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Prayers for Coach Stuen


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Lost for words.  Really feel for Coach Stuen's family.  This is devastating.  Then the reports of his hospitalization came out, I knew in the back of my head this was a real possibility given how serious the situation sounded, but you kind of expect a young guy to make it (or perhaps don't want to think about him not).

It goes without saying that the team should figure out a way or several ways to honor Coach Stuen during the upcoming season and forward.  Patches on jerseys is a traditional way.  I hope the AD figures out some other really cool / heartfelt ways to honor him and help bring peace to his family.  

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Man, just 2ish days ago I saw that his wife posted about heading to the beachs in Florida and I thought, hope this means Ford is doing much better.

 

29, that’s all. 

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Such a shame to be be taken from this world at such a young age, with a young growing family, and a bright future doing something he loved. God be with you on your next journey Ford Stuen and with those you left behind way too early. Ford we hardly knew ye, but you will be missed by all those whose lives you touched. 

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Condolences for the family.

Reality check for everyone else.

Awful awful awful news, but if nothing else hug your loved ones and appreciate what you have, here and now. Tomorrow is promised to no one.

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Condolences to the family I am sorry for the pain of losing a loved one.

Condolences to the players and coaches.

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A young and athletic guy like him on a ventilator is never good news. I am very sorry to hear he has passed away. This is not something anyone expected to happen. My condolences and prayers to the family.

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10 hours ago, Old guy said:

A young and athletic guy like him on a ventilator is never good news. I am very sorry to hear he has passed away. This is not something anyone expected to happen. My condolences and prayers to the family.

Indeed. Absolutely heartbreaking. We obviously don't want to speculate but the ventilator  makes me think of covid right away of course. No one in his age group and in the shape he was in should go like this. 

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24 minutes ago, mrjoelabs said:

Indeed. Absolutely heartbreaking. We obviously don't want to speculate but the ventilator  makes me think of covid right away of course. No one in his age group and in the shape he was in should go like this. 

“5 On Your Side's Frank Cusumano confirmed that assistant coach Ford Stuen, 29, died on Tuesday morning. Late in the Billikens' 2020-2021 season, Stuen complained of pain in his stomach area. He was diagnosed with an infection and never recovered, even after antibiotics and a medically-induced coma. Stuen had been hospitalized since Easter.”
 

 

Perhaps you shouldn’t speculate then.

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19 minutes ago, billikenfan05 said:

“5 On Your Side's Frank Cusumano confirmed that assistant coach Ford Stuen, 29, died on Tuesday morning. Late in the Billikens' 2020-2021 season, Stuen complained of pain in his stomach area. He was diagnosed with an infection and never recovered, even after antibiotics and a medically-induced coma. Stuen had been hospitalized since Easter.”
 

 

Perhaps you shouldn’t speculate then.

In fairness, two people in my office read the article and asked me about it. Both thought it sounded like COVID. I told them I didn't think it was but couldn't explain what it was and why there wasn't a better description of what happened. I understand the desire for privacy, but when things aren't explained it leads to speculation and given the past year, speculation about COVID is completely natural.

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2 hours ago, mrjoelabs said:

Man, that sounds terrible. That family definitely needs all the support they can get right now. 

With a little kid already here and another one just about to be born (or born already), yes, you are not kidding his wife needs support. This  poor woman is going to have a very tough time getting back to normal after this.

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  • 2 months later...
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1 hour ago, slufan13 said:

ST. LOUIS — Ford Stuen once told a friend to write letters to every one of his former coaches who had helped him on his way to his first job in basketball. “You need to show your coaches that you appreciate them,” Stuen told his buddy. “Whether or not you think they made an impact on you, you probably aren’t where you are today without their help.” 

Your 20s are a time of discovery, and it’s easy to feel lost, but Stuen seemed to have everything figured out. When his uncle Travis Ford got the Saint Louis job in 2016, Stuen followed him to be a graduate assistant, putting behind dalliances with being a sports agent or realtor. Not long after, SLU’s director of basketball operations left, and Ford promoted his nephew. That’s when it became clear to Stuen, a former Oklahoma State walk-on guard, that coaching was the path he wanted. So he absorbed everything he could on leadership. He was obsessed with figuring out what made successful people successful. Steve Jobs became one of his inspirations. “The journey is the reward” is a Jobs quote that Stuen found reason to write on everything.

“He was confident in who he was becoming,” friend Joe Pierre III says.

