Sitting in the truck, Kevin Stewart spoke first, breaking the short but potent silence in the cabin.
Still trying to process the news he’d received from the oncologist in May 2020, Stewart turned to his wife Tabitha with his trademark optimism.
“So what I’m hearing is he said he thinks I have cancer of some kind,” he began. “He doesn’t know what sort, but he thinks he can treat it.”
“You can beat this,” Tabitha told him, “but you have to want to.”
Kevin looked at her.
“Then we will not have a bad day,” he promised.
From then on, as he battled Stage 4 mantle cell lymphoma, Stewart added the hashtag “#NoBadDays” to his social media posts and lived by the mantra he’d created. The same held true when he was diagnosed with COVID-19 in January.
Stewart beat the cancer. He couldn’t beat the virus.
On Wednesday, the longtime math teacher and coach at Caledonia and Columbus high schools died at age 49 of complications brought on by COVID-19. His positive attitude, sense of humor and kindness leave behind a legacy for his family, students and players to carry on.
“If we all had the attitude that Kevin had on life, the world would be such a better place,” said Dawn Duckworth, whose daughter Lauren played softball for Stewart at Caledonia. “He literally had no bad days.”
A teacher first
Stewart held several different coaching positions during his time at Caledonia from 2002 to 2018: assistant boys basketball coach, assistant girls basketball coach, head girls basketball coach, head golf coach and assistant middle and high school football coach.
But his classroom obligations, Tabitha said, were always more important.
“He was a teacher first and he was a coach second, but he was also a good coach,” she said.
Stewart took pride in teaching algebra, a state-tested class, while coaching — a rare combination. He made sure to imbue his classes with good humor, sending unsuspecting students on wild-goose chases for a left-handed screwdriver or the key to the batter’s box. He was known to take a piece of plain white paper out of a printer and hand it to a student.
“I’m out of paper,” he informed them. “Will you take this down to the office and have them make copies?”
Stewart even taught students who weren’t even in his class. When Caledonia athletic director Josh Scott’s daughter took algebra in eighth grade, Stewart answered any questions she had about the subject.
“What made him an effective coach was that he was a good teacher,” Scott said. “He tutored her, and she came back confident in what she was doing. He just seemed to breed that kind of confidence, as far as I know, in all his students.”
Duckworth said Stewart was a giving coach who provided rides and meals for basketball players who were unable to afford them and who went above and beyond for the softball teams he coached.
“He’s the kind of guy who would come up to the field at 10 o’clock at night before a big game and let the girls practice,” she said.
Tyler Armistad, who played basketball at Caledonia from 2009 to 2013, credited Stewart with the improvement he made between his junior and senior years. Stewart often stayed late after practice, feeding Armistad the ball for extra jump shots and critiquing his form.
“He would understand if I was hurting or if I was sore or if I was tired, and he was able to connect with me a lot better than what most were able to,” said Armistad, who now coaches linebackers at Columbus High.
With the dedication of the Stewarts, who lived just a few blocks from the school and whose door was always open, Armistad became one of the many Caledonia players who called Tabitha “Mom” and considered her husband a father figure.
“To know what Kevin Stewart did for the kids, to know what he did in his life and to know that everything he had gone through, he fought,” Armistad said. “There are no bad days. You can push some more. You can continue to fight because my dad fought, and he fought to the last whistle, and he fought to the last buzzer.”
‘He just wanted to be happy’
Soon after meeting Stewart in 2007, Tabitha moved back to her hometown of Ackerman.
Their relationship, she figured, wouldn’t last.
But Stewart proved dedicated and persistent. Every weekend, he drove west to visit her. Eventually, he picked a fitting way to introduce his two kids, Bailey and Brady, to Tabitha’s three children, Quincy, Drew and Lauren. The group met at a park for a picnic, and with seven people, they had enough team members for a friendly softball game.
Soon, Tabitha moved back to Columbus.
She said Stewart was a simple person who didn’t need material possessions to be happy. Even when the two wed in 2010, they didn’t hold a ceremony.
“When we got married, we didn’t need a wedding; we just wanted to be married,” Tabitha said. “That’s the kind of guy he was. He just wanted to be happy and be surrounded by his family.”
That included his dog, a Silky Terrier named Bobo Fed, all five children — when asked, Stewart claimed his wife’s children as his own — and players like Armistad who became an extension of that family.
Scott, who grew close to Stewart while coaching the boys basketball team and working alongside him, said it was difficult to see Stewart leave the family he’d created at Caledonia after more than 15 years. Eventually, though, Scott understood.
“We get to the point sometimes where we’re ready for a change,” he said. “He had a new challenge and, I felt like, embraced that.”
At Columbus, Stewart continued to teach math while serving as an assistant with several different teams, including football, softball and baseball at various times. He ended up on the same football staff as Armistad, who said he went into coaching in part because of the effect Stewart had on him.
“This man right here, he coached me, and now we’re getting a chance to work alongside each other,” Armistad said.
Beating cancer and battling COVID
After spending the 2018 and 2019 seasons on the sidelines with the Falcons, Stewart began suffering severe back pain the following spring.
Thinking he might have tweaked something on a golf swing, he took a break from the sport. The pain only got worse. Stewart suffered from kidney stones in the past and thought they were causing the issue, but he was told the pain was in the wrong place for that to be the case.
