MARCH 12, 1999, began with such excitement in Columbus.
Fifteen years ago today, the state’s top two ranked basketball teams would descend on Columbus North High School for a regional championship. Both Lawrence North and Bloomington South had Class 4A state title aspirations and featured Mr. Basketball candidates in Lawrence North’s John Stewart and Bloomington South’s Jon Holmes, who had signed to play at Kentucky and North Carolina, respectively.
A near-capacity crowd came to watch the titans duke it out on a Friday night in Memorial Gym. The game lived up to its billing; but in the third quarter, it turned tragic.
The Wildcats were clinging to a 33-31 lead with 3:58 left in the third quarter when the 7-foot, 275-pound Stewart asked coach Jack Keefer to take him out of the game. At that point, Stewart had 22 of Lawrence North’s 33 points and 10 rebounds.
A couple of minutes later, Stewart collapsed.
“He thought he was maybe having an asthma attack,” said Columbus North trainer Steve Souder, who rushed to attend to Stewart, along with Lawrence North trainer Mike Sullivan. “He was slightly asthmatic, so we were planning to get him to the locker room; and as he was sitting there, when we picked him up, he literally died right there.”
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Address: 2400 17th Street, Columbus
The crowd fell silent as paramedics tried for about 25 minutes to revive Stewart. He was then taken to Columbus Regional Hospital, where he was pronounced dead, a victim of idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
“To me, it was chaotic because we had a lot of people coming down trying to assist, and it was hard for the paramedics to do their job,” Souder said.
Bloomington South coach J.R. Holmes was ready to postpone the game and bring his team back the next day or on the following Monday. But after discussing it with Keefer, Columbus North Principal Bill McCaa and game officials, they decided to continue the game.
“Our comment was, ‘We’ll do whatever Lawrence North wants to do. It’s their kid,’” Holmes said following his team’s sectional semifinal win over Columbus East at Shelbyville last Friday. “I think they got some news that they had revived him because they decided to go ahead and play. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what I was told.”
After a five-minute warmup, the game was resumed. Lawrence North extended its lead to 36-31 at the end of the third quarter and 38-31 early in the fourth.
The Panthers then rallied to force overtime and won 55-50. But they certainly were in no mood to celebrate.
“That’s just crazy,” J.R. Holmes said of Stewart’s death. “It’s not supposed to happen in high school sports. It was an unfortunate situation. You can’t forget that.”
Bloomington South went on to beat Terre Haute North the following week in the semistate semifinals at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Later that night, the Panthers held a three-point lead over North Central in the closing seconds, but Jason Gardner hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer, and his team won 79-73 in overtime.
North Central beat Elkhart Central in the Class 4A state finals, then knocked off Tecumseh and Westview in the last of the two-year run of the Tournament of Champions.
Gardner, who went on to play at Arizona, was named Mr. Basketball. Stewart was named to the Indiana All-Star team posthumously.
Soon after Stewart’s death, steps began being taken to prevent such occurrences from happening again. Most Indiana schools started putting defibrillators in or near their gymnasiums. Hospitals across the state began offering free heart screenings.
Robert Faulkens, an assistant commissioner with the IHSAA, was an assistant principal at Lawrence North at the time of Stewart’s death. He said the IHSAA does not require schools to have defibrillators in their gyms, but Indiana state law requires that they be around when there is a gathering of students.
Faulkens said the IHSAA does not encourage or require a heart screening in sports physicals because it takes its directions for physicals from the Indiana State Medical Association, which does not think that the technology is there yet in that type of physical to detect what needs to be detected to prevent it.
“That’s been an ongoing issue with the ISMA for 15 years, and they’re constantly being asked to do that,” Faulkens said. “We’re still working on it; but right now, their thought is, it’s not a reliable enough screening to catch what you need to catch.”
Individual high schools can perform screenings of their athletes with the help of cardiothoracic surgeons and their groups.
Stewart’s mother, Feleica, started the John H. Stewart Foundation in 2002 to promote education of heart awareness and undetected heart disease, how people can notice when there’s a problem and when they need to go for further screening. Felecia Stewart goes out and teaches people how to do CPR.
Feleica Stewart said that, since John’s death, the organization has worked with hospitals to perform about 5,000 screenings.
“I believe we’ve been very impactful in things that we’ve done,” she said. “We’ve been instrumental in saving the lives of several children because their parents didn’t know they had heart problems.”
Local schools are prepared
All three high schools in Bartholomew County are equipped with at least one defibrillator.
Columbus North has one on the ramp leading from the gym to the weight room. Trainers also have a portable defibrillator they got from CRH three years ago that they take to outdoor events.
Three years ago, one of the defibrilators was used to resuscitate a spectator from Indianapolis at a freshman basketball tournament.
Kelli Thompson, director of health services for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., said Columbus North and Columbus East High Schools and Central and Northside Middle Schools have more than one AED in the building and all of the elementary schools in the district are equipped both both pediatric and adult pads. She said school nurses maintain the equipment and the Columbus Regional Hospital Foundation funds replacement of expired pads.
“When I arrived (in 2008), I felt Columbus North had good practices in place,” North athletics director Jeff Hester said. “With our partnership with the hospital, I feel like it’s improved even more now, especially with the addition of the portable AED machines.”
Hester said all Bull Dogs head and assistant coaches are CPR-certified.
“We were so far ahead of the game,” McCaa said, who was North principal from 1993-2003. “On staff, we had a trainer (Souder) with a master’s degree, and the EMTs were always at the game with an ambulance. (Stewart) had attention immediately when he hit the floor, and the EMTs were there within two or three minutes.
“It was pretty sad, and the crowd had to endure the tragedy of the young man laying on the court,” he said. “It was a tragic night. The family was there, and I couldn’t imagine seeing your son in that position. It was just an awful tragedy.”
East has a defibrilator outside its training room, and trainers take it to football games and other events. They haven’t had to use it.
“Anytime our trainer travels, they take it,” East AD Bob Gaddis said. “Normally, if our trainer travels, it means (the other school doesn’t) have a trainer there.”
Hauser has a defibrillator on a wall just outside the gym by the concession stand and another portable one by the nurse’s office that trainers take to outside events.
“All our staff and all our coaches have been trained in the use of it,” said Hauser AD Dave Irvine, who was at the fateful game 15 years ago. “It’s one of those things that you get the training, but you hope you never have to use it.”