The confidence came through in the letters he would send. He’d send them out regularly — all hand-written — to advise, encourage and thank those who came into his orbit. 

It didn’t take long for anyone to sense that confidence and his goodness, too. A few years ago Stuen was selling his Audi 7. One day he went to meet a couple interested in the car, and they started talking. They liked Stuen so much that they asked if he was single and told him they had someone he needed to meet.

That someone he needed to meet ended up being his wife, Courtney. She had a young daughter, Lucy, and that’s not what most guys in their mid-20s are looking for. But Stuen never hesitated. He became Lucy’s father.

Stuen wanted those around him to know how much they mattered to him. He was a phone call guy. No one felt like an acquaintance. Phil Forte, his college teammate and the best man at his wedding, kept him at the top of his favorites on his phone. Pierre, an assistant at Liberty and former Oklahoma State manager, moved Stuen to the bottom because it was the easiest button to hit with his thumb when he was driving down the road. 

They marveled at Stuen’s maturity, which was clear by his approach to work. He had dreams, sure, but he was the type of person who wouldn’t look too far ahead, because he wanted to do a great job at the one he had. The three buddies would talk every day — often on three-way calls at night — and in those daily phone calls, they would share where they wanted to go. Stuen wanted to be an assistant coach. Once he got a taste of coaching, it was clear to him he wanted to climb the ladder. The one thing Stuen struggled with was if he climbed the next step and became an assistant working for his uncle, people would think he just got the job because of family ties.

“He almost overcompensated for that by working hard just to prove his worth,” Forte says. “He worked really hard. That’s part of what drove him.”

Ford saw his nephew’s drive and promoted him to assistant coach two years ago. Stuen started his day at 4 a.m. He’d read and get in a workout at OrangeTheory and still make it to the office by 7. He was fit, and he looked so young and healthy. Courtney was eight months pregnant with their first son.

Stuen’s journey looked like it was just beginning. Only it was not. A mysterious infection wrecked his body, doctors unable to stave off a series of infections. He died on May 11, less than a month after his 29th birthday. 

Months later those closest to him, from his family and friends to the Saint Louis men’s basketball program, are processing their grief. Together.

The first day of basketball practice is usually like opening a new book to the first chapter. Travis Ford is always so excited to teach and mold a new team that he’s famous for those early practices stretching on and on. Stuen used to be the one to tell him they’d gone long enough. “We’re good,” he’d say. He had started to find his voice as a coach. He’d reached a point where he could tell his uncle what he thought. “He would definitely be truthful, because I can handle it, and he knew I can handle it,” Ford says. “I respected his opinion.” 

Ford wakes up on this September day ready to open the book on the 2021-22 season, but it feels like he’s back in May when he couldn’t bring himself to go back to the office just yet. 

“I knew how excited he would be for that first day,” Ford says. “He loved it. How much input he would have had into what we were going to be doing.”

Ford knew it was going to be hard, but it’s hitting him harder than he anticipated. He calls his wife, Heather, who is at their vacation home in Florida with Stuen’s son, Penn, and his widowed wife, Courtney. Heather gives Ford a pep talk. “Go have a practice that he’d be proud of,” she says.  

That’s exactly what he needed to hear. He’s focused now. He leaves his empty house and heads for Chaifetz Arena. It’s good to be around people. Practice starts. He gets lost in the details. 

“I don’t hear any talking!” he shouts. 

The Billikens are running a new defense — the now-famous Texas Tech side defense — and the footwork is the key to taking away the middle. Too many have gotten it wrong as they work on closeouts. Ford jumps in the drill. “My feet take away the drive,” he says as he demonstrates. “My hands take away the 3.”

It’s in the third hour now, but it doesn’t seem like it. Ford’s energy just keeps picking up. 

“When it’s time to cut,” he yells, “let me see some smoke coming off your shoes.” 

His players snicker, but the imagery works. They’re flying out of their cuts now. 

The fourth hour is approaching, but these early practices are like a toughness test. Can you still think the game when you’re tired? “Details are more important than being in a hurry,” he says. 

Finally, he’s seen enough. The players circle around him. 

“We can be a little bit better tomorrow,” he tells them. “Learn from tomorrow and be a little bit better on Sunday.” 

He lists off the itinerary for Saturday, the first two-a-day practice of the season starting at 9 a.m. 

“The journey, guys,” Ford says, and his mind is right back on Stuen. He gets it out before the tears take hold. “The journey is the reward, men.” 

One day down.


