There are a couple of hours to go before tipoff between Florida and Alabama at the Gators’ home court in the O’Connell Center. Things are quiet — no players, no fans, no band, just a handful of workers.
Suddenly the lights go out. It’s completely dark until a few orange lights start pulsating.
Slowly, Chris Stewart turns to the rest of the Alabama radio crew at courtside and speaks.
“Please tell me I’m not the only one seeing this.”
If there was any apprehension among the crew, that one-liner broke the tension. The lighting was simply tested for Florida’s pre-game introductions but the important introduction for Alabama fans was set to happen about an hour later — when Stewart returned to the microphone for the first time since he signed off at the end of the Alabama-Georgia baseball game on May 18.
— Chris Stewart (@CStewartSports) January 4, 2020
“I did the Nick’s Kids Luncheon and I was supposed to do Coach Saban’s Preseason TV show even though it was after my bypass surgery (on August12),” Stewart said. “I was back home and thought I could do it but we decided just to rest and take it easy.
“David Crane (Stewart’s longtime partner on Alabama baseball and now the voice of the UAB Blazers) came by to visit the next day and that’s the last thing I remember for about a month.”
Stewart had developed complications following the bypass surgery and, even though he had made two follow-up visits, he continued to feel weaker, to the point that his wife, Christy, had to take him back to the emergency room at Birmingham’s Brookwood Hospital.
“I told her I wasn’t leaving and they admitted me,” Stewart said, “Things had started getting bad with the infection. I started having organ failure and they induced a coma that I was in for two weeks.
“The next memory I have is of the South Carolina football game, the third game of the year.”
Stewart remained in the hospital for two more months, he spent three weeks at the Spain Rehabilitation Center before returning home on the day before Thanksgiving. He had lost 45 pounds —from 165 to 120 — and there was speculation that he would sit out the rest of the basketball season to regain his strength.
Instead, Stewart went to work to accelerate that timetable.
“I’ve done a couple of games now where I taped them, played them back without sound and done the play-by-play,” he said. “I had to get my rhythm back but as far as the call, it was like riding a tricycle. It came right back.
“I didn’t rush it. One reason is that Roger Hoover (who has replaced Stewart so far this basketball season) has done such a great job. I felt like it was in good hands.”
Stewart said the trip to Florida had been easy, although his broadcast partners — mainly engineer Tom Stipe — had to carry his luggage.
“I packed light, but my bag still felt like it weighed 100 pounds to me,” Stewart said. “I’m back up to 140 pounds now but it’s still hard to lift anything bigger than a cell phone.”
“Actually, he’s been great so far,” Alabama color analyst Bryan Passink said on the Florida sideline. “The big problem is going to be the first home game because thousands of people are going to want to hug him, and he’ll want to hug them all back.
“He’ll be worn out by tip-off.”
The clock ticked by — 90 minutes to go, then 75 — but Stewart said there were “no nerves.”
“I think when the game tips off, I’ll get in a flow.”
The clock finally reached 60 minutes, the signal to start the pregame show, and Stewart was on the air.
“Hello, everyone. I’m Chris Stewart and I’m glad to be here. I say this on every broadcast but tonight, I’m really glad to be here.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225