FOR A few seconds each Sunday, he runs past the moving vans,
cuts through the courtrooms, shakes off the temporary
injunctions and steamrollers Art Modell on his way into the end
zone. He plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but when rookie
Kordell Stewart touches the ball, the whole country stands and
cheers as if each point he scores strikes a blow against seat
licenses, $350 Super Bowl tickets and Houston Oiler owner Bud
Adams's hair. In an otherwise dark NFL season, number 10 in
black and gold is a small flicker of fireworks.
"He's bubbly, he's enthusiastic, he's bright-eyed," says Steeler
coach Bill Cowher. "I think anyone who spends any time with
Kordell will walk away thinking, Isn't it refreshing to see a
player like that in the National Football League?"
Stewart has a quarterback's number, a special-teamer's heart and
a nickname even Art Donovan can love. Cowher dubbed Stewart, who
was Pittsburgh's second-round selection in last spring's draft,
"Slash" because Stewart is a quarterback/runner/receiver. Of
course, Slash also describes what Stewart, who is 6'1" and a
wrought-iron 212, often does when he gets his hands on the ball.
This season he has seven carries for 53 yards. He has completed
three of four passes for 19 yards, including a two-yard
touchdown, and has caught seven for 170 yards and a 71-yard
score. He has touched the ball at least once in each of the
Steelers' last six games, and Pittsburgh has won them all,
including a 21-7 home win over the Oilers on Sunday.
The NFL had better hurry up and pass a rule against this kind of
thing or Stewart might start a trend. "I'm just having a lot of
fun right now," he says. "I'll play whatever position they want
me to play, and I'll take the ball whenever they want to give it
December 11, 1995
When he finished his eligibility at Colorado last year, Stewart
told NFL scouts that he was a quarterback and only a
quarterback. He even hired Leigh Steinberg, the agent whose
clients include 23 NFL quarterbacks and who says that
Stewart--who was the 60th pick overall--could have been selected
in the first round had he agreed to switch positions. No deal.
Stewart refused to give up his dream of playing quarterback in
the pros. The Steelers grabbed him late in the second round,
gave him jersey number 10 and let him be a quarterback.
Unfortunately for Stewart, they let him be the fourth-string
quarterback. Most teams don't even have one of those. Going into
the season Pittsburgh had veteran Neil O'Donnell as the starter
and another veteran, Mike Tomczak, as his backup. Second-year
man Jim Miller was No. 3.
Stewart, 23, spent the season opener, a 23-20 win over the
Detroit Lions, in street clothes, and after O'Donnell was
injured in that game, Stewart suited up the next four weeks as
the third quarterback, clipboard in hand, waiting for an
emergency. He played not a single down.
By the seventh game of the season, the wide receiver position
began to look more inviting to Stewart. On Oct. 19, in a 27-9
loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Stewart lined up at wideout for
three plays but didn't touch the ball. He had two carries from
quarterback in a 24-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars the
following week, and then he had a catch and a carry in a 37-34
win over the Bears at Chicago. In his fourth game, at home
against the Cleveland Browns on Monday night, Nov. 13, the folk
hero was born. Stewart ran twice for 13 yards, had two catches
for 21 at wideout and completed the first pass of his NFL
career. Somewhere Sammy Baugh was smiling. Stewart left the fans
talking about something very exciting and unusual this NFL
season: football. It had been too long.
Hey, Jerry. Sue this.
Each week Cowher and his offensive coaches spend a few minutes
drawing up a couple of plays for Stewart. They don't actually
scratch the plays into a patch of dirt with a Popsicle stick. It
only seems that way. When Stewart plays quarterback, O'Donnell
lines up at wideout (if he left the game and was replaced by the
third quarterback before the fourth quarter, he would not be
allowed to return), though Cowher is not expecting to discover
another pass-catching gem among his quarterbacks. "Kordell is a
slash," says Cowher. "Neil, he's just a quarterback."
O'Donnell, 29, will also be a free agent at the end of the
season, and the Steelers may be unwilling to break the bank for
him. Tomczak is 33, and Miller is a sixth-round draft choice
whose only professional action came with the Frankfurt Galaxy of
the World League last season. Stewart concedes that he is not
yet ready to play quarterback in the NFL but says he will spend
the off-season in Pittsburgh, studying the offense and working
to remove the slash from his job description.
"I'm convinced I can play quarterback in this league, but I also
know it's not my time," says Stewart. "It's a very tough thing
to come into this league and play quarterback right away."
Although quarterback is the position Stewart has played at every
level of his football life, it's a position that many observers
have said he would not be good enough to play in the pros. They
said it even while he was breaking most of the passing records
at Colorado. He threw a ball 73 yards in the air to beat
Michigan last year, and still they questioned his ability. On
the physical tests he knocked them dead at the scouting
combines. Still, there were doubts.
He was fast, strong and athletic, and surely someone in the NFL
would stick his stats into a computer and decide that he was
better suited for wide receiver, defensive back, punt returner.