Stuen (right) wasn’t sure if he wanted to go into coaching before landing a job on staff for his uncle, Billikens head coach Travis Ford. (Courtesy of Saint Louis Athletics)
The first practice finishes on Saturday, and Ford heads to the dining area at Chaifetz Arena to eat breakfast and talk to a visitor about his team, and eventually, his nephew. This season would have been a defining one for his program even if tragedy had not struck. The Billikens entered March 2020 as the hottest team in the Atlantic 10 outside of the Obi Toppin-led Dayton Flyers. They’d played Dayton close both times and believed they had the recipe to beat them. No one knows how that would have gone, but the momentum looked set to carry over into last season. They brought just about every key player back, started 7-1 with wins over LSU and NC State and climbed to No. 22 in the rankings. Then COVID-19 tore through their roster — 11 players tested positive for the virus — and after a 34-day pause between games, they went 7-6 in their final 13 games. 

It’s all kind of a blur now as Ford looks back. Stuen was in the hospital when the Billikens took off for the NIT. They had the bus stop below his sixth-story hospital window, so the team could wave to him. From there, it’s hard for Ford to recount what happened on the basketball floor. His attention was on Stuen. 

Everything had happened so quickly. In mid-February, Stuen was having stomach pains. After a couple days of not feeling well, Ford told Stuen to go see the team doctor. The original diagnosis was ulcers. That made sense, considering the stress of coaching. Ford had dealt with ulcers himself. Stuen started taking medication for that diagnosis, but the pain didn’t get any better. At the A-10 tournament in early March, the pain just kept getting worse. After one really bad night soon after getting back to Saint Louis, he went to urgent care first thing in the morning. The doctor could tell by his eyes and his skin color that this was not ulcers. He needed to go to the emergency room. Stuen was admitted right away, and after running some tests, doctors figured out that his issue was his liver. 

It was so bad that doctors decided he needed a liver transplant, but right before the date of the procedure, some of the medications they’d tried had improved his numbers and they decided to hold off. Stuen was released from the hospital. 

“Still to this day, that’s one of my biggest regrets,” Ford says. “Why’d y’all let him out?”

His liver numbers had improved, but his bone marrow and white blood cell counts were going the wrong direction. 

The plan was for Stuen to check back into the hospital on Easter Sunday. When he did, he wasn’t in a lot of pain, but his numbers were not good. On Wednesday that week, he caught an infection. At 2 a.m., doctors called Courtney and told her she needed to come in. They had taken Stuen to the ICU. Eight hours later, the doctors met with the family to prepare them for the worst. 

Somehow, Stuen made it through that. “Miracle,” Ford says. 

Stuen even made it out of the ICU for a couple days, but then he caught another infection. Friends flew in to help. Forte spent a week in St. Louis. The next week Pierre came for a week. Stuen would tell his buddies he was going to keep fighting. But his body could just not fend off the infections. 

Ford and his family have met with doctors since then, trying to get answers. They want to know, at the very least, if it’s genetic so they can protect Penn. 

And now, a team that is hungry to redeem itself and a little unsure how you move on after losing a loved one, will try to navigate a basketball season. But the gift that Stuen left them is a coach never better prepared to lead them. 

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

— Luke 15 (Parable of the Lost Sheep)

Pierre read that Bible verse at the celebration of life for Stuen. He says it’s a story that represents his friend so well. He was always looking for someone he could help. In college, Stuen would occasionally leave his usual crew to go hang out with another teammate because he sensed that player needed someone in his corner that night. 


Ford speaks at Stuen’s memorial service in Chaifetz Arena. (Courtesy of Saint Louis athletics)
Last season, Saint Louis sophomore guard Gibson Jimerson came off the bench for the first time after starting the first 16 games. Jimerson, the team’s best shooter, had been in a shooting slump. In his first game off the bench, he played only 10 minutes and didn’t attempt a shot. He wanted so badly to do well in that game because SLU was playing Richmond, where he’s from.

An hour after Jimerson left the gym that night, his phone rang. It was Stuen. They talked for an hour. Jimerson needed to feel some love. He was the lost sheep, and he says Stuen told him that night how much he meant to him. 

“That’s who he was,” Pierre says. “He would give himself away without caring what he got in return, without expecting anything in return.”

Forte has to stop himself sometimes when he picks up his iPhone, pulls up his favorites and his thumb goes right to Stuen. He sits now in his friend’s seat as an assistant coach at Saint Louis. He wishes his buddy could help guide him through how to deal with it all. He would have had the answers. They talked every day. About basketball. About life. It’s hard not to hit that button and hope he answers.

