CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart didn’t have the kind of season he wanted on the field in 2017, and there are no guarantees he’ll be back for an 11th season even though he has a year remaining on his contract.
But Stewart still has a chance to be a league MVP -- as in Most Valuable Performer.
Carolina’s all-time leading rusher is one of six finalists who will appear Thursday night on CBS’s interactive television show "MVP: Most Valuable Performer" to determine which NFL player has the best off-the-field talent. Stewart will play one of his original songs on piano, something he’s never done in front of an audience this big with no teammates around.
“I’ve played the piano for some time now," Stewart told ESPN.com. “And to be in the profession that I am in and performing in front of large audiences every Sunday or Thursday or Monday, this is a different type of event for me.
“It’s another part of my passion. It’s me being able to showcase a talent that a lot of people don’t know about me, so it’s pretty awesome."
Stewart has been playing the piano since almost the time he could walk. He got his first keyboard around the second grade. He’s been entertaining teammates during training camp on the piano in the lobby outside the cafeteria at Wofford College for about a decade.
He has a baby grand piano he nicknamed “Beautiful" that he plays all the time in his lush uptown high-rise apartment.
Teammates call him the “Piano Man."
And get this: Stewart plays everything by ear because he doesn’t read notes.
He says it gives him a chance to be creative.
Stewart also has a recording studio in his home that overlooks the city. His goal after football is to get into the production end of music.
“I would love to be a producer, to produce for TV shows, soundtracks or artists," Stewart said. “Those are things that are a big desire in my life. With the ability of me being able to play by ear, it’s been beneficial to me in the creative aspect of music."
Stewart has played the piano for stories in the past, but Thursday night's appearance at the Avalon Hollywood in California will be his first time playing in front of a live television audience.
He was chosen from among 32 players in a nationwide vote. He will compete against Baltimore defensive tackle Brandon Williams (singing), Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker (opera singing), Baltimore running back Alex Collins (Irish dancing), Denver defensive tackle tackle Domata Peko (guitar) and Cleveland guard Kevin Zeitler (dog tricks).
The show, which begins at 8 p.m. ET, will be hosted by actor/rapper LL Cool J. Celebrity judges Katharine McPhee (actress, recording artist), Maz Jobrani (actor and comedian) and Brandon Marshall (Giants receiver) will narrow the group to three, and the winner will be determined by an online audience that votes on CBS.com.
This will be big for Stewart, who may be as comfortable in front of a keyboard as he is behind quarterback Cam Newton.
“It’s part of my escape," Stewart said. “Everyone has their outlets as far as what do they do to wind down. With us, you know, we have such a demanding job not only, you know, mentally but physically, obviously.
“So to come home and be able to play something that’s very soothing and that’s using different parts of my brain, it’s a way for me to get in the zone and to just kind of cast away."
Former Carolina fullback Mike Tolbert said in 2015 that Stewart was at his happiest “when he’s in his lab," another word for Stewart’s recording studio. "His lab is making beats and playing the piano and producing music," Tolbert said. “When I see him in a zone, that's the Jonathan Stewart I know.
“He's got a lot of beats. He makes a lot of songs. He's definitely got a lot of talent in that area."
One of Stewart’s inspirations is producer and songwriter Bryan-Michael Cox, who has played a role in the development of the careers of Mariah Carey, Usher, Mary J. Blige and Toni Braxton. He also is a big fan of rapper Tyshon Dwayne Nobles, better known as T-Wayne.
“Because he plays the piano," Stewart said. “I’m not sure if a lot of people know that, but he’s a really talented musician, and just the type of music that he makes is something that I appeal to."
The Panthers will spend the next few months determining how much talent Stewart has to offer on the field in 2018. He’ll turn 31 in March, and he’s coming off a season in which he had his fewest rushing yards (680) since 2013, a year in which he was injured and played in only six games.
He’s set to count $5.25 million against the 2018 salary cap. The team could save $3.75 million against the cap by releasing him.
But Stewart didn’t sound like he was ready to hang up his cleats after Carolina’s season ended with a playoff loss in New Orleans, and he doesn’t sound like he is ready to now.
He’s looking forward to working with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who has coached some of the NFL’s all-time best backs in Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson.
“Having him coming in is definitely going to give us a face-lift," Stewart said. “The offense last year, we struggled a little bit putting points on the board. His mindset of running the ball is definitely going to pay off for our offense.
“And just getting in a fix, like going into a game sometimes you don’t even know what we’re going to stick with. Norv, we know what we’re going to get. He’s going to expect everyone around him to be at their best."
Stewart’s goal remains to win a Super Bowl. “Every year you go into the offseason and train and put everything out there to win a Super Bowl," he said. “And I still know that I have the ability to help the team win a Super Bowl."