Tina Stewart: One Year Later
Today is a day I have not looked forward to but had circled on my calendar for quite some time. It was one year ago that I was sitting in the Sidelines newsroom working on the next day’s issue. A few of my friends wanted to go grab something to eat so we went to Toot’s. About two hours later, I would return to the newsroom with a miserable face, a heart full of emotions, and a feeling of complete shock.
During dinner, I found out that Lady Raider Clantina “Tina” Stewart had been killed in her apartment. My association with the team is well documented. I consider head coach Rick Insell a good friend who has helped mentor me with my career and in life. I’ve attended countless home games, traveled to many road games, and observed a number of practices and shootarounds.
My relationship with Coach Insell started when I began production on his television show that aired on the campus TV station, MTTV. The show took a behind-the-scenes look at the operation of MTSU’s women’s basketball program – from scouting games to road trips to player insights on upcoming opponents as well as the daily life of a scholar athlete. Even though the show was called “The Rick Insell Show,” it was never Coach’s goal to make the show about him. Instead, he preferred the spotlight to be on his players, assistant coaches, and other administrators.
During the show’s run and after it ended, he and his wife, Deb, made sure I felt like I was apart of the family. Anytime there was an event at his house, whether it was trick-or-treating with the team or barbeques with neighborhood friends, I was invited.
The Insell’s know how to handle the attention, and they get plenty of it, but they made it a point to give credit where credit was due. Coach always preaches that everyone has a role and if you handle your responsibilities, then the team will be successful. He wasn’t just talking about the Lady Raiders, or the Eaglettes of Shelbyville before them. He was talking about in life. Everyone has a purpose and it is up to us to discover that thing we are supposed to do and fulfill it.
Tina was not the first friend I have lost in life. Her death, in particular, hit a nerve because, to me, the Lady Raider program was untouchable.
The story was clearly made for the movies. The state championship-winning high school coach is given a chance to lead his alma mater’s basketball program, a school that was often overlooked in the national media, into prominence. Even when it seemed like the odds were stacked against them, they found a way to prosper.
I often asked after she passed, did she fulfill her purpose? Did she do what she was supposed to do in this world before she left?
When Tina was alive, she could be looked to as the person who could hold everything together in times of adversity. In her final game in uniform (against Western Kentucky), the Hilltoppers tried to make a comeback and take the lead but it was Stewart’s points that held them off.
The night of her death, I wrote a column for Tina in that issue of Sidelines we were working on and, to this day, I have no idea how I was able to put together coherent sentences. When she passed, it didn’t just hurt the Lady Raiders. It hurt every team in the athletic department. It affected every student on campus. It seemed as though the recovery would be too tough to overcome.
The Lady Raiders ended up losing their final two games of the year – to Arkansas State in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Tournament and the University of Georgia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. However, the thing that stood out about those games was not the losses. It was the show of unity amongst the family. Past players traveled to the games in Hot Springs, Ark. and Auburn, Ala. to offer support for the team. The men and women’s basketball teams wore the “20GETHER” t-shirts during the Sun Belt Tournament during pregame warmups and sitting on the bench. Also, both teams wore jersey patches in her honor. The Blue Raider spirit was alive in this time of tragedy and mourning.
In the offseason, you could see the healing process take place through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Many of the girls have accounts with both sites and would post messages regarding missing their friend as well as connecting with their teammates and former Lady Raiders.
The big question going into this season was supposed to be who would lead these ladies during the season. Anne Marie Lanning graduated last year and Tina was supposed to be a senior this season alongside Molly McFadden. Did the team have their senior leader? Yes but along with McFadden, the leadership role was shared amongst several players on the team. After a rocky start to the season, this team realized their roles and was able to flourish at the right time of the year.
I don’t think anybody is over her death but we’ve all found a way to live easier knowing that she is watching over her family and cheering her teammates onto victory. I’ve always been a firm believer that in tragic times is when true character shows its’ face.
Even in death, Tina is still handling her role as the glue that keeps this team together. No longer do I question if this team can handle the pressure that many Lady Raider teams have had to deal with in the past.
This group of ladies is battle-tested and has handled the adversity well. Now that glue that has kept them together will prove its’ strength in the postseason.
Posted on March 2, 2012, in College Sports, Looking Back and tagged 20GETHER, Lady Raiders, Middle Tennessee State University, MTSU, Rick Insell, Tina Stewart, women's basketball. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.