February 4, 2009

Though small, Tiffara Steward plays big for Farmingdale State

Though small, Tiffara Steward plays big for Farmingdale State

By Dick Patrick, USA TODAY (Feb 4, 2009)


At 4-feet-6 and 90 pounds, Tiffara Steward sometimes is given the children's menu at restaurants or can get into movies at the 12-year-old rate despite being 20. Born three months prematurely, she's blind in her right eye, has hearing loss in both ears, battles scoliosis, has a leg length discrepancy and underwent six operations by the time she was 3.

So what's she doing on the basketball team at Farmingdale (N.Y.) State, a Division III school on Long Island less than an hour from New York City?

She's doing the same things she has been doing since grade school while playing on teams her parents coached — starting and helping her team.

"When I'm in the stands, I hear people say, 'What is she going to do?' " says her mother, Vanessa Steward, of typical fan reactions to Tiffarra's height. "I kind of chuckle like 'You'll see in a minute.' "

A junior guard believed to be the shortest college player in the country, Steward averages 6.4 points and 2.5 steals while shooting 38.3% from three-point range for the Rams (13-4), who are in second place behind Mount Saint Mary in the Skyline Conference.

"She's our best on-ball defender," says Farmingdale coach Chris Mooney. "She's quick; she's all over the ball all the time. She picks up a lot of charges because she's so little.

"She's a really good three-point shooter. She's really small so she needs space to get it off — she always seems to get it off."

Bard (N.Y.) coach Jen Watson was a typical skeptic the first time she saw Steward play: "I think everyone when they first look at her think it's going to be easy. But she works very hard, and you definitely can't rest on her. You have to work hard against her, because she doesn't take it easy on anyone.

"She's a great example of what people can do when they're determined to do something they love. I really enjoy watching her. She's a very talented athlete. You know what? We don't think of her any differently than anyone else."

That's the way the youngest of Vanessa and Gregory Steward's four children was raised after weighing 2 pounds, 15 ounces. at birth. "I didn't want her to have the mindset of having disabilities," Vanessa says. "I treated her like the average, normal kid."

Tiffara has one complaint about her size: "When we go to an amusement park, I can't go on some of the rides because of my height."

The lack of a cornea in her right eye has led her to being crunched by screens occasionally. "I guess I have to turn my head more," she says of compensating. "Truthfully I can't explain it. I've never had the right (eye). Other senses kick in."

Yes, her opponents try to post her up. "Even point guards," she says. "Just like a big man, coach wants us to get in front down low. I try to get in front. If they lob it, hopefully I'll have help or I'll jump up and get it."

The Rams will have to assume Steward's mentality when they play at Division I Rutgers on Feb. 11.

"If I can play and not let anything hold me back," she says, "hopefully that will push someone else to not let anything hold them back as well and play as hard as they can. Because I'm going to give 110%, and I'm hoping they will, too."

 

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