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Mike Lopresti | | March 3, 2023

'I know in my heart he’s always there': Parker Stewart perseveres after losing his father and coach

Tennessee-Martin Athletics Anthony Stewart and Parker Stewart in 2019 Anthony Stewart and Parker Stewart in 2019.

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The mother in a blue UT Martin shirt sits in row B of section 105 at Ford Center Thursday night, watching the senior son who has gone through so much. What does Cheryl Stewart see when her middle child Parker gets introduced in the spotlight for this Ohio Valley Conference quarterfinal? The little boy who learned how to face the world with a stutter . . . the serious college student who earned his degree in just over two years . . . the OVC first teamer in his final days of college basketball.

And something else. She can see Nov. 15, 2020; the day she and her children had to huddle against an unspeakable storm. For this is about a young man whose blossoming career was interrupted by a father’s funeral. A journey perhaps like no other in college basketball this season, as seen through the eyes of his mother.

“She’s always out there . . . ,” Parker Stewart begins about Cheryl, and he would not have it any other way.

“It’s almost like we know what the other’s one thinking and feeling all the time,” Cheryl is saying of her kids in general and Parker in particular.” We don’t necessarily have to say a word.”

A bond forged by broken hearts. What follows is how.

How’s that quote go? God made the world round so we would never be able to see too far down the road.

Remember that when you hear about the college career of Parker Stewart.

He awoke that November Sunday in 2020 as a young man looking forward to his junior season. He had started his career at Pittsburgh and done well, setting the school record for 3-pointers by a freshman. But his father Anthony was coach at UT Martin and trying to build something. The dream took hold of Parker; why not transfer for his sophomore season, and they could chase the good times together? They had always been inseparable, with basketball their shared love.

“I pulled in the drive one day and there was a bulldozer in our backyard. Anthony was having a court put in the yard,” Cheryl remembered.

After transferring to UT Martin, Parker sat out a year per the NCAA rules back then and was also injured, so he had extra time to run a fast break toward his degree. Two years, 47 classes, 45 of them an A or a B, a 3.8 grade point average. Graduation by his third summer. That was even more extraordinary than his 3-point shooting. There were times, Cheryl remembered, when the family would be headed out for dinner and ask Parker if he was ready. “I just want to remind you I am in school,” he’d answer.

He grew into a second-team all-conference pick with a 19-point average as a sophomore, leading the OVC in 3-pointers. The 2020-21 season was to be even better for father and son and UTM, if the pandemic didn't get in the way. On that November Sunday, there was no reason to feel anything but optimistic. The season opener would be here soon.

By the end of the day, Anthony Stewart was gone, dying unexpectedly at the age of 50. Suddenly there was no basketball season for the shattered son, only mourning. He took a year off to try to begin to put back the pieces, and then had a talk with his mother.

“Mama, I feel like I need to just get away for a little bit and kind of figure out what it is I need to do,” he told her.

“I’ll be honest I cried a lot,” Cheryl said Thursday. “I had to say goodbye to him."

It was especially tough after all they had been through. “You can have really great days and you can have really awful days,” she said. “What’s amazed me about Parker is his ability to say, `I need to step away from this right now. I need to focus on myself and take care of myself.’ That’s a strong individual who happens to be my son. But there’s been nothing harder than watching him grieve for his dad.”

He looked around for another place to play and chose Indiana, partly because the family was close to assistant Kenya Hunter and he needed a friendly face. His announcement tweet portrayed a deep sadness.

“This is the hardest decision of my life because I feel I shouldn’t be making it. I’m supposed to still be playing with you on the sideline, Dad . . . “

Parker became a Hoosier in 2021, started for Mike Woodson, switched to wearing a 45 jersey because that was his father’s number. But it was never easy. “That was my first time ever playing basketball without my dad,” he said. “I didn’t really know what to do. Every time I had played basketball, no matter how old I was, I would talk to my dad every day.”

So last spring, with one final lap to go in his college career, his heart told him where the last act should be. A full circle needed to be completed, which meant another emotional tweet to announce his decision.

“One thing I’ve learned in life is to never take time around the people you love for granted. I will be using my additional year of eligibility and will be returning HOME, to UTM for my final season. Long live 45 . . . my goal is to complete your mission. Mama, I’m back.”

