Brett Stewart - the inside story Andrew Webster From: The Daily Telegraph March 26, 2011 http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/sport/nrl/brett-stewart-the-inside-story/story-e6frexnr-1226028279406 MANLY'S Brett Stewart returns to Brookvale Oval tomorrow for the first time since 2009. Andrew Webster reports on the Sea Eagles star's extraordinary journey. ********** FOR months after it happened, nobody saw Brett Stewart. He didn't leave the house. They had to come to him. A "hermit" is how his Manly Sea Eagles teammates usually described him. It was only last September when Glenn Stewart was confiding in those closest to him he feared he had lost his brother and best mate forever. "I don't think I'm ever going to get my brother back," he told them. "He's just changed that much." But it was in the dock of the ground floor court at the Downing Centre last year when Brett Stewart could not shut out the world. He couldn't hide the raw emotion that nobody had seen for the best part of two years. Whenever a piece of evidence was raised in court that he knew was wrong, whenever the allegations were aired that he had sexually assaulted that 17-year-old girl outside his North Manly apartment block, he would steam. You could see it. For a fortnight, the smallish courtroom was sardined with his family, his coach, his teammates and the media, some of them sitting on the steps or standing in the doorway, and there were times when they thought Brett Stewart would explode about his innocence. In the end, the jury found it that way. Stewart dropped his head and sobbed. His family burst into tears. Some of the jury members cried, too. The word coming out of Manly is that's the precise moment when Brett Stewart moved on. He will walk on to Brookvale Oval tomorrow against the Newcastle Knights to a gladiator's reception in his first appearance at home since September 2009, and it will be the final step in consigning two years of mental anguish - and career-threatening injuries to both knees - to the past. "It's testimony to the kid and his resilience," says Des Hasler, the Manly coach who had become a father figure while standing directly beside his fullback. "He's had to get up each day. Before he was found innocent, he got up in the morning and guess what he had in the back of his mind? "I've still got a court case coming up. I'm still fighting this battle. "That was something only he could face himself. When he was on his own, in the middle of the night, he's had to overcome that. They're the emotional barriers that he's had to face. "It's constant sand in your eye."Brett Stewart has moved on, but no one close to him is forgetting what's gone down. No matter which way you look at it, the events of that night of March 6, 2009, when Stewart was alleged to have sexually assaulted the teenage girl after a boozy club season launch the week before still echoes.For Manly, Stewart and his family, the animosity remains. There is animosity with the police who pursued the charge. There is animosity with the NRL that suspended Stewart for four matches and fined the club $100,000 - not because of the charges but because he was intoxicated at the club season launch. That war started the moment NRL chief executive David Gallop detonated at Manly officials when he found out their board wasn't going to stand down Stewart after he was charged. It has been raging ever since and flared as recently as three weeks ago when Hasler and officials questioned the strength of Gallop's leadership for not punishing Todd Carney for drink driving. "David Gallop's got his view and we've got ours," says Peter Peters, whose title is media manager but who has been at Manly so long he's in the DNA of the joint. "I saw a Prime Minister say sorry. "I think someone from the NRL should say sorry to the kid." Stewart's father Barry, a coalminer, hasn't forgotten. You hear he'd tear strips off Gallop if he saw him face to face. Same with Glenn Stewart, who some say is angrier than his brother. The Stewarts are good stock from Wollongong and they aren't forgetting a word. Barry had been at Elland Road in Leeds to watch Manly play the World Club Challenge in late February 2009. Brett scored two tries in their win. The previous October, he'd seen his two boys help Manly to a grand final win over Melbourne. For a father, it didn't get any better. When he arrived back in Sydney, he phoned Peters. "Zorba, I've had the happiest time of my life," Barry Stewart said that Saturday morning. "Go home, get [wife] Narelle, and come back up to Sydney," Peters told him. "Something's happened." Barry was floored. "They've got it wrong. It can't be our Brett." The manner in which Manly has stood by Stewart explains the strength of culture of the club. Critics will call it insular, others will deem it admirable. When Stewart's been sitting in the dugout during away games during the last two seasons, and rabid fans from rival clubs have sledged him, the replacements on the bench would leap to his defence. "That support goes without saying," Hasler says. "It was granted." Yet as commendable as their support has been, Manly's recent public brawl with Gallop had drawn criticism. There is a belief it has merely dredged up the past when Brett Stewart is all about the future. "Brett knew everything that we were doing," Peters says. "We wouldn't have put the pads on and the helmet if he didn't want us to." There is animosity with the media, that which Stewart still watches with deep suspicion. To his credit, he's trying to be the affable, lairising kid who had won affection the press because of his ability to sniff out a try. When he fronted the press at a training session at Narrabeen on Tuesday, he joked that a low microphone must have been set up for Matt Orford, the former gnome-ish halfback from 2008.But later, when speaking to a circle of print reporters, he let his guard slip. "What some of you write and what happens is two different things," he said. "Can't really blame some of the public for what they read at the end of the day." Peters snapped the interview shut there and then. "He's starting to come out of his shell," he told me later. "He needs footy. It's the only way he can repay people, in his own mind. "He's not as approachable as he was before. "That will come. He's not as trusting as he used to be." What remains is whether the echoes of the past will prevent Brett Stewart from being the player that he was. He had opened the NRL season days before the alleged incident, as the face of the game, for a reason: he was pushing Billy Slater as the best fullback in the game. Those identical injuries to both knees - the right one in 2009 against Souths, the left one last year when crunched in a tackle by Lote Tuqiri - are no longer an issue. You look at his spindly legs and you can hardly see the scars from the surgery that pieced his knees back together. "Easy," Hasler says without hesitation when you ask him if his fullback can recapture his best form. "I still don't think he's reached his full potential. "The best is still to come from Brett Stewart. You'll see a stronger, more mature player." You might struggle to see the scars, but what nobody can deny is that the scar tissue remains. Even that might fade in time, out on the field which will always be better that the couch, and always better than the dock. On the field is where good footballers belong. As Stewart said himself this week: "I like that I'm not in the dugout any longer."