Even now, while he flourishes as the Steelers' Swiss Army knife,
the question torments Stewart: Were they right? Is he not quite
up to playing quarterback in the pros? He was a superb college
passer in a one-back passing offense, but now he is running
options and playing wideout and blocking downfield. He promised
himself he wouldn't let this happen, but it did.
"I just don't know why a quarterback has to be 6'8" and 230
pounds, with blond hair and blue eyes," he says. "A team will
invest in someone like that and say that he's going to be its
quarterback six years down the road. But why can't a team do
that with a guy who is 6'1" and black? People still think a
black guy isn't going to be a smart quarterback, and that's b.s.
People have said to me, 'Once they move you to wide receiver,
they won't let you play quarterback again.' Well, I will do all
I can to play quarterback again."
Cowher treads lightly when the subject turns to Stewart's
future. He didn't even approach Stewart about trying a new job
until wide receiver Johnnie Barnes went down with a knee injury
after the third game of the season. Cowher had seen Stewart run
a few patterns in practice and asked him if he would like to
catch some balls for real. Stewart was excited but apprehensive.
Was this to be the end of his quarterback career?
Says Steinberg, "We had a long discussion, and finally he said,
'My team needs me, and it's better than standing on the
sidelines.' The Steelers assured us that Kordell's future was
still as a quarterback."
Last week Cowher didn't sound as if he were ready to let Stewart
excuse himself from the wide receiver meetings just yet. When
asked if he thought Stewart had a future as a quarterback,
Cowher said simply, "I think he has a future as a
quarterback-slash-receiver." Cowher is extremely proud of that
nickname. Maybe he just doesn't want Stewart to lose it.
"Actually, I'm Slash Junior," says Stewart. "Slash Senior is
down in Louisiana. He's a barber-slash-house painter-slash-
carpenter. He does more things than I do, believe me."
Robert Stewart is like everyone else with a TV and an interest
in the NFL. He is getting quite a kick out of the phenomenon who
happens to be the youngest of his three children. Robert has a
small barbershop in Marrero, La., and he also runs a
home-remodeling business, offering everything from wallpapering
to building additions. Kordell learned barbering from his
father, and now, says Robert, "he does it better than me."
Kordell cut the hair of many of his Colorado teammates, but as
yet he has not set up a chair in the Steeler locker room.
"Probably doesn't want anyone to know," says Robert. "They'll
never leave him alone. He's real good."
Kordell was 11 when he lost his mother, Florence, to liver
cancer, and he says his childhood ended soon thereafter. Robert,
whose father died of a heart attack when he was 13, got his
first job--selling old newspapers to an animal hospital in New
Orleans--when he was 11. He grew up fast and thought his son
should do the same. "From the time my mother passed on, my
father treated me like a man," says Kordell. "As I look back, I
think I needed that discipline. Things got pretty rough down
where I live, and I have to thank Daddy for keeping me in line.
One of my goals is to get him out of that neighborhood and move
him out into the country."
A cousin was shot to death in New Orleans while Kordell was away
at school in Colorado. A number of his hometown friends have
turned to drugs and violence, he says, but he was always too
busy playing football. "The worst thing he ever did," Robert
says of Kordell, "was come home at five after 12 when I told him
to be home at 12."
At Colorado, Stewart came under the tutelage of several
accomplished offensive coaches, including Gary Barnett, who is
now the coach at Northwestern, and Rick Neuheisel, now the
Buffaloes' coach, who was his favorite, though Stewart only
spent one year at his knee. "If I'd had [Neuheisel] since my
freshman year, I would have gone in the first round," says
Stewart. "He taught me about coverages and gave me confidence."
Stewart believes that his experience as a receiver and a runner
will make him better at quarterback when he finally returns to
full-time duty there. It already has boosted his popularity in
the Steeler locker room, largely because he has shown the guts
to go after a ball over the middle, the standard measure of a
Stewart says there is only one thing he won't do for the
Steelers--turn in his number. He wore number 10 in college, and
he intends to stay number 10. The league, of course, does not
take lightly any violation of its sacred numerical system. A
receiver, who should wear a number between 80 and 89, starts
wearing a quarterback's number (1-19), and the next thing you
know, there's a bandanna on his head and his shirttails are
hanging out--in a word, anarchy.
Back in October the Steelers began to sense that Slashmania was
spreading when they received their first complaint from the
league. It seems some other teams were concerned that Pittsburgh
was breaking the rules by using its third quarterback at another
position. This, of course, never happened with Stewart. He only
saw action after he was added to the active, 45-man roster, and
he was listed as a quarterback/receiver because, well, that's
what he was. "The league said we should list him as a wide
receiver, and they wanted to know why we didn't give him a wide
receiver's number," says Steeler director of football operations
Tom Donahoe. "We weren't doing anything wrong. We just thought
it was fun for us, and fun for the fans."
Fun for the team, fun for the fans. What a strange concept.
Somebody had better sue before this gets out of hand.