Just a few weeks after Heritage's loss in the quarterfinals of the state AAAAA playoffs, I sat across from boy's head coach Brandon Stewart and we discussed his life, next season and how to build a winning mentality.
I arrived just a little after 11 a.m. on a Wednesday morning; I'm still learning the area. As I enter through the double-doors of Panera Bread Company, I look to my left and see a slim guy in a collar shirt with a hockey player's beard - I'm jealous - sitting alone at a table looking down at his phone.
"Coach?" I asked. We talked on the phone before but this was our first time meeting. So we introduced ourselves and got some food. We both had soup, he had a cup of soup and a sandwich, and I had a bowl.
We talked for about 45 minutes on a range of topics. I tell him I'm looking for apartments in the area so I can stop commuting back and forth from Macon every day. He tells me about the area, the nice places and the nicer apartments.
He's excited about next season. The painful sting from their third round exit to Greenbriar is no longer evident. There is only hope for next season.
"I hate losing. I hate losing. As a coach or as a player," Stewart said. "Nobody ever had to convince me to work hard or push for an extra goal or something to get a win. I didn't want that sting of losing and sit around all day."
Most coach's goal is always to implement a system and an identity for their team, ergo what Jürgen Klinsmann is doing by leaving Landon Donovan off the United States National Team, but that's a story for another day. Stewart has implanted his DNA in his players and given the team an identity by preaching core values and upholding the Heritage tradition of winning.
"What I push, push, push, push, I've done this from day one, is I don't like laziness or disrespect," Stewart said emphatically. "If you're going to work hard and be respectful of the game, myself and your teammates, we'll do anything we can to help you become a better man."
"One of the things that I always try to continue to do is continue that tradition in all aspects," Stewart said speaking on Heritage's tradition of winning. "On the field what I preach to my players: on the field, in the classrooms, in the hallways. That field/hallways/classroom dynamic is the trick. The soccer part is easy."
With those values, Stewart has led the Patriots to the state playoffs in all six of his seasons as head coach. He has amassed over 65 wins and just 30 losses.
"I'm helping to grow tomorrow's generation of men. If we can instill those core values of hard work and respect, then we're doing a good job. If we can instill those bigger values through the avenue of soccer, the wins will come," Stewart said.
Stewart has a list of accomplishments a mile long, but the one thing that's eluded him in both his playing career and his coaching career - is a state title.
"I've been around the Heritage program my whole life," Stewart said.
Stewart's grandmother was a part of integrating the school system at Heritage back in the day. His uncle, who is only nine years older than him, is like a brother to Stewart. When Stewart's uncle started playing soccer, Stewart started playing soccer.
"When he played at Heritage, I was a ball-boy," Stewart said. "It's just in my blood man, its home."
Stewart became a ball-boy in 1986, eight years before he finally stepped on the field to play soccer for the Patriots.
"My ‘94 year I was a freshman and we had six Division1 players on varsity," Stewart said. "We had a guy play here named Clint Mathis. He was a local stud he played in the World Cup in 2002, scored a goal in the World Cup. So he could easily be in the top 50 U.S. players ever. There was no shame being behind that."
Stewart just missed a state title his first year at Heritage. He was on the freshmen team - behind a varsity team filled with talent including local legend Clint Mathis - the year the Patriots won their state title in ‘94. In ‘96 and ‘97 Stewart was named All-Area. He also won Region Player of the Year in ‘97.
"I was ranked No. 1 my whole year my senior year," Stewart said. "We outshot Douglas County 40 something-3, we lost 2-1. There's a big group of young kids on that team that ended up winning in ‘98. I got to bookend state titles."
"I got to be a big part of their development, that ‘98 team. Because there were a lot of young kids that played club (around me). Just missed it. Just missed my ring. But maybe next year."
Although he's yet to win a state title, Stewart keeps the Heritage tradition alive by winning - a lot. He's never finished lower than third in the region. Just two years ago he led the team to their first region crown in a decade.
"To continue that excellence is the No. 1 thing," Stewart said. "Of course, missing out on the two (state titles), bookend of my playing career and then moving into that as a coach. Those are overdue for."
So, I finally asked him, what would it mean for him to win a state title?
"It would add to the excellence that we have," Stewart said. "We're a top 15 program in the entire state, all classifications. We've got 4 state titles. I don't think we've ever had a losing season."
Sitting down with him, you can see his genuine passion. Not just for soccer but for his family and his players. At one point during our lunch he got up to say hello and open the door for some older people he knew from his church.
"I love working with our teenage boys," Stewart said. "Our teenage boys are going to be men of the future. That's massively important. This is our ministry. We don't do a whole lot with our church and stuff like that because this is what we do."
By "we" he means he and his wife, a former Heritage player herself. Stewart was recently married in September to Bailey Merritt, a former defender for Heritage. They each have one child from separate relationships, Stewart's daughter
Isabella and Bailey's son Landon, with one child on the way.
"She takes care of home so that I can pour my life into those things," Stewart said. "Spring time is really rough; she's a great mom and a great wife."
"The two biggest reasons for my success is my awesome wife who takes care of home and great players who are just great kids," Stewart said proudly. "It makes a difference for me."
I asked him what happens if his wife wants another child. "Three's enough bro. Kids are expensive," he laughed.
As he looks forward to next year, for now Stewart sits back in the confines of his home in McDonough still waiting for that state title. Well, maybe next year.