One day, the pain unrelenting, he and Tabitha went to the emergency room. They were there for seven hours as Stewart was sent for CT scans to investigate the injury. Eventually, the two were set to meet with an oncologist, Dr. Wail Alnas, who informed Stewart his back pain was caused by an inflamed spleen. It was a symptom of lymphoma.
Alnas didn’t know then which type of cancer was attacking Stewart’s body, but in June, Stewart was officially diagnosed by multiple oncologists with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Since it had spread to his bone marrow, the cancer was considered to be Stage 4.
Stewart was shaken, but he couldn’t be broken.
“It never even crossed his mind that he couldn’t beat that cancer,” Dawn Duckworth said.
Beginning in July, Stewart was prescribed six rounds of high-dose chemotherapy with three weeks between each dose. He maintained his “no bad days” attitude, teaching classes virtually from Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle with a dry-erase board and a webcam while receiving the chemicals.
“That’s the dedication that he had to what he did,” Duckworth said.
While the standard treatment for Stewart’s disease involved a stem cell transplant at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he enrolled in a clinical trial that would allow him to avoid the procedure if a blood test revealed no cancer cells when the chemotherapy was complete.
In December, Stewart underwent the test. The news was good: His cancer was gone, and no further treatment would be required.
“We considered that our Christmas gift,” Tabitha said.
But on Jan. 15, Stewart was diagnosed with COVID-19. Though his symptoms were relatively mild, he and Tabitha called Alnas to make sure Stewart could be treated like any other COVID patient since his immune system had been compromised by the cancer. The answer was yes, and Stewart took the recommended steroids and vitamins to recover from the virus. He spent the next month in and out of the ER with pneumonia, but he believed he would ultimately be fine.
Neither he nor Tabitha knew what impact the virus was truly having on Stewart’s body.
“We just didn’t see what it was doing,” she said.
Communities come together for Stewart
In February, Tabitha had to have a surgery of her own at Baptist. When she returned, she asked her husband, “Can we both stay out of the hospital for a while?” If they could, she said, it would be a Valentine’s Day, birthday and Christmas gift all rolled into one.
On Feb. 14, with both unable to drive, the Stewarts had Kevin’s 18-year-old son Brady pick up a steak dinner for their Valentine’s Day meal and enjoyed the night at home.
The next morning, Stewart struggled to breathe. Tabitha called an ambulance, and her husband was whisked away to Baptist. He was placed in the intensive care unit, and doctors found his heart enlarged, his lungs inflamed, kidney function compromised, his liver damaged. His pneumonia had worsened, and he had to be intubated in order to breathe.
“Because this disease was just so unpredictable, it just wreaked havoc on his lungs, and his lungs were not strong enough to keep that from just taking over,” Tabitha said.
On Feb. 25, with Stewart remaining in the ICU, a prayer vigil was held for him at Baptist. On the grass outside the hospital, students and teachers from Columbus and Caledonia sang and prayed for their teacher, mentor, coworker and friend. Stewart’s kids attended New Hope schools, so the event brought together people from all over Lowndes County. On a FaceTime call with her son on the grass below, Tabitha put her iPhone on Kevin’s pillow so he could hear the songs and words of prayer.
“Mainly, in a time like we’re in right now, it felt like different communities were coming together, which was absolutely beautiful and which would be what he would want,” Tabitha said. “For all those communities to put aside any differences and come together was one of the best moments I had in the last few weeks.”
By Wednesday, she knew her husband didn’t have long. Though hospital visitors are typically limited because of COVID-19, Baptist allowed Stewart’s family and friends to enter his room. That day, Stewart took his final breath.
“I just remember thinking, ‘As bad as I hurt right now, his victories are so much greater than my pain,'” Tabitha said.
More than a coach
Even after his death, Stewart’s legacy lives on.
It lives on in Dezmond Sherrod, a standout football player who graduated from Caledonia in 2003 and whose time there overlapped with Stewart’s. Sherrod was one of few players out of the school to receive a football scholarship, going on to play for Mississippi State before winning Super Bowl XLIII with the Pittsburgh Steelers in February 2009.
Sherrod recalled Stewart’s message to him back in his high school days: “When you reach your full potential, anything can happen.”
“I carried that advice with me throughout my career — college and with the pros,” Sherrod said.
In 2011, after winning the 2010 United Football League title, with the Las Vegas Locomotives, Sherrod returned to his hometown. He let some of his old teachers try on his championship rings, which made Stewart’s day.
“It made me proud that he and other coaches contributed to me having success,” Sherrod said. “It wasn’t just me; he just had that impact on his players and everyone he coached.”
That impact was felt on Armistad, who has taken his one-time mentor’s diligence and aggressive yet tenacious coaching style to heart by applying those characteristics to his own position unit.
“He was definitely not just a coworker and more than a coach,” Armistad said. “I definitely appreciated him more than he will ever know.”
In Stewart’s five children, he lives on — particularly with Brady, the youngest. At Mississippi University for Women, Stewart was a member of the Beta Kappa Tau brotherhood, and the brothers he left behind have vowed to teach Brady what they can.
In Tabitha, too, is what her husband left behind — the mantra by which he lived even when things were at their worst.
No bad days.
“Now I feel like with him gone, I have to remember not to have bad days myself,” she said. “I’m going to keep that going because that’s what he would want.”