Forte has been thinking about funerals a lot lately. Everyone gets together. They reminisce about the good times they had with the deceased. They talk about how he’s gone too soon. And then they go back to their lives. They move forward. 

Forte could have gone back to his life when Stuen died. He was just weeks into a new job as an assistant coach at Texas-Rio Grande Valley. It may have been easier to just stay there and lose himself in the work. But sometimes what’s easy isn’t what’s right, and sometimes what’s hard is what you actually need. Sometimes the funeral cannot just be an end.

“For these people here,” Forte says, “it’s still going on, and we’re still going through it and I get to be with those people.” 

That’s what feels right, but again, it’s not easy. Forte feels Stuen every single day. The reminders are everywhere in this office. In the filing cabinet to his left are scouting reports prepared by Stuen that Forte will use this year. On the bulletin board behind him is a paper with Billikens letterhead pinned up. Stuen’s favorite slogan — “THE JOURNEY IS THE REWARD” — is written in the center with his initials underneath. He brings in players to watch film just like his buddy would, flipping from clip to clip on a remote with “STUEN” written on a yellow post-it note tapped to the back.

“There’s times I wrestle, just, I want to get it out of here, like I don’t want to think about it,” Forte says. “But I want to make sure I make him proud too.”

Even in the moments when Ford has thought he could just get lost in his work, something or someone reminds him of his nephew. This summer, coaches kept approaching Ford at recruiting events to give their condolences and tell him that they’d talk to Stuen all the time or they’d received a letter from him. Ford never knew about the letter writing because it wasn’t something Stuen advertised.

“I had no idea how many relationships he had,” Ford says. 

Stuen put time into every relationship. Joe Schwartz, a former walk-on at Texas, met Stuen at mid-court before a game against Oklahoma State his freshman year in 2015. Stuen made it a point to keep in touch, whether it was phone calls or letters. When Schwartz graduated in 2019 and was trying to find a job, Stuen would call him every day to check in and eventually offered him a GA spot at Saint Louis. When Schwartz got an internship opportunity with the New Orleans Pelicans, Stuen told him he should take it.

A year later after COVID hit, Schwartz lost his job, and there was Stuen calling twice a week to check in and connecting him with friends in several industries, hoping it would lead to his next opportunity. Schwartz ended up taking a coaching job at his old high school in Waco, Texas, and when the varsity head coach caught COVID, Schwartz was elevated to the end of the bench. Stuen would have him call every Friday night after the game, wanting a recap. 

“This was private school basketball in Waco, Texas, and he’s calling me, as a D-1 coach, whether they’re on the road for a game or whatnot,” Schwartz says. “He’s asking me about stats. He’s like, who played well? and all this stuff. I’m just like, dude, it’s not that serious. But it just showed how much he cared everyone around him. The things that were important to him weren’t about him.”

Sam Frayer, who was a graduate assistant at Xavier the last two years, met Stuen for the first time at the 2018 Final Four in San Antonio. Soon after, he got his first of several letters from Stuen. “I don’t even know how he found my address,” Frayer says. 

Stuen would call regularly to check in, and Frayer had him on as a guest to his podcast in February. Stuen, of course, sent a letter right after. 

“He’d literally just like call you for nothing, and just talk, and a lot of us don’t do that,” Frayer says. “I don’t do that. I’d always think I was busy, and he was an assistant coach and I was just a support staff guy. And then having someone in a higher position write you a letter and actually put a meaningful message in it. That meant a lot to me, and I never got to tell him that.”

If you had a basketball question, you called Stuen. If your girlfriend broke up with you, you called Stuen. If you needed to put a loss in perspective, no one was better. When Ford lost his job at Oklahoma State and Pierre’s father, his top assistant, was also fired for the first time in his life, Pierre called Stuen and he helped him through it. 

“He’s just one of those guys you can count on,” Pierre says. “People miss him so much because he was there for everybody, and he was present. He wasn’t just like, oh, I’m here. Like, he was present. I think what I miss most about him is the ability to come to him freely was unmatched. Never cared about what you did or didn’t do, just wanted to help you through it. I loved him for that.”

“There’s these little times when I go to call him,” Forte says, staring down at his right wrist where Stuen’s initials are tattooed and he wears a bracelet with Stuen’s mantra inscribed. “Anytime I was going in the car early in the morning and not many people are up, we’d call and just kind of talk about whatever was going on. That’s the hard part. I don’t have that person to talk to. It’s like losing your significant other. I mean we talked every single day. And he’s gone. It’s hard. It doesn’t seem real.”

