It’s 30 minutes before the start of the broadcast and Chris Stewart is in his element.
He’s going over video on the monitors. A game official stops to say hello and touch base. Statisticians hand him the starting lineups. He’s got a producer talking in his ear and Wimp Sanderson next to him to provide analysis.
They shoot the introduction, but it takes two takes. That’s normal and things keep moving.
Otherwise there’s nothing normal about any of it.
This was last Tuesday, when the University of Alabama men’s basketball team hosted Montevallo for an exhibition and Stewart did play-by-play for an online broadcast like he’s done countless times before. In a way it was a perfect way for him to “ease back into the waters,” he said, but there was underlying nervousness as well.
It’s not because Alabama was playing his alma mater, or that it was the anniversary of his mother’s death— although both were certainly on his mind.
It’s because this was Stewart’s first game broadcast since suffering a stroke last spring.
That’s something that not supposed to happen to a then-47-year-old father of three, ages 18, 13 and 7. He had done other broadcasts since returning to work, including as studio host for football games, the Nick Saban television show, and some short, recorded segments.
But this was a full game of back-and-forth action, where everyone was hanging on his every word. It was also when the difference between thinking he could do it again and knowing it would be determined.
His primary concern was regarding mistakes. Not that they would happen, because they do in every broadcast, but how they might cause him to dwell on the one thing that would scare anyone in his situation.
“Tonight I’ll wonder if it’s the stroke,” Stewart said.
From Montevallo to Tuscaloosa
To fully appreciate Stewart’s return one first has to understand the origins of his career, which stem back to being a freshman at Montevallo, Alabama's only public liberal arts college with an enrollment of approximately 2,750.
Actually, scratch that. Stewart’s career trek goes back as long as he can remember. At age 5 he used to pretend to be Howard Cosell, only he was so young it came out as “Coward Hosell.”
Television was fine, and as a youth he too became enthralled with this new thing called ESPN, but radio became his first love in broadcasting. There’s something special and unique about being the eyes and ears for everyone who isn’t there, and having to describe the scene in detail and in ways everyone can relate.
That’s not to say it’s more difficult or more challenging than television, where there’s an accompanying picture. It’s just different because if the play-by-person doesn’t set the scene correctly it doesn’t matter what the analyst says.
Stewart doesn’t remember saying it, but for 20 years he’s had people telling him how proud and excited they were to see him doing what he’d always said he’d do – be a Crimson Tide announcer. Not only is he a lifelong Alabama fan, but his father used to be in charge of the ushers in the north end zone at Legion Field. For years he considered the possibility as being sort of beyond a dream.
Instead, this will be Stewart’s 17th season announcing Alabama basketball, and he’s been in the Crimson Tide baseball booth since 2000. Some of his favorite calls include Collin Sexton going coast-to-coast against Texas A&M last season, Trevor Releford’s half-court shot to beat Georgia during the final home game in 2013, and Anthony Brock’s midcourt buzzer-beater against Tennessee after Mark Gottfried had been let go.
Listeners have become so familiar and comfortable with him that’s he’s like the Crimson Tide broadcasting equivalent of a favorite sweater, complete with a Southern accent that makes it very obvious where he’s from.
Which brings us back to Montevallo.
Stewart’s first game broadcast was on the campus TV station: Montevallo Communications Systems. He used to joke the MCS stood for Me and Chris Stewart.
He did the first segment of the pregame, talked about playing Xavier of New Orleans like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals and promptly tossed to the first commercial break only to have the producer say, “Chris, we don’t have commercials here.”
“So I had to keep talking,” he said. But Montevallo had its new play-by-play man and he’s been talking ever since.
“I was awful,” he now says with a laugh. “But I was given an opportunity to make a lot of mistakes in front of a very small audience. It was a very kind audience and I’ll always be indebted to Montevallo.”
Consequently, calling any game between Montevallo and Alabama would be special, and Stewart’s done a couple. To have it as his return game was especially fitting, like someone was looking down on him and deliberately decided to make it happen.
“It’s even more icing on the cake,” he said.
