The New Martinsville family gathered Friday afternoon at Magnolia High School's Alumni Field for the Honorary Salute in memory of Bill Stewart.
Hundreds of his faithful fans and friends-family-sat in the blazing sun to pay their respects to one of the town's most beloved sons.
The former West Virginia University Head Football Coach and MHS graduate, 59, died of an apparent heart attack on May 21 while golfing at Stonewall Jackson Resort. In mid-sentence, in fact giving a favorite coaching quote, he collapsed and emergency personnel were unable to revive him.
Coach Bill Stewart’s “Valley Boys”—Tom Contraguerro, Josh Contraguerro, Quincy Wilson, Andy Goldbaugh, Jack Crow, and Eric Turner—escorted him on the field.
The loss sent shock waves throughout the community, state, and throughout the college football world. The coach who was often referred to as the nicest, most caring and hospitable in the business, was gone.
Recognizing the need for his hometown to pay their respects and show their love for "Coach Stew", the honorary salute was planned. MHS Principal Kathi Schmalz said at the event that Alumni Field was where Stewart "first donned the gold and blue and began a love affair with football." It was in that place, as Stewart often retold, where he proposed to his bride, Karen-the love of his life. She and son Blaine were in attendance at the event.
"We hope that this outpouring of love will comfort his family," said Schmalz.
Terri Glover, Stewart's teacher and class advisor, said she could still vividly remember Stewart as a high school student in her class, identifying the row and chair he occupied. "In high school he was a young man with an infectious smile," said Glover. Listing his various qualities in high school, Glover said, "But most of all Bill was a gentleman."
Giving a nod to his famous speech before the 2008 Fiesta Bowl win that ultimately won him the job of WVU's head coach, Glover said, "Ladies and gentlemen, leave no doubt that Bill Stewart is now with the Master Coach." The "Leave No Doubt" speech was played over the sound system before the ceremony.
A moving tribute titled "Protecting His Turf" was given by Stewart's longtime friend Dennis Balcerek. He spoke of first meeting Stewart when Balcerek moved to New Martinsville and began the third grade. "Bill Stewart challenged me-who was I and where did I come from?" he wanted to know. Balcerek later realized Stewart was just protecting his turf. He did likewise when the teenage pair was confronted at a pizza place in Moundsville. Stewart gladly identified them to an inquiring imposing duo as being students at Magnolia High School. "He was protecting his turf," said Balcerek.
Stewart was the smallest starting tackle in his division when he played for Fairmont State College. But still he did it capably. "He was protecting his turf," said Balcerek.
He did the same when faced with the challenge of the Fiesta Bowl after Coach Rich Rodriguez' sudden departure. The Mountaineers beat Oklahoma, 48-28. "He was protecting his turf," said Balcerek.
When recruiting Stewart assured parents that he would protect their turf, their sons.
That type of protection never stopped in Stewart's life-even through a rather tumultuous end to his career at WVU.
Balcerek quoted the African proverb that says, "It takes a village to raise a child." Then he declared, "New Martinsville, your son is home.
At that point MHS student Sean Maxwell played the Alma Mater on trumpet, then Pastor Mike Shank provided the benediction prayer. He prayed, "May we find the faith, comfort, and courage that he found in You."
To the playing of "Country Roads" Stewart's hearse left the field where he began his football career. Throughout the ceremony Stewart was escorted by his "Valley Boys"-college football players from the Ohio Valley that he coached: Tom Contraguerro, Josh Contraguerro, Quincy Wilson, Andy Goldbaugh, Jack Crow, and Eric Turner. Also, MHS Head Football Coach Mark Batton got the unexpected honor of driving Stewart onto the field.
Finally, those in the stands paying their respects let off blue, gold, and football balloons in Stewart's memory.