Goodbye to William Stiveson: devoted father, grandfather, educator, Catholic and…devout football fan.
It was late-August of 1992. “Uncle” Bill Stiveson was my high school’s vice principal. I was the incoming student body president. Early one morning, a few weeks before the start of school, I was down at his office working on something for the first assembly and he was there mostly shuffling papers in between two-a-days football practice.
Though he was a devout Catholic, a tireless family man and an intrepid educator, Stiveson’s mind was never far from football. His gaze— admirable in its heavy-lidded hint of aristocracy—was always turned towards the field 200 yards from his office.
He was hurrying through something or other wanting to finish in time to pace around the field and take in the a.m. drills. Hopes were high for the varsity. Our offensive line had already been featured in the local paper, five guys glowering into the lens as only super-sized high school boys can. Two of our defensive ends were heavily scouted by D-1 programs and our skill position players had been together since Pop Warner. They all possessed a kinship that continues off the field today as they raise their children and vacation in Tahoe together.
They were my friends, certainly, but being of 120-pound frame all elbows and knees, I was relegated to the cross country team and the student paper. I was not in that band of brothers.
I’m not inferring that Stiveson resented his time with me; those late-summer prep mornings were mostly reserved for the art of story telling of which we were both well-versed. But there was somewhere he’d have rather been. Ditto. As we wrapped, Stiveson filled a mug from his deskside Mr. Coffee, threw on his Henry Blake-issued fisherman’s cap and readied to scramble across the campus that smelled of thistle, manure and morning dew—and onto the field.
As he got up, the tan phone rang.
His voice raised an octave in elation, as if he was hearing from someone he hadn’t spoken to in awhile. Then, a shadow met his face almost immediately. Stiveson sat once more. He could let conversations linger, so after a minute I packed my things up to go. Then he held up the finger—the one that says, hold on a second.
I slumped back down and watched him age ten years as a man does when he first learns terrible news. His eyes turned toward the ground and his shoulders began to quake.
“OK,” he said, forcing himself to draw a breath. “OK then, I’ll make some calls.”
He put the receiver back on the cradle, gently as if it were made of eggshell, and looked at me. Tears gathered like a serene pool above the falls.
And then, he unleashed.
Stiveson crumpled to the ground and made a sound inhuman. Something between the guttural battle cry of his ancestors and a cat being dumped in a river. His entire body convulsed from the waist up. I stood up and ran into the main part of the office to see if there was any errant staff member checking their mail, but it was empty. I considered dialing 9-1-1.
I peered back into the room and he gestured for me to join him. I sat next to him on the ground, a good foot or two from the reach of his arm. Somehow he grabbed ahold of my hand and pulled me in.
“Pray with me.”
I wasn’t much for church, but knew enough to know that Stiveson went to Our Lady of Loretto most Sundays—most other days too. He heaved out a handful of incomplete sentences about Jesus helping Mike and Mother Mary helping Mike and then Mary and Joseph helping Mike. I smiled in spite of my better judgement the unintentional way you do when faced with the gravest of circumstances. I also wondered if he was going to go down the list of every Apostle to help Mike.
Who was this Mike?
Oh shit, I thought. His son’s name is Mike. Oh no. Oh no no no no no.
Stiveson gathered himself and turned his eyes toward the pock-marked ceiling with the mysterious brown ring and inhaled just enough to belt out The Lord’s Prayer in one breath. Then again. Then again. I murmured it with him the fourth time as he squeezed my hand.
Then, still with a vice grip on my sharp fingers, we prayed together—in silence. I wondered for a moment if we were going to be in there all year. Me and Bill Stiveson, praying away my senior homecoming and ditch day and prom and baccalaureate and grad night. But finally, he let go.
He turned to me and thanked me. “God Bless you son,” he said. “…Make sure when you see your friends today—do your best to give them your best. Because nobody will ever tell you when it’s the last time.”
With that I excused myself and got up, still assuming the worst had happened.
He cleared his throat.
“Mike Wise was a student here,” he said. “A giant. A gentle, wonderful, smart man. He and his friends reminded me of you guys. He played for the Raiders and had some problems last year. They found him dead in his house. They think he did it.”
I breathed out a little relief. For some reason knowing that it was a former student—not his son—put me at ease for a moment. I came in for his embrace and he smelled grandfatherly. Stale coffee and pipe tobacco and a sweater that’s been hiding in the back of the closet. For some reason, I wasn’t the first to let go.
Mike Wise, 28, had played five years in the NFL after graduating from UC Davis. He was known as a poet, a physicist—a genial, happy guy off the field. Toward the dusk of his professional career, he began to have altercations with teammates and coaches and threatened to sue Raiders owner Al Davis.
This was the early ‘90s when a football player’s erratic behavior, depression or anxiety was either suppressed from public view or dismissed as a one-off, a bad seed. Since then, Wise has become one of the handful early indicators that brain damage or CTE, combined with PTSD can be a lethal cocktail for many who grew up bashing skulls in the trenches.
Novato is no professional football incubator the likes of Grand Rapids, Michigan or Plano, Texas, but a NFL player or coach or three at any given time coming out of San Marin High School is not unusual. My first step on campus freshman year, I thought I was walking into the NFL combine. And the names Muster, Carolan, LaBounty and McCoy still whisper through the stand of oak which bisects campus. Even if football were to blame for Mike Wise’s early demise, it was left unsaid and the game played on.
My class obliged and perhaps cushioned the blow a little for Stiveson—winning the league and the North Coast championship that fall. I remember watching Stiveson take his place in the center of the victory photo, flanked by my buddies and the coaching staff. It was a glorious, vindicating moment for him.
…It’d been nearly a decade since I heard from Stiveson after graduation and once again it was a life cut short that brought us together. A member of that championship team and one of my closest friends, Paul Sloan, went on to play offensive line at Brown and get a job in finance in Lower Manhattan. Paul was killed in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Three weeks after his death, I got up to eulogize him in front of a standing-room-only crowd at St. Vincent’s Catholic Church. The view was staggering. I estimated less than a third of the people there actually knew Paul. Many were there to do something for their country, hearts still heavy in the aftermath of the unimaginable.
I cleared my throat and tried to observe the individual faces in the crowd, to separate those contorted with grief from those just there for show. After a quick survey, the first thought that came to mind was how many young women were out there, crying for Paul. It was a who’s who of the girls we’d had crushes on growing up—the same girls who didn’t really talk to us or consider us much. And now they were all here, in one place. Man, would Paul be pissed.
Once again, I smiled in spite of my better judgement the unintentional way you do when faced with the gravest of circumstances. Then my eyes met a familiar set locked on me from one of the back pews. It was Bill Stiveson. I remembered how he never used to raise his voice at assembly. He simply gazed onto the blurry sea of faces and waited. He waited until each met his eyes back. And then he spoke.
I breathed in deep and waited for my moment.
Finally, I cleared my throat:
“A wise man once told me: Make sure when you see your friends today—do your best to give them your best. Because nobody will ever tell you when it’s the last time…”
Goodbye Uncle Bill. God Bless you.
William Michael Stiveson, 80, died peacefully at home on Sept. 1, 2015 after a brief bout with cancer. He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Dixie M. Stiveson, daughter Laurie, daughter Tracie (Richard), son Michael (Angela) and four grandchildren. His funeral will take place on 11 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9 at Our Lady of Loretto Catholic Church in Novato. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be sent to the American Cancer Society and Hospice by the Bay,