Retired NFL star didn’t want a TV show. But here’s why he — and his wife — agreed to it.

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As a star running back for the Carolina Panthers, Jonathan Stewart spent several months of Sundays appearing on the television screens of NFL fans all over the country.

But when the retired football player first was presented with the opportunity to get back in front of TV cameras in a different capacity — an idea that would become “Lately With Jonathan and Natalie Stewart,” which premieres Saturday night on WCCB Charlotte — his reaction was pretty simple: “Naw. I don’t wanna do that,” Jonathan recalls, chuckling.

Mainly that’s because the way he originally interpreted Charlotte-based Bahakel Entertainment’s pitch, when it was made to him in summer 2022, was as a reality series that would also feature his wife, Natalie.

His hesitation wasn’t working with her. It was the “reality” component; and Natalie totally understood Jonathan’s knee-jerk reaction.

“When someone says, ‘Hey, do you want to do a reality-TV show?’ It’s like, ‘Hard pass. No,’ ” “ says Natalie, as she relaxes into a living-room chair in the couple’s south Charlotte home. Because when someone says “reality-TV,” she admits, it’s easy for your mind to go to “Real Housewives.” Or, as Jonathan chimes in, sarcastically, “ ‘Real Fake Housewives.’ ”

“We wouldn’t want to be part of that,” Natalie adds. “That wouldn’t be a good fit for us.”

A Bahakel exec clarified to them, however, that they weren’t suggesting something shallow. Rather, it would be a program in which the couple would guide viewers through thoughtful human-interest stories about a variety of unique, local, food-focused businesses.

Oh. OK, they thought. That actually could make a lot of sense.

And the more clearly the concept snapped into focus on its 15-month journey to Saturday’s debut, the more it seemed to mesh with the mission of a local media outlet they own together — a media outlet they’ve been trying to figure out exactly how to move into the future pretty much since Jonathan retired from the NFL four years ago.

Former Panther Jonathan Stewart and his wife Natalie have been through many changes since he left football. Some were hard. “Lately”? It’s been good.
Former Panther Jonathan Stewart and his wife Natalie have been through many changes since he left football. Some were hard. “Lately”? It’s been good.

‘The clock’s ticking. I could be done.’

Jonathan’s 20s were defined by professional football and consistency.

The Panthers’ first-round draft pick out of the University of Oregon in 2008, he was a productive fixture in Charlotte over the course of the next decade, becoming the franchise’s all-time leading rusher and racking up the second-most rushing touchdowns in Carolina history.

Since turning 30 in March 2017, though, his life has been full of change.

That November, he married Natalie, his longtime girlfriend, with whom he’d welcomed a daughter named Kaia eight months earlier. And then in February 2018, Jonathan was released by the Panthers, who had drafted phenom Christian McCaffrey the previous spring.

“We know Christian McCaffrey is special, right?” Jonathan says of the young running back who became a Pro Bowler for Carolina and then the San Francisco 49ers, his current team. “Seeing him out there practicing, and playing with him, that was my acceptance of, Oh, the clock’s ticking. So when I got released, I was like, Eh, I could be done.”

Jonathan Stewart, photographed in Charlotte in September 2017 during his final season as a running back for the Carolina Panthers.
Jonathan Stewart, photographed in Charlotte in September 2017 during his final season as a running back for the Carolina Panthers.

But as Jonathan started getting calls about making some free-agency trips — from the Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions and New York Giants — he thought maybe one more run could be fun.

In March 2018, he signed a two-year contract with New York. It turned out to be less fun than both he and Natalie imagined.

The next month, the Giants drafted Saquon Barkley, who like McCaffrey was a running back touted as a generational talent. During the 2018 season, Jonathan would be handed the ball just six times before going down with a foot injury that September.

Natalie wasn’t feeling like she fit in up north, either.

“When we were in Charlotte, we knew what to expect, we had our friends, it was comfortable,” she says. “Then we went to the Giants and we were in this apartment in Clifton, New Jersey, I was postpartum, and had no friends. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re in New York, so fun!’ And it’s easy on social media for it to look like we’re going and seeing cool things and going to restaurants. But it was also a really challenging time for us, in marriage, in parenting, being in a new city, not knowing anyone. It was definitely lonely.”

Of course, they knew it was just temporary. Two years at most. So, Natalie and Jonathan were able to often find joy and inspiration in making plans for their eventual return to Charlotte.

They’d broken ground on a dream home not far from Ballantyne. Jonathan, who had made investments in commercial real estate on the side, began looking into getting licensed as a broker in North Carolina. Then in January 2019, Jonathan and Natalie bought the local media platform Charlotte Lately because, they say, they wanted to use its tentacles (including its popular Instagram account) to share stories “of people that we love in the community and support good things.”

A few weeks later, the Giants declined the option on Jonathan’s contract. His NFL career was effectively over. Relieved, they headed home.

But yet more unexpected change was waiting for them back in Charlotte.

Finding their footing after retirement

For Jonathan, retirement didn’t revolve around golfing or sitting around playing video games. He was laser-focused on the commercial real estate thing.

“A lot of your guys that are in the space have been doing this since they were out of college,” says Jonathan, who left school early for the pros and never finished his degree work. “And so I’m sitting here water-hosing myself with information and experiences. Not to necessarily catch up, but just to be in position.”

Meanwhile, Natalie — who says they “had zero experience that made us qualified to take over Charlotte Lately” — was busy dealing with a similarly steep learning curve as the new driving force behind the platform.

By February 2020, she’d finally hatched a plan to produce the first print issue of Charlotte Lately under their ownership.

On top of all that, the couple was “learning how to make time for each other, make time for life,” Natalie says, after years of their relationship being beholden to the NFL’s regimented schedule and the physical and mental rigors of Jonathan’s job. “We struggled, and it was hard to find balance,” she says.

