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Darian Stewart finds 'validation' from Pro Bowl nod

ORLANDO, Fla. —When Aqib Talib arrived in Honolulu in 2014, he was struck by the star power of his fellow Pro Bowlers.

After six seasons of work, the 20th-overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft had found his validation — and it was accompanied by a stay in paradise alongside the best in the NFL. 

"I remember pulling up like, 'Wow,'" Talib said. "Sitting in that locker room like, 'Wow.' [I was] thinking that we need to be in the Olympics or something. We need to go around the world and play. [I was] wishing we could play more games than just this one game."

That initial impression hasn't worn off for Talib, who has since pushed his number of Pro Bowl selections to four. He said Friday he still appreciates the little things: the week, walking among the fans, the hotel.

Perhaps that's why he lit up when asked about teammate Darian Stewart, who is in the midst of his own first Pro Bowl experience.

"It's huge, just to be a part of the year with him for the Broncos," Talib said. "Seeing him get the recognition that he deserves, that's huge. It's well-deserved. I'm glad he's out here with us."

Stewart certainly has the credentials to be in Orlando alongside Talib and the four other Broncos who will play in Sunday's game. In his second season in Denver, Stewart doubled his career interception total from three to six as he started every game for the first time in his career. His 68 tackles marked the second-highest total of his seven-year career and he tacked on a forced fumble against the Patriots.

Stewart's best game of the season, however, came against the Saints when he picked off two passes and recovered a fumble that cornerback Bradley Roby jarred loose. He was the only player in the NFL this season to record three turnovers in a single game and became the first Broncos player to do so since Deltha O'Neal in 2001.

Originally the first alternate at safety, Stewart was named to the Pro Bowl when Chiefs safety Eric Berry had to withdraw from the event. With the nod came validation for the former undrafted player who has found stability in Denver in the form of a four-year contract extension. 

"It's been special," Stewart said. "It's a great and experience. [I'm] happy to be here just to get to experience with the guys on my team.

"It's validation for me. I put the work in to get here, so it's good for it finally to come true. It's just been a great week all together."

While Orlando lacks the beachfront property of Honolulu, the Disney theme parks have been more than enough for Stewart, who came to the Pro Bowl with his wife, Whitley, and daughter, Hayden.

On Thursday night, Universal Studios welcomed the Pro Bowlers to its park for an "epic" private event that Stewart called an "all-around good time." The safety, who raced down into the box to deliver his fair share of big hits this season, didn't shy away from the biggest and fastest rides. Stewart tabbed the Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket as his favorite — though with a 4-foot-3 height restriction, Hayden couldn't join her dad on the 167-foot ride that reaches a max speed of 65 miles per hour.

"The Rocket was the best one hands down," Stewart said. "It was the biggest one and a real rollercoaster."

Whitley made sure that she and her husband also found time to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. While Stewart said he's not a big fan of Harry Potter, he said he enjoyed the trip.

"I haven't read the books … but my wife has," Stewart said. "But it was cool to go into that world, that magical world. It was all a good experience."

That includes the one-hour practices, which are closer to glorified hangouts. Trick plays involve as many as five throwbacks before the play develops, and players are dotted with body cameras and Snapchat Spectacles. It's a time to visit with the best the league has to offer — and it's a far cry from the reality of the NFL season.

"It's fun, as it should be," Stewart said. "You don't get to do this every day, so we're all just out here having fun in front of the fans and enjoying each other's time."

Add that relaxed environment to his teammates' presence and a theme park mecca, and you're left with a similar lasting impression that Talib got three years ago.

Asked whether the week lived up to the expectations for the week that he's had for a number of years now, Stewart didn't hesitate.

"Without a doubt, it is. And then some."

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