CHAMPAIGN — Fifty-nine years ago, Champaign had one high school. The building at 610 W. University Ave. is still a fixture in a community that now has three other high schools to go with Central.
The person who became the varsity football head coach four games into that 1953 season, Tommy Stewart, is still a revered icon even as the 30th year of his retirement approaches in 2013.
Try to find someone with a bad word to say about Stewart, the Hall of Famer for whom the football field located behind Centennial High School is named. You'll have more luck picking the winning lottery numbers — two weeks in a row.
Stewart always has embodied the character, commitment, dedication and personality that parents want in the role models who influence their impressionable teenagers, and he possesses the charisma, grace, knowledge and wit to make him a favorite among the athletes he coached and the students he simply encountered in the hallways.
The feelings of endearment remain strong more than a quarter of a century after Stewart was in their lives daily.
A special recognition for Stewart — a three-sport head coach — will take place Oct. 8 in conjunction with Central's annual Hall of Fame banquet. Anyone who played for him is invited to return for an evening that will feature a continuous slide show and a tribute to the coach who guided Central to its still-standing single-season record for wins (10-2 in 1981).
Andy Schuster grew up around Stewart-coached teams, often following his father (assistant coach Bob) to practices. Stewart lived — and still does — across from the baseball diamonds behind Champaign's Bottenfield School.
"I spent many hours at those fields, honing my passion," Andy Schuster said. "Often, Tommy would come out of his house and watch us practice. He would only talk to us after we were done with a drill or taking a break, and even then our conversation was always simple and to the point, very much like his practice sessions on the football field."
What Schuster has retained most came more from observations than any words spoken by Stewart.
"He always had his beautiful Husky with him," Schuster said. "Tommy and his dog had a bond that can only be understood by those of us who have loved animals in the manner they are meant to be loved, as family members. The love that those two shared was incredible and awesome to see.
"I will remember Tommy for a lot of things, a legendary coach, a mentor, a friend to my family and a simple man who many rightfully see as a great man. I will always have searing memories of him as a dog lover because of the devotion, kindness and patience he showed his dog."
Actions and reactions
Eric Schacht was part of Stewart-coached teams for three years, before playing for his successor, Rich Wooley, as a senior in 1984. It was not a game but a film session that Schacht still recalls vividly. The Maroons were watching the team's intrasquad scrimmage and a play that involved Schacht.
"I was dramatically blindsided, flipping into the air and down; out cold with a long shoulder pad scar in my helmet," Schacht said. "As we watched the video, there was a huge reaction of laughter and cheers as that play unfolded. Coach Stewart ran it back again, and it was louder.
"Again, and it was louder. No comments. Again, and it was quieter. Again, and there were only one or two reactions. Again, and there was silence.
"He finally said, 'That's more like it. A man was hurt on that play, and my football team doesn't celebrate hurting people.' "
The dirty laundry
For three years in the mid-1970s, Mike Babcock was the Central beat writer for the Champaign-Urbana Courier. He eventually relocated to Lincoln, Neb., and is now in his 34th season writing about Nebraska football.
"Tommy Stewart still ranks among the nicest people I've dealt with," he said. "I count that brief association with him and Lee Cabutti (former Central basketball coach) and Charlie Due (former Central baseball coach) among the blessings of my working life."
One of Babcock's duties for the Courier was to write wrap-up stories following each Central game. He always knew where to locate Stewart early on a Saturday, and it wasn't at McKinley Field.
"He would do the team's laundry the morning after games, to save the district some money, so I would meet him at the Laundromat just off Mattis Avenue and help him fold the laundry while we discussed the previous night's game," Babcock said. "He was such a good customer he had keys to the Laundromat and would open up, about 7 a.m.
"When players didn't turn their socks right side out, which he expected them to do for their moms, he would require players to run extra. Maybe jersey numbers were written on the socks to identify the offending player or maybe everybody had to run. I don't remember that part.
"I know I was supposed to look for socks that weren't turned right side out."
No kid-ding around
Ken Whited was the quarterback on Stewart's final team (1983). After graduation he lost touch with his former coach until they had a chance meeting a quarter of a century later at a local bowling center.
"Without hesitation, he said, 'Hello, Kenny,' " Whited said.
Whited, who now is involved in coaching youth sports in Mahomet, admits to following one practice he picked up from Stewart.
"Coach Stewart ended every statement with 'Kid,' " Whited said. "He would say to me, 'You're throwing the ball too hard, Kid.' Everything ended with 'Kid.' When you heard the word, 'Kid,' you knew exactly who Coach Stewart was talking to, and, man, did he mean it. That's a lifelong memory.
"I guarantee if I went up to a former Champaign Central football player 25 years later and said, 'Come on, Kid,' they would smile and know exactly who I was talking about."
Another generation of athletes will be able to make that claim as well. "Yes," Whited said, "I refer to my players as, 'Kid.' "
And that lunchtime conversation at the bowling center, here's the complete exchange: "Without hesitation, he said, 'Hello, Kenny,' " Whited said. "You threw the ball too hard, Kid.' "
Impressing the mayor
In 1982, Champaign Mayor Don Gerard was a high school senior and sports editor of Central's newspaper, The Chronicle. Gerard recalls a hallway conversation.
