PINEHURST, N.C. (WNCN) – Seven days per week, 78-year-old coaching legend Hal Stewart works out at the Garner YMCA. That may sound like a lot, but not for Stewart.
“I’m not supposed to be here,” Stewart said.
Stewart is best known for leading Garner High School to an epic upset win over Charlotte Harding High School in the 1987 state championship game. Some 27 years later, he won an even bigger battle.
“I was dead, had no pulse, no heartbeat for three or four minutes, maybe five,” Stewart said.
Stewart was on a gambling boat cruise in South Carolina. Blackjack is his favorite game.
During a break in the action, Stewart went to the bathroom. That’s where he collapsed.
“I had an aneurysm of the aorta,” Stewart said. “Anyone watching this knows how serious that is. Your chances of surviving are slim and none.”
But Stewart did survive, beating the odds just like his Garner Trojans did in 1987.
“I’m not ready to go, I’m ready to stick around,” Stewart said. “I spent five minutes in heaven and God sent me on back down. He’s got some other things for me to do.”
Like helping others.
Four years after Stewart won his fight to live, his star player from that championship team, Anthony Barbour, found himself in a battle of his own.
“That’s one of the hardest fights, hardest things I’ve been through in my life,” said Barbour.
Stewart remembers the feeling he got when he was told the news about his former player. He was there.
“They told me it didn’t look good for Anthony, he could die,” Stewart said when he heard the news.
Stewart was there for Barbour when the electric running back got word that he had cancer. Suddenly a man few were able to stop on the field, came face to face with an opponent no amount of coaching could account for.
“One thing you learn in sports is that not everything is going to go your way. You’ve got to keep working no matter what,” Barbour said. “It’s just a setback. You hear the big word cancer and the first thing you think about is death. But you remember it’s life, you want to live.”
Together on the field they were larger than life.
“I feel very blessed to be here,” Barbour said.
Blessed for a second chance at life. Blessed to still be a part of a community the two have proudly been a part of for decades.
“Me with my heart condition and Anthony had the bout with cancer, we represent Garner, North Carolina,” Stewart said. “We represent Garner High School and God wanted us here and that’s why we’re here.”