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IOWA CITY — Ron Stewart once lost his hat protecting Kirk Ferentz, but never lost his head.
It was a 2003 September Saturday night in Kinnick Stadium, and Ferentz’s Iowa football team had just defeated Arizona State. ESPN2’s sideline reporter was interviewing Ferentz on the field while the two of them, then-Iowa sports information director Phil Haddy, and Stewart were surrounded by a cluster of fans who had rushed onto the field to celebrate.
“The crowd swarmed the field,” the former Polk County deputy sheriff told Hawkeyesports.com two years ago. “It was real close. I felt a tug on the back of my hat and then I felt a second tug and my hat being removed. I looked around and I saw a black sleeve with my hat. And I couldn’t leave the coach.
“But 10 days after it disappeared, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office found a box in front of the door. Inside the box was my hat with the (hat) badge. The badge was still on there, but my hat was torn up completely.
“There was note with the hat that said ‘Dearest Deputy, I am sorry for my actions and any trouble and inconvenience I have caused. I was very intoxicated and stupid. Certainly I never wanted the hat. The only reason it took this long to return it is because I passed out and it was taken from me. Deepest apologies.’ ... in a female’s handwriting.”
Stewart was able to laugh about that 11 years later, and Ferentz enjoyed recalling that moment at his weekly press conference Tuesday as he paid tribute to Stewart, who died Sunday at 76.
Ferentz inherited Stewart’s service after becoming the Hawkeyes’ head coach in December 1998. It probably felt like a presidential candidate suddenly getting Secret Service protection.
“Totally,” Ferentz said. “It started with the first I-Club I went to in Des Moines. He was there to meet me and walked me through the kitchen, so I felt like I was in a movie. I still find it laughable that I have any form of security like that.
“But as you might imagine, we’re spending a lot of time together, close quarters, and you just become really good friends. His passion for what he did and his feeling for the program, just all those things. That’s why he did it. He loved being part of this. And I think everybody that’s been involved with him over the years feels it’s a mutual thing.”
There was a quite serious reason Stewart began his 32 years as Hawkeye football’s directory of security in 1982.
“It’s documented that there was a threat on Coach (Hayden) Fry’s life,” Stewart said in that 2014 interview. “The subject, the perp, lived here in the Polk County area. It was decided by local law enforcement, federal law enforcement, and people in the medical world that this person could be dangerous if he got off his meds.
“So that’s how it started, and Coach Fry asked me to join him.”
At the end of Fry’s tenure as Iowa’s coach, he made Stewart the recipient of the program’s first Extra Heartbeat Award. He was given the program’s Distinguished Service Award after the 2014 season.
He was good at his work. In 2008, I left my peers who were waiting to interview players across the street from the University of Tampa stadium. I wandered up to the fence of that Outback Bowl practice field and stared at the team in the distance.
The threat of me seeing a state secret that I would then blare to the world was less than zero, and Stewart knew it, but he let nothing slide.
In a flash, he got to the fence in a motorized cart to authoritatively shoo me away, but without malice. I’d been on friendly terms with him for some time by then. He was an interesting, intelligent person, and I always enjoyed talking with him. But his job always came first.
“Ron, I just wanted to get away from that pack of sportswriters,” I feebly explained, using the term “sportswriters” only because I hadn’t thought of “basket of deplorables.”
He replied, “You made that bed, you’ve got to sleep in it.”
Which made this scofflaw both laugh and peacefully walk away, properly chastised.
Stewart served in the U.S. Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserve, then worked in law enforcement for 30 years, retiring in 1997. There was a heart under that badge.