Sometime in 2015, Oklahoma State sports information director Stephen Howard walked into the locker room before practice one day and found Stuen belting out Adele’s “Someone Like You” as he put his socks on. It’s the perfect image of Stuen, looking good and so comfortable in his own skin. He had style, and he always dressed for success. He was a sneaker head, and when SLU players are asked about him, they always bring up his fashion. He loved suits. Two years ago he went overseas to recruit and realized he could buy one of his favorite brands for half price across the pond. He didn’t have any room in his bag, so he ended up carrying six suits through security. It’s one of those “only Ford” moments. 

Behind the scenes at SLU, Stuen worked tirelessly with a level of dedication that even surpassed what his uncle knew. When Ford was cleaning out Stuen’s desk, he found detailed notes from their practices that he didn’t know existed. Stuen was always thinking about what he could do to make the team better.

The Billikens players looked at him as their connection to Ford. “He kept his uncle in check,” fourth-year sophomore Fred Thatch says. “We could talk to him, and he’d directly go talk to Coach. He didn’t have that fear in his belly.”

The players miss that connection. Stuen wasn’t much older than them. They felt like he got them. He was like their big brother.  

“He was great at listening,” Thatch says. “He really cared about the relationship we had. He always made me feel better. If I was having a bad day, he found a way to make my day a little bit better.” 

A day before this season’s first practice, Ford met with his captains. They talked about how they need to be more open with each other. Ford wants to make sure he works on those relationships. It’s one of the gifts his nephew left him.  

“When you go through things like this, you hear it a lot that it puts things in perspective,” Ford says. “And I always used to think, ‘Yeah that’s what everybody says.’ But it really does. It really does. It doesn’t mean that I want to win any less or I’m not going to compete the same. But it’s made me a little bit deeper thinker as far as understanding that my job is to impact these young kids’ lives. Yes, I’m trying to win every game. But I think I’m a little bit more patient and just looking at the big picture and wanting my players to have the experience of a lifetime.” 


Stuen always tried to dress for success during his time as a Billikens assistant coach. (Courtesy of Saint Louis athletics)
Ford still struggles with trying to deal with whether everything was done that could have been done to save his nephew. It’s easy to go down that road and get stuck there. He had put off cleaning out Stuen’s office this summer. It was just another reminder he was gone. Once he finally went in to do it late one night, he just sat in his Stuen’s chair motionless for a while. Finally, after he’d called his wife and told her “I don’t know if I can do this,” he convinced himself to start. 

“It was therapeutic,” he says. 

It was like Stuen could reach his uncle through the notes he left behind. The people whom he meets now who tell stories about Stuen and what he meant to them make him realize his impact. 

“God had a plan for him to live 29 years,” Ford says. “I do believe that. He touched a lot of people, and he got a lot done. He did a lot in his 29 years. Very rarely did Ford ever say, ‘I wish I’d done that.’ If he wanted to do something, he’d go do it. He wouldn’t talk about it. He’d go do it.”

Forte’s daily battle is trying to feel worthy of sitting in his friend’s seat. A few weeks ago, the Billikens went into their locker room to watch film, and Forte was standing in-between two chairs in the center of the room. “That’s Little Ford’s spot,” one of the players told him. Forte quickly moved to the back corner. “Man,” he says, “I don’t deserve to be there yet.” 

He knows he’ll never replace his friend, but he wants to be there for the people who were important to Stuen. That’s ultimately why he agreed to take Stuen’s old job at Saint Louis. Eventually, he’ll earn the trust of the players and be their sounding board and the guy to pick them up when they need it. He also wants to be the one to teach Penn how to shoot a jump shot. 

Last Friday, Penn attended his first practice. Ford expects he’ll be a frequent visitor, just like he’d been if his dad were still around. Ford plans to be there for the boy whenever he needs him. Forte too.

At the end of practice, Courtney held the baby at mid-court with Ford on one side and Forte on the other, surrounded by the Billiken players looking dotingly at the boy. “I got goosebumps,” Forte says. “It was emotional but in a good way.”

Someone sent Forte an image afterward, zoomed in on his face. He’s leaning his head, eyes locked in on Penn and he’s smiling. He looks like a proud father. A year earlier he was standing next to Stuen as the best man in his wedding. He misses him dearly every day. Everyone in the program does. But, in that moment, they all felt warmth in their hearts again.

The journey is the reward.

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