Chris Stewart delivers keynote address at Thompson graduation

Published 11:48 am Thursday, May 23, 2024

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By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Publisher 

BIRMINGHAM – His graduating class may have only consisted of 14 classmates, but that didn’t make Chris Stewart any less inspirational on Tuesday night, April 21 in front of 563 Thompson High School graduates.

Taking to the podium inside Bartow Arena, Stewart delivered his keynote address to the THS class of 2024, giving the graduates a chance to see a living example of expecting the unexpected.

“A lot of things that I’ve been fortunate to learn through my time in school, a lot of things you’ve learned, that are not within books,” Stewart said. “One thing, the fact that you’re here, shows you’ve learned perseverance, regardless of what your GPA might have been.”

It was that word of perseverance that remained prevalent throughout his speech, sharing stories of his own heartbreaking senior year and his near-death experience a few years ago.

Through those challenges, however, he came back, continued chasing his dreams and not only thrived, but is in the midst of the biggest year of his career.

He started 2024 by calling his first Rose Bowl for the Crimson Tide Sports Network as part of the Alabama radio broadcast. He went from Pasadena to Glendale shortly after to call Alabama’s first-ever Final Four appearance against eventual National Champion UCONN.

Now, as we enter the summer of 2024, he is preparing for his “dream job” as the full-time play-by-play announcer for Alabama football games.

But he was close to missing out on all of it, and his message to the graduating class of 2024 was to never give up, because so much can change in the blink of an eye, even making jokes about himself to prove it.

“I’ll be honest, I’d be much more confident if one of y’all could throw, kick, dribble or hit a ball,” he said. “That is what I am much more accustom to doing and what I am much more accustom to speaking in front of. It can be a little bit intimidating. 563 graduates. Your graduating class is slightly larger than mine at Central Park Christian. You have more graduates on the front row than I had in my senior class. While Amy Evans was the valedictorian, believe it or not, I was the salutatorian. We were so small, even as salutatorian, I did not graduate in the top 5 percent of my class. There’s your math equation for the night.”

To graduate as salutatorian, however, Stewart brought up his first message of perseverance for the night—his mother.

During his senior year of high school, his mom passed away, leaving Stewart with a massive hole in his heart.

Little did he know, the senior class president for THS lost her mother during her sophomore year at Thompson, sharing an inspirational moment of her own during her speech.

“Young lady, who is your class president, I feel for you, losing your mother,” Stewart said. “I was a senior at Central Park, my mother passed away two blocks away at UAB hospital. Dr. Kirkland, who the clinic was named for, was her surgeon. He’s wonderful, he’s the best, but it was her time. I had to persevere my senior year without my best friend.”

For a long time, he thought that was going to be the toughest obstacle he had to overcome in his life.

With his work ethic and willingness to chase his dream, his broadcasting career took off and saw success.

But six years ago, he faced an obstacle he wasn’t prepared for.

“I thought my mother passing away would be the toughest thing I ever encountered,” he said. “Six years ago last month, I went to bed at midnight and woke up 12 hours later. I was maybe the last person in Birmingham to find out that I suffered a stroke in my sleep.”

While it took a while for him to recover from that with different issues in the aftermath, he eventually got through it and was back to work. Then, another roadblock struck.

“Sixteen months after that, I found out I had 95 percent blockage in the artery in the heart that is referred to as the widowmaker,” he said.

He had successful heart surgery but ultimately ended up with an infection that led to the major organs in his body shutting down. He went from 160 pounds before the surgery down to 115 pounds.

“My family was told, ‘You probably need to come tell him goodbye, he’s probably not going to make it,’” Stewart said. “Now, I realize I’m not much to look at, but when you put it into context of 115 pounds and everything else just four and a half years ago, suddenly I’m not too bad looking. I’m grateful. I persevered at a level I never thought possible and I never thought I would need to do so, but you never know what’s in store for you.”

Now, six years after all of the health scares that nearly silenced him, his voice is louder than ever as he continues to live his professional dream in 2024.

“Six years can make quite a difference. A lot of things can happen in six years. A lot can happen in four,” Stewart said. “When you reflect back, make sure your reflection is positive and not regret. And I say that to you, really, four years from now. The past four years are in the past no matter how they went. No matter how great they were or whatever struggles you may have had, they’re in the past.”

He urged the senior class to take pride in what’s around them and the work they accomplish by avoiding tunnel vision.

“Don’t have regrets, whether it’s that you didn’t give your best or that you didn’t enjoy the journey to get there,” he said. “You’ll remember moments, moments of success as well as moments of failure, but really, you’re going to remember people the most. Whether your class has 563 in it, many of whom you’ve probably never met. Or, like me, have 14 in your graduation class, decide on a Monday, you’re going to have your 36-year reunion on Saturday and still have over 50 percent show up.”

He ended by telling the graduates that you never know what life has in stor for you, but to keep fighting and the opportunities will come with himself serving as proof, culminating with a comparison to a famous George W. Bush speech about becoming president.

“You’ve been blessed with a great opportunity, make the most of it,” Stewart said in closing. “We don’t know what the next four years are going to hold, we don’t know what the next four hours hold, but make the most of it. I will end by simply saying, in reference in a comment I said I wasn’t going to make earlier about how I finished at Montevallo, for those of you finishing with honors, I congratulate you, for those of you finishing barely with a C average, take heart, you too can be the voice of the Crimson Tide one day.”