He first told Cheryl he was headed to another school, just to see her reaction. But once she knew the truth . . . well, even on this Thursday night in Evansville she teared up thinking about it.

“I remember when he walked in the house and gave me a big hug. It’s like everything in your child’s life culminates in those happy moments and hard moments. He’s just been through so much. He just keeps saying `I’m still here, I’m still going to follow my dreams.’”

Look how this season turned out. All-Ohio Valley, work on another post-graduate degree to go with his MBA, a strong UT Martin season. “I got to come home and honestly, that’s when I began to have fun out there again,” he said. “I think that was the thing for me to do, to be at home because it helped me a lot. There were times when I didn’t even know if I wanted to play anymore. After everything that happened, it just didn’t feel the same.”

Now basketball is his happy world again. But not always happy. Anyone grieving for a loved one understands that. “Parker is very strong but he’s had his moments where he’ll come over and glance at a picture of his dad or him in the Skyhawks poster on the shelf,” Cheryl said. “When you start thinking of the memories and they’re all around you all the time, that can provoke a lot of things. As a family we lean on each other a lot.”

Parker struggles shooting this Thursday night, missing eight of nine shots, but UT Martin rallies late to beat SIUE 81-75 and advance to the OVC semifinals. He so badly wants to help the program to its first NCAA tournament bid because his father wanted that, too. As he put, “Me coming back trying to do what me and him wanted to do together.” To accomplish that, the 19-13 Skyhawks need to keep winning this weekend.

After the quarterfinal win, coach Ryan Ridder sits next to Stewart and describes their special connection. It had to be a little strange at first. He was the UT Martin coach, but he wasn’t Anthony Stewart. They worked through that together.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports Coach Ryan Ridder and Parker Stewart.Coach Ryan Ridder and Parker Stewart.

“Obviously we all want to win games, we want these guys to be successful, we want them to go make a bunch of money playing professionally. But at the end of the day, this thing is going to stop bouncing," Ridder said. "What he embodies, who he is, I love coming to work every day. He’s coachable, he’s a great dude, his teammates love him, he's selfless. He's given so much to this program beyond the stat sheet."

“For him to take a chance, and not really know much about each other, to be home and be a part of what we’re doing, that means a lot, not just to me but my family. I get chills every day.”

So Parker hears two voices. Ryan Ridder on the sideline, Anthony Stewart still in his head.

“He showed me pretty much everything about this game. I wouldn’t be playing if it wasn’t because of him. I know in my heart he’s always there,” he said of his father.

Ridder nods toward his player. “First thing,” he says to Parker, “I think your dad is here tonight. I don’t think we win that game without something special going on.”

Cheryl Stewart has felt all those vibes too.

“Parker’s been at this his entire life,” she said. “His dad’s voice . . . Parker 10 more shots, 20 more shots, let’s get back in the game. We all can hear that, but for Parker it gives him a real strength. He says `When I’m in that gym alone and I’m getting jump shots, I know dad’s watching me.’”

She is deeply grateful to Ridder. “He’s been so good for Parker. I know my son’s happy. And that goes a long way.” She works at UT Martin in the educator preparation program, helping support teachers. She’ll defend her doctorial dissertation in May.

And she knows her son’s strength. She understood that when she watched him deal with a stuttering issue from early childhood to now. There were therapy sessions, visits to specialists, the vagabond life of a coach’s family. So many times there would be a new therapist to find, new kids to meet and hope they’d understood. When the family went out to eat, each child ordered his or her own dinner. Parker would sometimes pick something he really didn’t want, just because it was easier to say. One day when he seemed particularly dejected, Cheryl made her son a book with a list of famous people who stuttered.

“He’s never complained, he’s never said `I have a stutter so I’m not going to be able to do this, I’m not going to be able to do that,'” she said. At Pitt, coach Kevin Stallings showed his confidence in Parker’s determination to overcome his stuttering by having him at press conferences. Cheryl turned on the TV and found her son in front of the microphone. “I would just be in tears,” she said. “I’d see my son answering questions.”

Parker still must deal with the issue, carefully choosing his words, especially around strangers. That doesn't stop him from giving thoughtful and heartfelt answers about his hard road traveled, and the mother who has always been there to support him.

Said the woman in section 105, “I’m just trying to enjoy the memories.”

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