The night he almost didn’t wake up
On the night of April 15, a date nearly everyone in the nation already hates, Stewart went to bed just before midnight. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary and there had been very few signs that something major could be imminent.
The one exception to that was some occasional blurred vision. The worst occurred nearly a year ago when he was keeping the scorebook at his son’s middle school game, a close contest that went down to the end. With about a minute to go his eyesight went haywire.
When his crossed vision started to come around, Stewart looked across the gym and found his optometrist in the stands. They quickly set an appointment for a full checkup that ruled out a tumor. A significant upgrade to his prescription seemed to solve the problem.
Please understand, preventive medicine isn’t just a priority to Stewart, it’s part of who he is.
When his mother died at age 55 she was coming out of her second open-heart surgery, 10 years after the first. He was a high school senior.
So checkups were already a regular thing. When Stewart turned 40 and something on an EKG raised a precautionary red flag due to the family history, he started having physicals every six months.
Factor in his religious faith and Stewart believed he had all his bases covered.
At roughly 4:30 a.m., Stewart’s wife Christy thought he was having a bad dream, but couldn’t wake him. She was the first person who saved his life.
At the hospital, the initial CAT scan didn’t show any blockage, but then a second did. Stewart was transferred from St. Vincent’s to Brookwood Baptist Medical Center to be seen by Dr. Jitendra Sharma, a highly rated neurologist who specializes in acute stroke intervention.
Stewart considers him the other person to save his life.
He learned a lot of the details later, but time is considered critical with a stroke and hours had already passed. In surgery, his blood pressure was over 200 and the machine used to bust the clot was on maximum setting.
“You were running out of time and there was no plan B,” Stewart said the doctor told him.
And then he woke up. That’s how the medical staff tells if the clot has cleared, the patient opens his eyes. They subsequently put him or her back to sleep to insert a stint.
Nevertheless, Stewart’s wife was within an eyelash of being a widow. His oldest child was roughly the same age as Stewart when he lost his mother, and the youngest as old as when his mother had the first heart procedure.
“It crushes me to think about what that would have done for them,” he says.
The training wheels come off
A few weeks after his stroke, Stewart made an appearance at Sewell-Thomas Stadium, where the Alabama baseball team was playing its home-series finale against No. 5 Ole Miss. He was still wearing an eye patch (and still has to fog the left lens of his glasses to see straight), and wanted to say hello and thank you to all the well-wishers on air.
Alabama was up 1-0 when during the commercial for the seventh-inning stretch Stewart looked to broadcast partner Lee Tracey and said, “Let’s take the training wheels off.” They came out of the break with Stewart calling the inning like usual. The Crimson Tide didn’t go down 1-2-3, but also didn’t have big rally. It may have been the perfect amount for him handle at that point.
Christy, who was sitting behind them in the booth, said, “It’s like you never missed a beat.”
“I wanted to know I could do it and that was a huge help,” Stewart said. “That really helped my confidence.”
He had to wait until last week to call a full game, but the broadcast went well. Very well.
Alabama won 82-40, yet what brought a smile to the face of Coach Avery Johnson during his press conference was getting asked about the broadcaster’s return.
“When I heard the situation he was in my heart went out to him,” Johnson said. “I just felt helpless, because we care about him so much. So to have him back, calling the game for us tonight, it was just a thrill for all of us.
“He’s a part of our family.”
Tuesday night, when Alabama opens the regular season against Johnson’s alma mater, Southern, Stewart will be back in his familiar courtside spot at Coleman Coliseum, only this time he’s doing radio with analyst Bryan Passink. It’ll mean some different challenges, but only the kind that he’s been dealing with since that first game in college.
Six-plus months after the stroke the recovery process continues, however Stewart sees a big difference from, say, July. It used to be that if his conversation was interrupted he might have trouble remembering what was being discussed. Now, not so much. Needed reminders are becoming fewer and fewer.
“I think I was always grateful for who and what I have, but I think I’ve just become even more grateful for every minute,” he said. “I’m not trying to be overly dramatic when I say that, but it’s the truth.”
It’s like the flow of game and he’s part of it again — even when those commercial breaks have to happen.
“Back after this on the Crimson Tide Sports Network from Learfield … ”