"He was walking past me, looking down at a clipboard, and he acknowledged me without looking," Gerard said. "I was flabbergasted he knew who I was. He stopped and said, 'You have a brother (Dave) on the freshman team, don't you? Good kid,' and he continued walking.
"He really remembered every single kid that passed through his world."
Even in the years when his unique three-platoon system (offensive, defensive and special teams units) produced upward of 150 squad members, Stewart made sure to learn the names of each individual, even the freshmen who had only been practicing for a few days.
The hardest hit
Stewart was held in high esteem, not only by those Central students who played for him but also by others who wish they had been on his teams.
Doug Bartley, a junior on Stewart's final team, recalled the emotions when he and classmates learned he wouldn't be their coach.
"Devastation is not a word typically used when speaking of Tommy Stewart," Bartley said. "However, for a group of boys from Garden Hills, that is just what we felt when we heard the news of his retirement.
"For Mike Campbell, Greg Boysaw, Mark Knox, Darrin Mulcahey, Pat Collins and myself, the only way to describe it is devastation, pain and even anger. We had grown up together, played together, went to birthday parties together. During our times together, we had talked about playing for Coach Stewart."
Rumors of his retirement had circulated, but Bartley hoped it would occur later rather than sooner. He and his friends had a dream about "winning state," he said, adding, "It would all be perfect. Win for coach Tommy Stewart and we all go out on top."
It wasn't meant to be.
"Then the retirement, then the devastation, the pain, the anger," Bartley said. "No disrespect to Coach Wooley, but we all knew that it was meant for some other group of boys."
The decades haven't changed the affection Bartley developed for Stewart.
"Not many days go by that I don't try to impart some of his grace, composure, integrity and inspiration into the raising of my two daughters. And, he wasn't really ever my coach. Now that is power," he said.
'The best coach'
Rick Aeilts is one of two former Central athletes chosen this year for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. He and swimmer Laura Wilborn will be the newest additions.
A tight end, Aeilts had a storied career in football, playing at Southeast Missouri State and then becoming an eighth-round draft pick by the Cleveland Browns in 1989.
Aeilts said: "In short, he was the best coach I ever played for, and I played for a lot of great coaches."
A staple of Central's teams was the wing-T offense, which Aeilts said, "fit his personality. No frills. My father often complained to me after games that our offense was boring, then he would always follow that up with, 'but you can't argue with the result.' "
Stewart didn't have an elaborate playbook.
"We may game-plan only a half-dozen plays all week," recalled Aeilts, now a Champaign attorney, "and run those till the other team wore down.
"If a play picked up 4 yards or more, everyone in the stands knew that it would be run again until it was stopped. When it was stopped, we would run the same play to the other side. But, he was also an innovator. Before there was William 'The Refrigerator' Perry (with the Chicago Bears), there was Todd Peat (a future NFL lineman who played in 79 games during parts of six seasons), all 300 pounds of him, lining up 7 yards deep in short- yardage situations for Central."
Eric Detamore is among the former Maroons who keep Stewart's legacy alive by instilling his philosophies and values into an upcoming generation of student-athletes. A former defensive back, the 1983 graduate lives in San Diego.
"My (10-year-old) son has not started football yet, but he will, and when he does Coach's coaching skills will be with me to pass on to my son as we all pass things down," Detamore said. "He was a great mentor as we learned and now as we look back. He guided us down a path that only he knew and provided us with confidence to succeed in life, and we have taken that and ran.
"You respected Coach Stewart. You admired Coach Stewart and you never crossed Coach Stewart. He will be a coach that will always be remembered and never forgotten."
Central athletic director John Woods — who grew up following Stewart's coaching career while a student at Centennial — is pleased the state Hall of Famer will receive special recognition during the Oct. 8 C-Club Banquet.
Stewart is not eligible for the school's Hall of Fame — "we have only athletes, no coaches, no teams," Woods said — but he can be a part of ceremonies for a special tribute.
"We are remembering past individuals or teams that have had a huge impact on Champaign athletics," Woods said.
In 2010, the C-Club honored those who participated during the glory years of the 1940s. This year, Stewart will be feted.
"He had such a far-reaching impact," Woods said.
While Stewart was best known for his years in football, he never had a losing season in five years as baseball head coach (including a district championship in 1956), and he coached boys' swimming for five seasons (when his squad members included future Olympic champion breaststroker Bill Mulliken).
His Champaign swim teams won four Big 12 titles, but Stewart said, "sometimes you have good kids and they win in spite of you. I had no background in swimming."
What is clear is that Tommy Stewart was in the background — and the forefront — for many individuals who were enrolled in high school at Champaign for parts of four decades, starting in 1953. The influence of a person who is now 85 years old is still felt in the actions, attitudes and words of those who had the good fortune to be associated with him.
"When I hear his voice in my head, it's a saying that is so incredibly memorable," said Tim Donovan, a 1982 graduate. "Tommy would say, 'Kid, the easiest thing you can ever do in life is quit. Never quit. Never quit.' Tommy's voice, with his high-pitched northern Indiana accent, would really hit a high pitch when he delivered these lines with so much passion.
"To this day, I have never quit at anything I have engaged myself in," he said. "I have Tommy Stewart to thank for that. The lessons he taught went so far beyond football. He was teaching lifelong success. I have always said, 'Tommy Stewart is the greatest teacher and molder of young people that I have ever met.' "