SOUTH SHORE — Howard Buttner’s grandson was playing at a park last week in Marshall, Missouri, when he found an intricately engraved ring near a baseball diamond.
At first, Buttner thought the 1994 championship ring belonged to an alumnus of nearby Boonville High School, since the school’s colors are blue and white, and the ring has a shiny blue stone.
Buttner’s co-worker, Blake Oswald, a former all-district football player for Boonville High, knew better.
“Boonville football sucked between 1974 and 1998, so it definitely wasn’t a Boonville championship ring,” Oswald said.
Through online sleuthing, Oswald discovered the ring came from a university and tracked down the owner from more than 400 miles away: LaVonté Stewart, a South Shore resident and founder of the nonprofit Lost Boyz Inc.
For Stewart, the ring showcases a high point in life: the fruits of his hard work as a Hampton University football player. The ring’s decades-long disappearance also reminds Stewart of the lows of his being incarcerated and having the ring stolen, which followed his football success.
The lost ring “represents such a negative point in my life and such a pivotal point,” Stewart said. “I always said that I want to come back and show that place who the f— I became later on in life, in spite of what it did to me.”
‘That Ring Was The Most Important Thing’
Following a multi-sport career at South Shore High School and other Chicago public schools, Stewart was recruited to play football for Hampton University in Virginia. Hampton’s mascot and colors are the same as Boonville High’s.
Stewart started the 1994 season ranked 16th on the defensive backs’ depth chart but worked his way up to second by season’s end — which saw the undersized cornerback win the Black national championship with the university.
Though Stewart graduated high school with honors, he was dismissed from Hampton because of academic trouble following the title season, he said. He transferred to Missouri Valley College.
The move from a historically Black university to a small liberal arts college was fraught. Local residents and police didn’t like the Black kid from Chicago who drove his friends around town in a ’75 Cadillac with Dayton wire wheels, Stewart said.
Tensions came to a head when a friend accused white kids of harassing her and insulting her with racial slurs.
Stewart went to the kids’ home to tell their parents, but the parents became aggressive and also used racist slurs, he said. Infuriated, he returned with a scoped rifle, Stewart said.
“My intent was not to go hurt anybody,” Stewart said. “I just wanted to Chicago-style prove a point that I’m a tough guy and they weren’t scaring anybody.”
Stewart said he shot in the air six times with no one around, for which he pled guilty to charges of assault and committing a crime with a weapon. The incident landed him in prison for nearly five years.
He accepts responsibility for his actions and said his “wild” behavior as a college student would have gotten him in trouble eventually.
But Stewart still believes he was “railroaded,” with charges also being pressed against his friends on the scene in an effort to flip them against him, he said. He didn’t want to fight an indefinite legal battle — nor did he trust a local jury to take his side — so he took the plea deal.
While Stewart was incarcerated, so-called friends in Missouri looted his apartment of valuables, he said. The most precious loss was his Hampton championship ring.
“That ring was the most important thing I had besides my Cadillacs,” Stewart said. “The people that were supposed to be my little friends at that time were the ones that ended up pillaging all my private property until my parents got there.”
Returning The Ring
The ring’s whereabouts were unknown for more than two decades until Buttner’s grandson stumbled upon it in the park. Buttner brought it to Oswald and “wanted to know if anyone in Boonville was missing a championship ring,” Oswald said.
After determining the ring was actually from Hampton University, Oswald tracked down as much information on its football team as he could online.
The security professional and boy’s basketball coach found LaVonté was the only Stewart playing for Hampton in 1994.
Further research led Oswald to the Facebook page for Lost Boyz Inc. Staffers quickly connected the two, and Stewart identified his prized ring based on decades-old memories.
Stewart and the Lost Boyz kids had planned a group trip to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Missouri this week, so they arranged to meet up during the trip.
Oswald brought the ring to Marshall Junction Sunday and learned more about Stewart’s story.
Even before hearing the painful details behind Stewart’s time in Missouri, Oswald didn’t think twice about returning the ring to its owner.
“Not many people can say they’re national champs at anything,” he said. “I understand what those mementos mean to somebody.”
Oswald is happy to have met a new friend, and he is still in shock over being involved in a situation seemingly ripped from a movie script, he said.
“One ripple in the water goes until the end of the lake or river, and one good deed can affect so many people,” Oswald said. “I hope that’s what this does. I hope this reaches a lot of people [and inspires them] to take that extra time and do a good deed for somebody. It’s going to affect more than what you realize.”
The timing is serendipitous, even beyond the fact that the discovery came so close to the Lost Boyz’ Missouri trip. Stewart has hit a rough patch in his personal life. He worries he was scammed out of money when he recently pursued a bigger home for his family.
The ring’s return serves as a needed diversion and a sign of “forgiveness from God for my past living,” Stewart said. “It’s a way of bringing me back to what’s important, and keeping what’s important in front of me.
“The ring brings it all full circle and God is absolutely sitting smack-dab in the middle of it.”
He’s saving the ring, he said, so his sons one day can pass it on.
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