Kroner: Former Champaign players still turned to, looked up to Coach
CHAMPAIGN — The first thing you notice is the word choice.
Whether the speaker is former Central High School football player Todd Peat or whether it's another ex-Maroon from yesteryear, Rick Aeilts, these adults start discussions about Tom Stewart with the same word: Coach.
"He was fine being called Tommy," said Aeilts, who lives in Champaign, but, to me, that is always how I referred to him when I saw him in public. That is respect that he deserves from those who played for him. Coach touched a lot of lives."
Tributes have poured in like running water since news of Stewart's Sunday death became public.
Peat, who graduated from Central in 1982 and wound up playing six seasons in the NFL, was among those who felt the impact of Stewart's influence.
Stewart enjoyed sharing quotes, and one he related to Peat is one he, in turn, has passed along to his seven children.
"Coach Stewart once said to me, 'You're a master of your own destiny,' " Peat said.
"One time I was holding a Sports Illustrated with a picture of John Hannah on the cover (Aug. 3, 1981) and it said, 'The Best Offensive Lineman of All Time,' and Coach Stewart said, 'That could be you someday, but football has to be a love affair. It has to be the most important thing in your life.' "
Hannah, who played for the Patriots, is an NFL Hall of Famer. Peat reached the NFL, playing 79 games (starting 36) as a guard.
Among Peat's numerous post-high school football coaches were Bill Mallory, Jerry Pettibone, Gene Stallings and Art Shell.
"I'd put Coach Stewart right up there with the people who've had a great influence on me," Peat said. "Our relationship was a tremendous relationship, and it continued well past my high school career.
"No. 1, you knew that he cared about you; he absolutely cared about you. He was not a yeller or a screamer, but he had a way of motivating. I've been around some of the best coaches in America and his approach would work with any kid, no matter what side of the track you're from."
Peat, who lives in Chandler, Ariz., considered Stewart a friend whom he consulted at pivotal times in his life.
"There were times I was driving down the freeway and had things on my mind," Peat said. "I'd dial him from the car. Talking with Coach was great.
"At times I needed advice, I could call my high school coach and he would guide me and lead me in the right direction. I called him about different things. I called him before I got married. I called him when I needed an agent, and he knew Hank Stram (former Kansas City Chiefs coach) and gave me his number.
"His wife (Lu) has been a dear person as well. It's tough knowing that Coach is not around."
A driving force
Not all who speak in glowing terms of Coach Stewart played for him. Jennifer Keller Shelby met Stewart in 1979, when she was a freshman. She was chosen to work in the coaches office during her P.E. hour.
"I answered the phones and dealt with outgoing mail," Shelby said. "There really were not many calls, so I spent a lot of time just talking to the coaches."
One quote that she retained from Stewart was, "Time flies, kid."
It is one now she will never forget.
"When he decided he could not drive any longer, my dealership (Shelby Motors) bought his Dodge Dakota," Shelby said. "Then I bought it from the dealership. I could not bear to have anyone else drive it. I got vanity plates that say, 'TM FLYS.' "
She is so thankful for Stewart's guidance during an impressionable time in her life that she donated the first $500 on Monday to a fund at the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation in his honor.
"Suffice it to say I was a rather wild kid in high school, and the main reason I toed the line was because I did not want to disappoint him in any way," Shelby said. "He was like a father to me."
'Bigger than life'
Bill Stahl first suited up for a varsity football game at Central as a sophomore in 1972. Stewart's offensive philosophy then was to run the football and, if that didn't work, to try a different running play.
"In an era where coaches tried to mold their athletes to their system and philosophy," Stahl said, "Tommy took the leap of faith going into the next season to completely change the offensive scheme to match our incoming skills and abilities."
By the time he graduated, Stahl had rewritten the Champaign High/Central career record books with a passing total (1,969 yards) and a total offense mark (2,708) that was the standard for more than three decades.
"I remember growing up watching my older brother, Mike, and brother-in-law, Mark Stevens, playing for Tommy while visualizing my opportunity to play for a coach that I saw as bigger than life," Bill Stahl said.
Another former Maroon, 1985 graduate Greg Boysaw, played one season under Stewart before the coach retired. It was enough to make a lasting impression.
"I was truly blessed to be tutored by one of the greatest men and coaches in my life," said Boysaw, who now lives in Indiana.
Sharp as a tack
Stahl's feelings were shared by those who played for Stewart at his first high school stop, Bement. He coached there for two seasons. Gerald Tompkins, 78, a Gibson City-area farmer, was a fullback and linebacker on Stewart's first prep team.
"Coach Stewart had a tremendous influence on my life as a person," Tompkins said. "He demanded respect from us as players, but more importantly, set a great example as a role model for us to follow."
Last year Tompkins' son Ryan — the boys' basketball coach at GCMS — joined his father on a trip to visit Stewart at his Champaign home near Bottenfield School. Ryan Tompkins came away impressed with the person he had not previously met.
"Coach Stewart was sharp as a tack and remembered each player on that Bement team," Ryan Tompkins said. "Dad always mentioned how Coach Stewart would call him by name if he saw him in public, even if he had not seen or heard from him in years. It was amazing how well he kept track of his players."
Permanent tributes to Stewart remain in the community, and they are ones that will outlast many people's memory of the iconic coach. The Unit 4 football field at Centennial High School — where Central plays its home games — became Tommy Stewart Field on Sept. 4, 1992, seven years after he was enshrined in the coaches Hall of Fame.
In August 2008, the refurbished facilities at the McKinley practice field, on New Street, became known as Tommy Stewart Field House.
Ironically, a new scoreboard was installed at Centennial after last season's second varsity football game and the signage denoting it as Tommy Stewart Field has been removed.
"The name did not change," Central athletic director John Woods emphasized, and a new sign, at some location within the facility, will be erected.
Like Coach himself, gone but not forgotten.