Chris Stewart describes stepping in for Eli Gold to call Alabama football win over Arkansas
As he was crossing midfield, and maybe a few yards before, it was obvious DeVonta Smith was going to score his first punt return touchdown of the season. Chris Stewart saw the open cutback lane, too, and as Smith crossed the 50-yard line, Stewart said, “It’s a footrace, and I’ll always put my money on him.”
It was the first Alabama touchdown in more than 30 years described by someone other than Eli Gold on the Crimson Tide Sports Network.
Gold’s positive COVID-19 test forced him to miss the call on Saturday’s 52-3 win over Arkansas, thrusting Stewart into the seat of an Alabama Sports Hall of Famer. Stewart ran the play-by-play of both the Alabama football and Alabama basketball games on Saturday, and discussed it all with The Tuscaloosa News late Saturday night.
“You don’t replace Eli,” Stewart said. “You just try to fill the job and do it the best you can.”
Stewart was fortunate this wasn’t a last-second call-up: Gold got his positive test on Monday, after which he immediately contacted Stewart and Jim Carabin, the general manager of the Crimson Tide Sports Network. In telling Stewart the news, Gold offered help beyond anything Stewart could have expected: his gameday chart.
The person Gold uses to print his materials for each game tends to get them ready by Monday afternoon, if not earlier. Gold advised Stewart to pick his chart up and use it for his own call.
“I jokingly texted him after I picked it up, I said, ‘I’ve been to the top of Mount Sinai and picked up the stone tablets,’” Stewart said. “It’s a slight exaggeration, I don’t mean any irreverence with that, but those are precious commodities in our business and it was kind of him to share that with me.”
Gold offered assistance throughout the week, but Stewart didn’t take much of it beyond the charts. He wanted Gold to focus on rest and recovery with his wife, Claudette, who also tested positive for COVID-19.
After all, very little of Gold’s career as the voice of Alabama football applied to the challenges Saturday presented.
The crew worked the game off of monitors from an empty Bryant-Denny Stadium, socially distanced: Stewart was in the visiting radio booth, with engineer Tom Stipe to his left in the home radio booth and color analyst John Parker Wilson to his right in the visiting athletic director’s booth. There are windows between the booths, but they were all seated on the second level where they could not see each other.
Stewart credited his and Wilson’s preexisting relationship to know how to work off of one another without seeing each other. He also thinks Wilson has a good understanding of the natural cadence of the broadcast in his third season as color analyst.
The monitors and natural sound from Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium were, as Stewart called it on the broadcast, “the miracle of Tom Stipe.” Stipe was able to secure something close to what is called a clean feed, one not encumbered by the satellite and cable television delay nor announcer voices. Stipe was also able to sync the sound from the stadium with those feeds, so Stewart and Wilson would have some of the context clues they would have if they were in the stadium, such as whistles blowing.
The odd feeling was impossible to avoid as Stewart took the air in Gold’s place. Gold and Stewart exchanged words as Gold wrapped up his pregame responsibilities (from home) and handed it over to Stewart. That first touchdown from Smith helped things feel normal.
“I got to call a touchdown and things didn’t explode, the world didn’t fall off its axis, so we’re OK,” Stewart said. “Get through the first quarter, looking at them and going, ‘What do I need to do differently?’ They said, ‘Do what you’re doing.’ That was encouragement.”
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Stewart signed off the postgame show to see “a couple of incredibly kind text messages” from Gold, and hopped on a conference call with basketball coach Nate Oats, which included recording an interview for the pregame show.
From there, Stewart drove to his hotel for a 45-minute nap just to get back to the stadium at 5:15, where a sandwich provided by Carabin and an elongated basketball pregame show awaited him: one of the early games in Atlanta went to double overtime, delaying the start of the Alabama game by nearly an hour.
For the most part, Stewart did not sound fazed by the magnitude of his spot start. He flashed his normal humor, at one point referring to himself as a temp. He said of a forced fumble, “That’ll go as a blocked shot in the game I call tonight.”
By the end, it all felt as normal as it could.
“I felt like it was as seamless as possible without a man who’s spent more than 30 years in the driver’s seat,” Stewart said.
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson