to deliver the good news that I, all-state soccer player (honorable mention) from a powerful program (group two, small, but a class above experimental and home schools) had decided to grace the college soccer program with my presence. ... Coach thanked me for my offer and gently explained the team was well stocked and he would be tracking my progress with their vaunted JV program, which turned out to be not so much a program as a sign-up sheet in a Greek kid's dorm room."
Stewart wound up impressing Albert with his perseverance.
"We put him on this JV club team that we had for a few years back then," Albert said. "Actually, not many guys came out of that and ended up being good. I think the thing that people don't realize is Jon was a walk-on who ended up being a starter on a team as a senior that went to the NCAA tournament and lost to Bruce Arena's UVA team. He was a really good player. He wasn't the best player, but he was a good player. His journey speaks to the type of person he is. He's very hard working and not easily discouraged."
Stewart became a varsity starter by his senior season
Albert was right about his varsity team in 1980. For the first time in school history, William & Mary earned a spot in the NCAA men's soccer tournament. Stewart watched from afar as a member of the JV team.
Wrote Stewart of that time: "That year, the Tribe settled for a record-setting goal performance (27) by John McManus and green 'NCAA Regional Champs' hooded sweatshirts. I wanted only one thing at that point in life: to earn one of those damned sweatshirts ... and to lose my virginity ... but I assume that is for the foreword of a very different book. True to his word, Coach had kept an eye on my progress and invited me to join the team for spring workouts leading to a spot on the varsity in the fall. It was an opportunity that I never took for granted."
It wasn't a charity case. Albert's decision to invite Stewart to work out with the varsity in the spring and give him a spot on the team as a sophomore was an easy one.
"He was the best player on that club team and when he came out in the spring and played with our guys, he was good," Albert said. "So his sophomore year, he actually started to play some even though he hadn't been given a spot on the team as a freshman. ... He started getting playing time right away as a sophomore. He wasn't a one-hit wonder. Once he got into the locker room, he did well. He played a lot for three years."
'He was athletic and feisty and quick'
Stewart played some midfield during his three years at William & Mary but he was primarily a winger. It was the position Stewart enjoyed the most and that best suited his skillset.
"He was a little wild like wingers have a tendency to be," Albert said. "He wasn't the maestro center or midfield player or forward who plays with his back to the goal. He needed space. He was athletic and feisty and quick. Jon was a good winger. He could get in a lot of crosses. He wasn't the most technical or clinical player, but he could make things happen."
Stewart's highlight was a game-winning goal
As a senior, Stewart scored the only goal in a 1-0 win against Connecticut that helped William & Mary earn an NCAA tournament berth.
Stewart's goal on Oct. 16, 1983, according to the Hartford Courant's game story, was the result of a "complete breakdown on the backline" by the 15th-ranked Huskies. Stewart's quote in the game story seems to back up that assertion.
"I think they may have been a bit disorganized at the start of the game on the goal. Scott Bell got free on the left, but the goalie came out and got part of the ball. I was left completely unmarked," Stewart told the paper.
Albert remembers it as Stewart's "most important goal."
"It wasn't the only goal he ever scored, but that was clearly the most significant goal he scored," Albert said. "I remember the ball was deflected and it fell to him and he scored. It wasn't going to make the SportsCenter Top 10 in terms of the quality of the goal, but in terms of the importance of the goal, it was huge for our season. That ended up being one of the reasons we got into the NCAA tournament."
Stewart's words in the game story support his coach's memory: "Three years ago we beat Penn State in overtime at home, but to come here and beat Connecticut on their own turf is the kind of thing you dream about."
A team award is named after Stewart
Stewart's nickname at William & Mary was "Leibo", the shortened version of his real surname, and in 1998, a year before he became the host of "The Daily Show", the men's soccer program named an annual award after him. For the past 17 years, the "Leibo Award" is awarded to the men's soccer player with the most positive influence on the team's attitude.
"Before Jon became really famous, we started the award because we thought it was a cool thing," Albert said. "You have external awards that are given by the league and the region and then you have your internal awards like most improved and MVP. So we decided to have an award for the guy that keeps everyone loose in the locker room, and that was Jon. He wasn't a clown or anything, but I can remember Jon holding court in the locker room and he could really, as the cliché goes, take the piss out of people pretty well if we wanted to -- and he's still doing it."