The pain is still there. It’s not as intense as it was a year ago, and Chris Stewart has good days and bad days.
It’s OK though. The small amount of pain Stewart endures on occasion serves as a reminder of what he went through the last five years; how he suffered a stroke, underwent bypass surgery and was treated for an infection that followed.
Stewart, the radio play-by-play announcer for Crimson Tide men’s basketball and baseball, said his story is one of faith, overwhelming support from friends, family and even strangers.
“I’ve had a lot of people who knew of the story or had heard about it, and the term they used was miracle," Stewart said. “My belief is that God spared my life, and for whatever reason I was shown incredible favor. I was not only allowed to live, but be fully healed and fully restored and was given a platform to share the story of what had been done for me. Nothing that I earned or did to deserve it, but it mirrors God’s gift of salvation for us. It’s a free gift to us. I was incredibly blessed."
Stewart’s story begins in the early morning hours of April 16, 2018. His wife, Christy Stewart, woke up to check on their young son. She noticed something was off with Chris, who was in the bed groaning while in a fetal position.
Chris wasn’t just having a bad dream. It was much worse, although no one knew it at the time.
“I wound up at the St. Vincent’s ER (in Birmingham),” Chris said. “There was no indication I had a stroke initially. They ran tests to figure out what was wrong and they were negative. On the second cat scan it was revealed I had two clots on the brain.”
Time was of the essence. It was inconclusive how long the clots had been there and the longer Stewart went without treatment the worse the prognosis – paralysis or death.
There was one doctor Stewart needed at this moment, Dr. Jitendra Sharma. Several hours had passed between when Stewart suffered the stroke and was finally taken to Brookwood Medical Center to have Sharma perform surgery.
Stewart described what happened next.
“When they got me to Brookwood, Sharma used a clot buster device,” he said. “He had it on max setting and my blood pressure was over 200. The clot was not budging and I was running out of time. I later asked him about it and he said, ‘I was going to fight as long as you were, but frankly, you were running out of time and there was no plan B.’ He said, ‘on the last attempt that I could in good conscious make, you opened your eyes, which is an indication the clot has cleared, and looked right at me. We put you to sleep and put the stent in.’ That was the first time the man saved my life.”
“When I woke up in my hospital room later that day, I see this man walk in and my wife and other people were shaking his hand and thanking him. I’m thinking, I know I’ve never met him but I’ve seen that man before. Later I’m talking to him about it and he said, ‘yeah you’ve seen me. You opened your eyes when the clot cleared and looked right at me.’”
About two weeks after the stroke, Stewart visited the broadcast booth at Sewell-Thomas Stadium. He was overwhelmed with well-wishers and many were eager for some positive news on his recovery.
Stewart hopped into the radio booth with broadcast partner Lee Tracy and told listeners he was in good spirits and doing well.
Two weeks after that, it was time for Stewart to find out how well he really was.
“I’m in the booth to visit. Alabama is playing Ole Miss and it’s a scoreless game heading into the bottom of the seventh. I turned to (Tracy) and said ‘let’s take the training wheels off.’ Lee winked at me and said ‘you got it.’
“We came out of break and he tossed it to me for play-by-play for bottom of the seventh. Even if it was a 1-2-3 inning it would have been good, just for me to see if I could say what I saw and string that together. With a stroke there can be a lot of bad things that transpire. Could I see it and say it as it happens? When the inning ended, I turned and looked at my wife and she said ‘you haven’t missed a beat.’ That was huge for me. I wanted to know that I could still process those things.”
But just as life seemed to be back to some sense of normal for Stewart and his family, another health issue hit. In August of 2019 Stewart underwent bypass surgery and later was re-admitted due to post-surgery infection.
It was a tough fight for Stewart, who spent three months in the hospital battling the infection.
“I didn’t get mail there, but I probably could have,” Stewart said of his extended hospital stay.
It’s a battle he might not have fought if it weren’t for his stroke.
Stewart was attending a social event for Sharma, who was opening a weight loss facility. Stewart mentioned to Sharma’s nurse that he had tingling and tightness in his arm. She immediately told Stewart to inform Sharma.
“He said, ‘Chris, that’s your heart. We have to get you in,’” Stewart said.
A week later Stewart underwent an arteriogram. The doctor at Cardiovascular Associates told Stewart the test would result in one of three things – a false read, a need for a stent – Stewart then cut him off.
“Or bypass surgery,” Stewart said. “He said, ‘yes, that’s possible, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case.’”
Stewart was correct. There was 95% blockage in the main artery of his heart.
“If Jay Sharma doesn’t tell me at that social gathering that we have to get you in, over an issue that was not concerning me, then I probably would have had a massive heart attack and died,” Stewart said. “I feel like in a way the stroke saved my life.”
