Just two months before he died, Chris Stewart intercepted his first pass during a high school football game, calling it one of the coolest things to ever happen to him.
“He almost had his magical moment when he intercepted that pass at the Ballston Spa game.” Shenendehowa Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson said, his voice ringing throughout Corpus Christi Church. “But unfortunately, ah, the flight of speed wasn’t his forte.”
Hearty laughs escaped from more than 1,000 mourners gathered inside the Round Lake church. Stewart ran the interception back 44 yards, but didn’t quite make it into the end zone. Thinking of him this way for just a moment was a nice reprieve from remembering that the vibrant, always smiling 17-year-old’s life had come to an abrupt end just one week ago.
“His line when he said in that interview that this was pretty much the coolest thing to ever happen to him — well, today, I say to you, Christopher Francis Stewart, you were and always will be one of the coolest things to ever happen to us,” Robinson said.
It was the second time this week that the Shenendehowa community filled a church to say goodbye to one of two seniors killed in the tragic Dec. 1 Northway crash. Stewart and his classmate, Deanna Rivers, 17, were killed on the way home from a basketball game in Albany when a car driven by 22-year-old Dennis Drue crossed over two lanes and clipped their SUV, causing it to roll over and stop in the median.
Injured in the crash were Bailey Wind and Matt Hardy, both 17, and in relationships with Stewart and Rivers, respectively. Rivers was laid to rest Thursday. Wind, wearing a neck brace, and Hardy, in a wheelchair and casts, attended Stewart’s funeral Saturday.
“Tragedy struck that group of teens and life will never be the same,” said the Rev. James Clark, who led the solemn ceremony. “Life will never be the same for us, either.”
Choir music filled the church’s vaulted sanctuary between prayers and reflections offered by Robinson and Shen guidance counselor Jan Reilly.
Stewart had a short life, said Robinson, but with it came a long legacy.
Captain of the football team, Stewart bled Shen green. He was described as a beast of a player but a gentle soul — embracing his coaches and teammates, especially the underclassmen just joining the varsity — and a leader who wasn’t afraid to step up and ask his teammates to give their all at 6 a.m. workouts.
“Chris often wore his emotions on his sleeve and led by example,” said Robinson. “He was an anchor. He was truly an anchor, on and off the field. His teammates remembered his sweaty face and his big goofy smile as he trotted off the field after each play.”
Stewart was a character, he continued; who else could rack up a $27 tab at McDonald’s by ordering off the value menu? But he had character, too.
“He is described as having a certain sense of innocence that led one to believe he did not have a bad bone in his body,” said Robinson. “He always endeavored to do the right things for the right reasons. And more importantly, he was always happy.”
Stewart’s parents asked his school counselor, Jan Reilly, to read their son’s college essay at Saturday’s service so everyone could hear his words. In it, Stewart shared the influences that his cousin Bob had on him before he died suddenly of a heart condition in 2010. Even though Bob Stewart took medication daily, he never let on that there was anything wrong with him.
Chris Stewart, his brother Jeremy and cousin Bob would all head to his grandparents’ camp over the summer and go fishing, drive golf balls, catch turtles and frogs, swim and play Pokemon.
Wrote Stewart in his essay: “I admired Bob’s focus on his life, not his disability & I hope to always focus on the positive things in life like Bob did. I’d like to think that when I come upon an obstacle I will find a way around it like Bob did.”
In the church lobby, pieces of Stewart’s life were captured in photos and relics — a helmet, footballs he signed from winning games, a board full of pictures of him and Wind, pictures of him as a child and much more.
In much the same way he admired his cousin, Stewart had a lot of admirers. Robinson shared a passing comment from one of them.
“As one of his teachers so profoundly said to me: ‘Chris was a student, athlete and a friend that I can only hope my child becomes,’ ” recalled Robinson, “His spirit and legacy in all that he did will never be forgotten.”