Great man, great coach
Tommy Stewart was the kind of person most want their teachers to be.
Very few people, however accomplished they may be, meet the standards of being a community institution.
But Tom Stewart, the Hall of Fame football coach at Champaign High School and later at Champaign Central, was such a man.
He didn't just coach football, he molded the lives of all kinds of different kids, giving them a push in a positive direction. That's why there has been such an emotional response to the death of Mr. Stewart, who passed away Sunday after a long, difficult illness at age 86.
He leaves behind many friends and many family members, the legacy of a life well-lived.
Mr. Stewart's life had its fairy-tale elements. He grew up in Gary, Ind., where he was a gifted baseball and football player. He enlisted in the Navy after graduation in 1944 and, after World War II came to an end, decided to play college football at the University of Illinois rather than Notre Dame.
Later, he was a member of the UI Rose Bowl team that clobbered a favored UCLA 45-14.
After graduating from the UI in 1950, Mr. Stewart was a teacher and coach for two years at Bement, moving to Champaign in 1952 to take an assistant coaching position that became a head coaching position four games into the 1953 season.
That's when Mr. Stewart began a magical run that culminated in his Hall of Fame status and the singular honor in 1992 of having the football field at Centennial High School, where Central plays its games, renamed "Tommy Stewart Field" in his honor.
Football is a rough game, and it's no secret that many football coaches are rough characters who sometimes forget what matters when coaching young men.
One of Mr. Stewart's great strengths, both as a coach and a man, was his humanity — his soft-spoken coaching style and his understanding that he was dealing with young kids who had unequal abilities but all were worthy of equal respect.
People talk about Mr. Stewart's willingness to do little things — buy shoes for football players who needed them, wash the team's laundry at his own expense, deflect attention from himself to the players. Minor things perhaps, but they all combined to make Mr. Stewart the big man that he became — the community institution whose memory is worthy of honor.