After battling the infection that ensued for three months, Stewart felt it was time to get back to work.
So he did on Jan. 4, 2020. The decision was met with some uneasiness, Stewart said, from his men’s basketball broadcast sidekick Bryan Passink and Crimson Tide Sports Network producer and engineer Tom Stipe.
“They had some concerns, but I needed to come back for me,” Stewart said. “I don’t mean that selfishly, but I felt I needed to get back in the saddle.
“I got back in, called the game. We get to first media timeout and Bryan was acting like we won the SEC title. He was so giddy that I was able to do it.”
It was a bittersweet comeback for Stewart. The Crimson Tide blew a 20-point lead and lost in double-overtime.
Stewart wasn’t sure what kind of mood head coach Nate Oats would be in following that type of loss, so he braced for the worst.
Stewart was stunned by the post-game interview with Oats.
“I said to him that it was a tough way to start conference play,” Stewart said. “Oats then said, ‘I thought 'this is great, we are up by 20, we are going to get Chris a win, we are going to be able to coast'. Not only do we not get you the win, we made you work 10 extra minutes and I want to apologize on behalf of me and the team.’”
Oats then expressed how great it was to have Stewart back and that he was healthy.
“I thought, this guy is unbelievable and gracious during a moment that was tough for him after losing in that manner,” Stewart said.
It wasn’t just Oats and the Alabama family that were happy to see Stewart back calling games. Everywhere Stewart went that season, SEC coaches and fans made a point to talk to Stewart and give him support.
“One of the amazing nights I had was my first trip to Auburn after I came back from the infection from the bypass,” Stewart said. “I have a lot of friends there and of course they were kind, including (Auburn coach) Bruce Pearl. I had strangers wearing orange and blue come up to me and say, something along the lines of ‘hey it’s great to see you, we were praying for you, we are glad you are well.’ I encountered that everywhere I went in the SEC. It blows my mind.”
Stewart the young broadcaster
Stewart has always loved sports. He is often reminded by his family of this.
“I would pretend I was Coward Cossell because that’s what I thought Howard Cossell’s name was,” Stewart said of when he was 5 years old. “I always loved sports and pretended I was the announcer.”
Stewart’s passion for sports and broadcasting carried over to elementary school, where the teachers had to rein in that passion a bit.
“On current event days they had to implement the Chris Stewart rule that you could do sports once a month as opposed to every week and was limited to a five-minute presentation as opposed to the 15-minute broadcast I would try to do every week,” Stewart said.
Stewart didn’t think broadcasting would turn into a career. He had bigger dreams. Like just about every kid who loves sports growing up, Stewart wanted to be a pro.
He was on the golf team at the University of Montevallo, but soon discovered golf would not be in his future.
“It didn’t take long for me to realize as a college golfer at Montevallo that if I was going to do this for a living I was going to starve,” Stewart said.
Fortunately, Montevallo had a mass communication department that offered a sports broadcasting class.
“We televised all of our home men’s and women’s basketball games. The students did all the work. I got an opportunity to do play-by-play for the first Montevallo game I saw in person. I did that for four years and fell in love with it.”
Stewart was then lured to Birmingham Southern where he did play-by-play for eight years, calling the Panthers’ 1995 NAIA men’s basketball national championship and their 2001 baseball championship.
While Stewart was at Birmingham Southern, he was hired to be the play-by-play man for the Crimson Tide baseball team in 2000.
Two years later a spot opened up for the men’s basketball broadcaster and Stewart got the job.
Stewart is in his 20th season with basketball and 23nd with baseball. During his time at Alabama he’s also been a sideline reporter for football games and serves as host of the Nick Saban Show.
“The regional tournament in Atlanta when we knew Georgia Tech (2010) was special. Nathan Kilcrease, we called him Peanut, got the win in the opener and pitched some big relief innings in the finale against Georgia Tech. Alabama gutted out a regional win against a team no one thought we could beat. That win was among several moments that was special.”
“Buzzer-beaters are fun for broadcasters to call, none more so than Trevor Releford’s mid-court shot that beat Georgia in the final regular-season game," he said.
"There was another moment that was special. We had a point guard named Anthony Brock. His grandmother passed away and the funeral was in Little Rock on Saturday. He missed his flight to Knoxville to be with the team for the game Sunday. He and his cousin drove from Little Rock to Knoxville all night. It was an 11 a.m. tip time. It’s a tie game with about four seconds left and the ball is inbounded to him and he lets it fly and banks it in. That was a special way to wrap up the season."
“The wins that involve rings and championships are fun, but there doesn’t have to be a ring involved for it to be a meaningful win.”