Why you should care
Meet “Leibo,” Southern Virginia’s curly-haired, soccer-playing, quick-witted Jewish jock.
Editor’s Note: With Jon Stewart signing off from The Daily Show for the last time today, it’s natural to wonder what’s next for the comedian and longtime host. Can’t answer that, sorry. But here’s what came before.
It’s always fun to see an unexpected side to a public figure whom you think you know all too well. Especially when that other side is mounted on two muscular legs and a pair of surprisingly dexterous feet. That’s right: Hiding behind the desk at The Daily Show all these years and lurking beneath the unimposing physique of the Jewish comedian Jon Stewart was a strapping, fiercely competitive, former college athlete named Jon Stuart Leibowitz. And the same skills — patience, precision, energy and adaptability — that helped Stewart climb the ranks of stand-up comedy and television helped young Leibowitz slice through opposing defenses as a soccer standout at the College of William & Mary.
Born in 1962 to a middle-class family and raised in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, Stewart once joked that he started playing soccer at Lawrence High School as “a way out of the suburbs.” As two recent biographies of Stewart by Lisa Rogak and Michael Blitz show, the diminutive Leibowitz (then under 5 feet tall) used his trademark wit to entertain friends from a young age, earning him the title of “best sense of humor” in high school. But soccer was his true passion, and he was an all-state (honorable mention) selection during his senior year, admittedly at a second-tier school that, according to Stewart, was “small, but a class above experimental and home schools.”
Don’t listen to his jokes about himself. Jon was a good player.
— Al Albert, former head soccer coach at William & Mary
Soccer also influenced Stewart’s decision to attend William & Mary, one of America’s oldest public universities in historic Williamsburg, Virginia. “I came to William & Mary because as a Jewish person,” Stewart quipped during his 2004 commencement address at his alma mater, “I wanted to explore the rich tapestry of Judaica that is Southern Virginia.”
William & Mary’s nationally recognized soccer program under head coach Al Albert caught Stewart’s eye as a freshman in 1980. Hoping to join the varsity squad, a bushy-haired Stewart walked into Albert’s office. “Coach thanked me for my offer and gently explained the team was well stocked,” Stewart wrote in the foreword to Albert’s book on the men’s soccer team, but “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.”
As one of the few Jewish students on a relatively conservative Southern campus, Stewart did not fit in so well with his fellow students, whom, he jokes, were “boys with eight first names … but who just went by ‘Trip.’” Stewart also struggled academically, flailing as a chemistry major before switching to psychology, and once admitting that his college career mostly consisted of “waking up late, memorizing someone else’s notes, doing bong hits, and going to soccer practice.”
But Stewart worked very hard when it came to soccer, often practicing late at night to hone his skills, and moved up from JV to varsity as a walk-on during his sophomore year. “Don’t listen to his jokes about himself. Jon was a good player,” Coach Albert has said. “Jon was very feisty as a player — very high-energy sort of guy.”
“Leibo,” as his teammates called him, wore number 11, and was soon starting in midfield for the Tribe. He used his sharp tongue and quick comebacks to keep his teammates relaxed in the locker room — and keep the opposing side honest. Stewart also relied on humor to defang any anti-Semitic remarks or other barbs he encountered on the field. Once, when an opposing player made a joke about the size of his nose, Stewart responded, to the amusement of everyone within earshot, that size had never really been a problem for him. Stewart’s charm, says one former teammate, also made him “very popular with the girls.”
Stewart has described himself as “miserable” and “lost” during his college years, but his time on the field appears to have been the exception. “My years with Tribe soccer were the best of my college experience,” he once wrote. “[T]he banter, the comraderie, the keg parties … the endless van rides that no matter where we went always seemed to end up at a Sizzler in Fredericksburg, where Coach had a deal on soda refills.”
Stewart’s playing days were also relatively successful. In three years, he racked up a total of 10 goals and 12 assists, including scoring the winning goal as a senior in a 1-0 victory over the University of Connecticut in the 1983 ECAC tournament championship, helping the Tribe earn an NCAA berth. Before a series of knee injuries put an end to his playing days, Stewart also played on the silver-medal-winning USA team at the Pan American Maccabi Games in Brazil in 1983 — a qualifying tournament for the World Maccabiah Games, a kind of Jewish Olympics.
When Albert was honored by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America a couple of years ago, Stewart paid tribute to his old coach, and mused about the end of his own soccer-playing days:
“If it hadn’t been for him [Coach Albert], I would have become a better soccer player, and then who knows how poorly my life would have turned out. So thank goodness he was not able to usher me into elite status.”
And quite a good thing for the rest of us, too.