MORGANTOWN — It was mid-Thursday afternoon at the Morgantown Event Center and the crowd stood mostly silently in line that wound out of the Events Hall and into the hallway toward the staircase.
A young lady was there holding a singular golden rose
“I wish,” Rebecca Durst said, “it could be gold and blue.”
If the name is familiar, Rebecca Durst is the second woman Mountaineer mascot and served in that role when Bill Stewart was named head coach of the West Virginia University football team.
She had traded her buckskins for a stylish dress on this day, her hair long and touched now with blonde streaks as she attends nursing school at WVU.
She came as did thousands, from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to grade school students and workers, along with coaches and players, both football and other sports, to say goodbye to Stewart, who had died on May 21.
She recalled her first meeting with him, really, a day when he was moving into his office at Milan Puskar Stadium, things all over the place.
She asked him if she would pose for a picture, and the man who never said no was more than happy to.
“Next time I was there he showed me; he had the picture in his office and said it was the first picture he had in there,” she said.
From then on whenever he saw her she was “my little Mountaineer” to him.
The rose was a going-away gift, warm and personal on a day where there were some tears and some memories being shared.
Ed Pastilong, the former athletic director who was in charge when Stewart replaced Rich Rodriguez after what well may have been the greatest victory in the school history, 48-28 over Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, was meeting and greeting mourners with his wife, Mona.
He had been there when Stewart suffered his fatal heart attack.
“We were on the 17th hole at Stonewall Resort,” Pastilong recalled. “Stew was in a great mood. We had just hit and, naturally, were in the weeds looking for a ball. He was telling one of those stories he would tell, just going along and all of a sudden he just fell over backward like he was shot.”
No warning, no obvious pain, nothing … one minute telling a story, next second lying there as they applied CPR in vain.
“There was no heartbeat,” Pastilong said.
At that time Pastilong was telling the story to Ken Juskowich, whose five field goals beat Pitt, 15-0, in 1967, only to learn that Juskowich had a scare of his own last Nov. 13 when he suffered a heart attack while in Florida and had to undergo open-heart surgery.
Among the players was one of Bill Stewart’s from his days as an assistant under Rodriguez, quarterback Rasheed Marshall, who took a moment out to remember him.
“He extended his love for players. It wasn’t just coach you up during the day, go home and forget about you. Coach Stew was a father figure. He was straight up,” Marshall said. “He had his moments when he would laugh and joke with you, but when it was time to work it was time to work. It didn’t take me long to realize that.”
How many young players were just like Marshall, talented but not knowing how to work, when to work, what work meant. They had come to college teetering on the edge, either to succeed or fail, and Stewart made a difference.
“He actually changed me as a person,” Marshall said. “He made me grow up, become a man, accept responsibilities, learn to step up to the plate, take a challenge and things like that.”
And then all of a sudden he found himself not coaching any longer, changing his focus from his “adopted” children to his son, Blaine, a late-life child of he and his wife Karen, whom he always referred to as “my bride.”
It became a mission, and at the viewing there were pictures of him and Blaine and Karen, him wearing not his Flying WV shirt but instead a Morgantown High sweat shirt, for he had become a fan of coach John Bowers’ team.
And rest assured that John Bowers, the Morgantown coach, and his predecessor, Glen McNew Sr., himself a survivor of a rare kind of lung cancer that only 60 people in the United States had suffered from, were on hand among the crowd.
It was a group gripped by sorrow, yet in a way it was a group that knew it was better off for having been touched by Bill Stewart, whose profession may have been a successful football coach but who was far more successful at the game of life.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.