Then, less than a year after he retired, came the COVID curveball.

On Jonathan’s end, he kind of rolled with it, using that time to continue his informal education via Zoom. He set up video meeting after video meeting after video meeting with developers and real estate guys that he knows in town (“because I knew they were all home”), tirelessly asking questions and picking brains.

As for Natalie, she had found a groove with Charlotte Lately Instagram posts that early on celebrated Charlotteans handling the pandemic with grace and — in the wake of George Floyd’s murder — elevated local social-justice movements.

But then, another curveball: Late that spring, Natalie and Jonathan learned they were expecting another child.

Jonathan and Natalie Stewart have been through a lot together in just six years of marriage.
Jonathan and Natalie Stewart have been through a lot together in just six years of marriage.

Still, she pushed forward with her plans for the printed Charlotte Lately publication.

“It was a challenging thing to do during a pandemic,” Natalie says, “but it was also, for us, growth-wise and creatively, really fulfilling ... getting to interview different (people), and hearing their stories. And the photo shoots were very ‘come-as-you-are.’ We did black and white photographs, to kind of challenge that idea — especially in 2020, when we had time to stop and think, like, What do we value? What matters? That’s what I loved about Charlotte Lately.”

The issue ultimately landed in August 2020 and was a financial success. But COVID was clearly changing their business model.

The original owner and founder, Courtney Schramm (who sold to the Stewarts because she was moving away from Charlotte), had organized events under the Charlotte Lately banner and sold tickets to them. She also would do paid posts that generated revenue. For Natalie, though, in-person events weren’t practical because of the pandemic , and she refused to create virtual events just so she could charge money for something. She also held off on a follow-up issue because it felt to her like she’d being doing it just to be quote-unquote relevant.

Her full hands were also about to get fuller. In January 2021, their second daughter — Nora — arrived.

As they adjusted to life with two kids, Jonathan pressed ahead with his new career goal and would obtain his broker’s license later that year. (Jonathan says he and his business partners are currently focused on “big-box retail, anchor-tenant-type” projects.)

But Natalie continued to resist the inclination to do more print publications; in fact, she pumped the brakes. “I humbled myself enough to be able to say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’” Natalie recalls. “I had really bad postpartum after my second, and so I gave myself the grace of like, I don’t know where this is gonna go, but I’m gonna pray about it, think about it.”

After Charlotte Lately featured nearly 70 Instagram posts in 2020, that number dropped to 31 in 2021. In 2022, there were just five.

“I told Jonathan, ‘I want be intentional about whatever the voice of Charlotte Lately is going to be.’ ”

Then the TV opportunity presented itself, and she found it.

‘We gotta go to work together, buddy’

Although Jonathan took a little convincing, Natalie quickly understood what Bahakel was envisioning and fully recognized the potential. “This isn’t a show about our lives and what we’re doing,” she remembers telling him. Well, “in some ways” it would be, she explained. But mainly it would be a vehicle “for us to be able to share other people’s lives.”

That sold him. And the specific concept they eventually agreed on was simple: “Lately With Natalie and Jonathan Stewart” is focused on the good things that restaurants are doing in our communities.

It’s about “good things happening,” Natalie says. “Causes that we care about. Looking for small businesses that maybe don’t have the marketing budget to do other types of advertising, but people that have really cool businesses and stories, and being able to share that.”

Among those that will be featured in the 10-episode first season of “Lately”: Table & Twine, a meal kit delivery service; Restaurant Constance in Wesley Heights; Richard’s Coffee Shop in Mooresville; the self-pour beer bar OpenTap; and Sage Marie’s Coffee and Tea.

Two episodes will air back-to-back every Saturday at 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. for the next five weeks on WCCB Charlotte.

Jonathan, who is easy with a laugh but can also be a bit stoic, talks excitedly about the inspiring people they met and interviewed and interacted with along the way — from special-needs bakers to a 100-year-old World War II veteran to a woman who reimagined her whole company to save employees’ jobs.

“(It’s about) being able to not only know what they do on a daily basis as far as prepping the kitchen, or greeting people outside, and how nice they are to their customers,” he says, but also, “like, what is their family life like? Where, or how did they grow up? What community endeavors are they interested in? ...

“I mean, you’re really showing how to be a successful local business owner: You give back, you care about your family, you have a good product, you’re a good person. Or you try to be.”

In other words, “Lately With Natalie and Jonathan Stewart” is essentially focused on the same types of stories they’ve always hoped to feature through the Charlotte Lately platform.

So, this will be an extension of that.

At the same time, it has been — and will continue to be, they hope, if additional episodes are green-lit — an additional opportunity for Natalie and Jonathan to enjoy each other’s company.

“I’m glad we paused,” Natalie says of Charlotte Lately, “and didn’t just keep trying to do print issues and force that to be our business model if that wasn’t where my heart was. ... I was like, ‘I’m gonna be OK with the discomfort of, We’re not doing anything right now, and I don’t know what we’re doing, but when I do know, I’ll be excited to share it.’ ”

“We still don’t have balance,” Natalie says, “and I’m still nagging him about quality time. But yeah, we’re getting there, and the show’s been something for us to have that’s fulfilling and purposeful.”

“I think we’ve had a number of shoots,” she continues, “where maybe we were up with the kids (the night before), they weren’t sleeping, or we had stuff going on with our families and our own personal life — but it’s like, you wake up and (remind yourself) this isn’t about us. It’s about something bigger than that. ... When I’m happiest and when I feel like the best version of myself is when I have something I’m doing outside of myself. That’s what this has been.”

“And no matter what, even if we aren’t in a good space, guess what? We gotta go to work together, buddy,” she says, laughing as she looks over Jonathan.

“So let’s figure it out.”