Beisner hopes first film raises disease awareness

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By Brad Stephens

Feleica Stewart jokes that Goshen resident Thomas Beisner is another member of her family.

That added a little bit of pressure for Beisner when he was producing a documentary about her son, late University of Kentucky basketball signee John Stewart.

“She calls me her angel and her son which, now that the documentary is done, is a great thing,” Beisner said Monday. “But it added a lot of fear leading up to that.”

Beisner’s documentary about John Stewart called “Wildcat Forever: The John Stewart Story” aired Sunday on cn|2.

Stewart was a 7-foot basketball star in the spring of 1999, playing his senior year of Indiana high school basketball.

He had signed to play in college for UK and coach Tubby Smith, who were coming off the 1998 national title.

Stewart checked out during the third quarter of a state playoff game and then collapsed on the bench.

Paramedics rushed him to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

His death was due to an enlarged heart, similar to the condition that claimed the lives of Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers in 1990, the Boston Celtics’ Reggie Lewis in 1993 and former UK and Louisville player Marvin Stone in 2008.

Beisner, a 2001 South Oldham graduate, was a sophomore journalism major at UK in 2003 when the Wildcats honored

Stewart’s family on what would’ve been his Senior Night.

That night left an impression on Beisner, he said.

“It’s something that just stuck with me,” Beisner said.

Beisner rose through the sports media ranks, eventually becoming anchor of “KSTV,” a UK sports talk show airing on cn|2.

He still wanted to produce a documentary though, and decided to make one about Stewart.

Beisner sat down one night last year and typed an email to Feleica Stewart, informing her of his wishes to make a documentary about her late son.

Beisner then deleted it.

“How do you sit and talk with somebody about their son that’s passed away?” he said. “That was my biggest fear going into it was how do you approach these people?”

He typed and deleted emails three nights in a row before one night he finally “said a prayer, hit ‘send’ and walked away.”

The next morning he awoke to an email from Feleica, saying she and her family would love to participate in the documentary.

Over the next few months Beisner interviewed Feleica, her husband, John Sr. and son, Chris.

He also interviewed some of Stewart’s high school teammates, former UK point guard Wayne Turner and the Wildcat coach that signed Stewart, Tubby Smith.

Stewart’s story was a tough one to tell completely, especially for a first-time producer, Beisner said.

“His dad was telling me he’s never done an interview,” Beisner said. “That was the first time, the only time he’s done it.

“His brother, Chris, has never done an interview and he hadn’t even talked to his parents about it…

“His parents were sitting 10 feet away at a table while he was talking to me about it and he was overcome with emotion. It was a lot.”

But the depth and quality of interviews gave Beisner a great base to help construct the documentary.

He and his crew spent much of the last few months editing “Wildcat Forever” before it was to air Sunday.

Stewart’s mother asked Beisner if the Stewart family could come to Oldham County and watch the documentary premiere together.

So Sunday the Beisners and Stewarts gathered in Goshen to grill steaks, hang out and watch the documentary.

“We laughed together, cried together,” Beisner said. “It was just a special night because they’re great people aside from doing this.

“They opened something that is so, in a lot of ways, private and emotional, to our family and I feel like it really brought us closer together. We had so much fun just hanging out.”

Beisner spent much of Monday thanking people who complimented him on the documentary.

He said about 1,000 people watched it live online Sunday night at mycn2.com, where the film is still available for viewing.

Beisner said his biggest wish is that the documentary raises awareness for the John Stewart Foundation.

The JSF is run by Stewart’s family and encourages high school athletes to undergo tests during athletic physicals for heart conditions like the one that claimed Stewart’s life.

The JSF has raised money for 5,000 kids to be given echo-cardiograms, the test for those conditions.

“John was not the first child to die from this disease, an undetected disease,” Beisner said. “(Feleica) wishes there was someone doing that before John died so she would’ve known to have him screened…

“People need to understand that this is out there. Let’s check our children.

“Let’s try to do these things.”

For more information about the JSF, log onto johnstewartfoundation.com.

Email us about this story at sports@oldhamera.com.