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Newport Harbor Mourns Andre Stewart

Teammates ask coaches to retire the football star's jersey number. The popular senior died in a car crash Sunday.

May 16, 2000|ANN L. KIM and BONNIE HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Andre Stewart's teammates asked coaches Monday to retire the No. 2 jersey of their friend and star player, after a car accident claimed the life of the record-setting running back.

"It's definitely something we'd like to consider out of respect," said teammate Brad Rothwell, a senior. "The team is such a close-knit family that this is really along the lines of losing a brother."

Coaches said they would consider the proposal, Rothwell said.

Classes were effectively put on hold Monday at Newport Harbor High as students were allowed to grieve for the popular senior at a makeshift memorial site on the football field, where balled-up tissues littered the grass beside flowers, balloons, candles and handwritten messages.

Stewart's mother and stepfather, who live in Rubidoux, in Riverside County, opened their home to mourning football players and cheerleaders Monday after school as they coped with the loss of their son.

Dozens of relatives and friends dropped by the ranch-style house during the day to pay their respects.

"He would be thrilled by all of this attention if he were here," said Sonja William, his mother.

She held a frame with a poem her son had written and illustrated for her when he was 13. It reads: "There's so much to thank you for. . . . Here's to my mom, who shows her caring with a word of support and who's the best mom she can be."

Sonja William said, "I'll always have this close to me, especially on Mother's Day."

The gathering became a celebration of Andre's life, as people who had known him shared memories and recalled his warm, outgoing personality.

"He was nice to everyone. That was his thing. It didn't matter who you were or where you came from," stepfather Dariel William said.

Keith Wilson, a family friend who works with William at Federal Express, said, "Andre had this light, and it came through in his personality. For him to have that effect on so many students at that huge school really says something. You never know how you're going to touch someone."

Despite Stewart's football prowess, including setting the school record of 2,380 rushing yards last season, his friends and teammates looked beyond the athlete to remember a guy with a cheerful nature and quick smile.

"We're just thinking about Andre the person, not the football end of it," said Coach Jeff Brinkley. "Football ends for everyone at some point. He had a future beyond that."

Crying and hugging, friends reminisced about Stewart's trademark tardy entrances to class, his favorite greeting for buddies--"What's up dogg?"--and his favorite meal, a Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger from Jack in the Box.

He was also known for wearing stylish clothes, with his shirts always matching his shoes or shoelaces, and for his love of music. Friends said Stewart enjoyed freestyle rap, making up his own rhymes on the fly.

One group of friends planned to leave campus at lunchtime to buy music by Stewart's favorite artists, such as rapper E-40 and R&B crooner D'Angelo, to leave at the memorial site.

Some of Stewart's teammates wore the chunky California Interscholastic Federation Division VI championship ring he helped make possible with key yards in the final playoff game against Irvine High School in December.

"Now it's on me for good," said teammate Mike Tunney, who until now hadn't put the ring on every day.

Stewart's half-brother, Lamar William, a freshman, sat on the grass near the memorial throughout the day as his friends formed a protective huddle around him.

"I love my brother, and that's all I have to say," said Lamar, who was in the passenger seat when the car his brother was driving hit a guardrail on the Pomona Freeway at Pyrite Street early Sunday morning.

Lamar said he was wearing his seat belt, while his brother was not. Lamar sustained minor injuries in the accident, which California Highway Patrol investigators said may have been caused by Stewart falling asleep.

Stewart's stepfather said the two brothers were returning home from separate Saturday night parties in Huntington Beach.

Stewart moved to Costa Mesa from San Jose in eighth grade to join his mother, who had taken a job in Orange County and worried that her son's Bay Area neighborhood held too many risks for drugs and violence.

"We wanted him to go to a good school, and we wanted him to get a good education because all our kids wanted to go to college," Dariel William said. In addition to Lamar, Stewart had a sister and half-sister.

Despite early hesitation about fitting in at a new school, Stewart quickly made friends with "everyone from the straight-A student to the athlete," William said.

After the family bought their home several months ago, Stewart and his siblings continued to commute to Newport Harbor High.

Stewart planned to attend Saddleback College in the fall and transfer to an NCAA Division I college after a year, his coaches said.

But he didn't have dreams of playing professional football, even though some said he could have. He wanted to be an electrical engineer.

"He knew it was hard to get to the pros," William said. "He didn't shoot for that pro thing. He was shooting for reality."

School officials have asked the family to accept Stewart's diploma in his memory at graduation ceremonies next month.

A public memorial service has been planned for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday on the football field. Funeral services will be in San Jose, where many of Stewart's family members live.

Almost exactly three years ago, the Newport Harbor campus was rocked by a similar tragedy when a Chevy Blazer carrying seven students overturned, killing one and injuring the others.

Donations

The Newport Harbor Educational Foundation is accepting checks to help defray funeral costs. Donations made out to NHEF, with Andrea Stewart's name on the check, can be sent to the school at 600 Irvine Ave., Newport Beach, CA 92663.

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