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How passion, perseverance and football led the Moorpark College Raiders’ head coach home

Taking+a+moment+away+from+the+weight+room+and+removing+his+signature+hat+and+sunglass+combo%2C+Stuart+posed+for+his+profile+picture.+Photo+credit%3A+Michelle+De+Leon
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How passion, perseverance and football led the Moorpark College Raiders’ head coach home

Taking a moment away from the weight room and removing his signature hat and sunglass combo, Stuart posed for his profile picture. Photo credit: Michelle De Leon

Taking a moment away from the weight room and removing his signature hat and sunglass combo, Stuart posed for his profile picture. Photo credit: Michelle De Leon

Taking a moment away from the weight room and removing his signature hat and sunglass combo, Stuart posed for his profile picture. Photo credit: Michelle De Leon

Taking a moment away from the weight room and removing his signature hat and sunglass combo, Stuart posed for his profile picture. Photo credit: Michelle De Leon

By Robert Gonzales

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A few years removed from his play at Moorpark College, the All-American football star returned home to take on the task of coaching the youth in the community that raised him.

Mike Stuart dreamed of performing under the big lights of the NFL coming out of high school. Highly recruited and hearing scholarship offers from 30 different universities, built the confidence of the 18-year-old who accepted a full-ride scholarship to the University of Southern California.

But as a young adult at the peak of his game, distractions from upcoming college parties pulled away Stuart’s focus on his dedicated football career.

“I think that got to my head, in a lot of different ways,” Stuart said. “When you’re being an 18-year old, you walk around Westlake High School, like yeah, I’m the man.”

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Stuart laughs mid-conversation while discussing training techniques with a player. Photo credit: Michelle De Leon

Stuart began to fall behind academically at USC as other five-star recruits overshadowed him on the football field as well. Stuart faced a harsh reality, losing playing time and then his scholarship. He descended back into his football safety net. He returned home to play for Moorpark College for the 2005 season.

“That’s where I felt I’d grown the most, was my transition from ‘SC to Moorpark,” Stuart said. “I felt I was on top of the world, being so heavily recruited and then when I got depleted it was sort of like an eye opener, like alright, I got to change my life around.’”

Focused back on football, Stuart earned a scholarship to Fresno State after playing in only three games for the Moorpark Raiders.

He finished his collegiate play as an All-Conference Defensive End. On the last game of his 2007 senior year, he tore his labrum, the cup-shaped rim of cartilage in his shoulder. The injury stifled any aspirations of trying out for the NFL combine, the week-long showcase of physical and mental tests for NFL personnel to evaluate upcoming prospects.

The next six months were a struggle for Stuart. For the second time, he coped with losing his football opportunity, this time to a fateful injury. Determined to move on with life without sacrificing his passion for football, Stuart began to focus on his coaching career.

In 2009, his first year as a coach, he worked two part-time jobs to help support his wife and newborn child. Each day began with selling and delivering pet treats to high-end pet stores in Newbury Park, from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., then rushing over to Moorpark College to coach the defensive line smelling like the savory Carnivore Crunch he recently transported.

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Mike Stuart, right, and his wife of 10 years, Kelsey, at their Westlake High School senior year powderpuff football game.

“(We were) living paycheck to paycheck,” Stuart’s wife, Kelsey said. “When you’re first starting off, you’re not making enough at all to justify the amount of hours you’re putting in. It was quite the gamble to be like, ‘this is what I want to do, let’s do it.’”

Stuart took even more on his plate when Head Coach Jim Bittner fired his defensive coordinator two days before the first game of Stuart’s coaching career. The opening allowed him to take over as defensive coordinator in his first season.

In his second year, 2010, he developed his defensive schemes. The team reflected the coaching change, improving from a win-less season to a 7-4 record concluding with a Western State Conference bowl game victory against Chaffey College.

“We started being known for having more of a defensive type of a program,” Stuart said.

That season the Raiders ranked number one in the state with yards against for passing and rushing.

“That was a big, huge accomplishment,” Stuart said. “Went from going 0 and 10, and that’s sort of where I just took off.”

At the end of 2014, Stuart’s sixth year as defensive coordinator, the position for head coach of the program opened and the nation-wide search began. Stuart expressed interest in the vacated position and they hired him as an interim head coach for the season.

In his interim season, he won another six games with an additional bowl game victory just like he did in 2010 when he took over as defensive coordinator. The 49 to 12 victory at the Beach Bowl declared his capabilities to finish strong as a head coach candidate at the end of his audition season.

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Stuart, left, sharing some photos of himself and his wife during their high school. Photo credit: Michelle De Leon

“In looking for the permanent hire full-time, we wanted the best candidate for our position,” Athletic Director Vance Manakas said.

Manakas knew Stuart as a 19-year-old student, recalling his hard-working dedication as he tried to come back from injury during his playing days.

“Here’s a young man who has a future in whatever he chooses to do,” Manakas said. “You see a lot about a person’s character (when rehabilitating an injury). He has the kind of character that it takes to be successful.”

Manakas remarked on his work ethic, leadership and his ability to handle adversity. Even back then he could see successful qualities necessary for the future coach.

A hiring committee agreed with Manakas’ assessment of Stuart. They felt he displayed exemplary abilities to teach both on and off the field and elected him as a top candidate for hire.

Once Stuart became a full-time head coach, his wife said she took note of her husband’s dedication to his new student athletes. She admired the way he always made sure they learn the skill set necessary to make it to the next level both on the football field and in the classroom.

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Stuart speaking to players after their Thursday night game against College of the Canyons Photo credit: Michelle De Leon

“His goal isn’t focused on the amount of wins and losses but always, always, at heart, his players,” she said. “I feel to the very bone that he is doing what he was called to do.”

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