It is early August in Latrobe, Pa., and there is nowhere else
Kordell Stewart would rather be. Others may consider two-a-days
in near triple-digit temperatures to be the equivalent of
football hell, but not Stewart. He knows better. He just did his
time in football hell, and as he recalls, it was much hotter than
Stewart was in Three Rivers Stadium last December when the boos
and beer came pouring down on his head, and it felt as if the
whole, hard town of Pittsburgh had turned on him. His passing
touch abandoned him and, shortly thereafter, so did many of his
fans. "When all that crazy stuff happened, it broke my spirit to
a degree," says Stewart. "I just don't understand the booing. To
me, booing means you suck. Well, I don't suck. I've done some
good things in this city, and I went through some growing pains.
I would hope people could understand that."
Last year Stewart suffered through the worst of his four
seasons, throwing only 11 touchdowns, running for just two
touchdowns and tossing 18 interceptions. Slash crashed--he was
benched twice as the Steelers lost their last five games,
falling to 7-9 and missing the playoffs for the first time since
1991. The Stewart-led offense scored only one touchdown in the
final four games, and Stewart's quarterback rating dropped to
62.9, sixth worst in the NFL.
On Dec. 6, after an ugly 23-9 loss to the New England Patriots
at Three Rivers, one disgruntled patron dumped his beverage on
Stewart's head as the quarterback exited the field. "That messes
with your pride, man," Stewart says. "That makes you feel like
an animal in a cage. Why did the guy do it? Because I didn't
play a good game? It's a game, man. It's not that important. I
guess if you don't play well, you let your enemies in. That's
what happened to me."
At the same time, he found out who his friends were, and coach
Bill Cowher and the Steelers' front office were at the top of
the list. Despite the 26-year-old quarterback's abysmal play,
the organization showed faith in him. Cowher fired offensive
coordinator Ray Sherman and hired a replacement who could
restore Stewart's confidence as well as refine his mechanics. He
may have found the perfect man in Kevin Gilbride, who has one
thing in common with Stewart: He spent time in football hell
himself last season. One Chicago scribe wrote that bringing in
Gilbride to work with Stewart was like sending "the Lusitania to
rescue the Titanic." Gilbride was fired as coach of the San
Diego Chargers only six games into the '98 season, just his
second at the helm. He had made his name as a tutor for some of
the game's top passers, including Warren Moon in Houston and
Mark Brunell in Jacksonville, but in San Diego the skids were
greased for Gilbride by wayward rookie Ryan Leaf, the Chargers'
first-round pick. Leaf had the worst quarterback rating in the
NFL and by all accounts was even less focused off the field than
on. "It was a shame," says Gilbride of his San Diego experience.
"We were building something. We had a great offensive line and
the best defense in the league. We just didn't get good
quarterback play. I wasn't teaching the quarterbacks last year.
June Jones was my quarterbacks coach, and he is very capable.
But I was the head coach."
With a nudge from Gilbride, Stewart has turned last year's
nightmare into prime motivational material for '99. "Of course
you have a redemption thing going on here," says Stewart. "When
you don't perform as well as you should, it hurts. So you run
harder, lift harder, work harder. That's just the
competitiveness in me."
"The timing was perfect for me," says Gilbride, "because Kordell
is a great competitor who is eager to show everyone that last
year was an aberration."
Last season Slash clashed with Sherman, who had come from the
Minnesota Vikings to replace Chan Gailey after Gailey became
coach of the Dallas Cowboys in February '98. "In defense of
Coach Sherman, he was asked to run an offense that he had no
idea how to run," says Stewart. "Ron Erhardt put that offense
in, and then Chan Gailey learned under him. Then Chan left, and
they bring in [Sherman] and tell him to run the offense the way
we did the year before, when we went to the AFC Championship
Game. That would be hard for anyone. One good thing about Coach
Gilbride is he's coming in with his offense, at least as far as
the passing game is concerned."
Gilbride's offense will require Stewart to make more snap
decisions, find more second and third receivers, study more,
learn more, retain more and dedicate himself more. That's fine
with Stewart. "He's totally receptive," says Gilbride. "He's
like, What do you want me to do? I just want to get better,
In Pittsburgh's preseason opener last Friday, a 30-23 win over
the Bears, Stewart played just the first quarter and didn't miss
a throw, completing 5 of 5 for 76 yards and one touchdown. He
wasn't quite perfect, though. "He did everything right except
for a naked bootleg," says Gilbride. "He got sloppy on his
reads. But that's my job--I've to get him to stay disciplined."
Stewart spent the last three quarters on the sideline, baseball
cap on backward, rain jacket pulled up against a nasty
thunderstorm, smiling and chatting with Gilbride.
Just after midnight last Saturday, Stewart popped his head into
the coaches' office to congratulate his offensive coordinator
for putting together the winning game plan for the first
preseason game, leaving Gilbride with a smile wider than the
Monongahela. "Can you believe this kid?" said Gilbride, nodding
toward the door as Stewart skipped down the hallway. "That's why
I jumped at this job. I had other opportunities, but I like
teaching quarterbacks--and this kid wants to learn."
After looking at videotape from last year, Gilbride concluded
that Stewart's problems were mostly in his head. "I saw a guy
who was unsure of himself and had lost a lot of his swagger,"
says the coach. "If anything, he was more talented than I
thought he was." Stewart was a Pro Bowl alternate in '97, when
he threw for 3,020 yards and 21 touchdowns. "He's got a cannon
for an arm," Gilbride says. "He's a very accurate passer. He can
run. I think maybe because things came so easily to him, he's
never had to commit to the mental preparation that it takes to
be an elite quarterback. I think he's beginning to understand
the level of commitment it takes in this league."
The Steelers' commitment to Stewart didn't end with the
recruitment of Gilbride. On April 17 Pittsburgh grabbed
Louisiana Tech wide receiver Troy Edwards with the 13th pick in
the draft, the earliest the Steelers had taken a wideout since
1971. Five days later, while Pittsburgh talk-show callers
continued to debate Stewart's ability to lead the team, the
Steelers' front office left no doubt where it stood on the
subject, signing Stewart to a five-year, $27 million extension
that included an $8.1 million signing bonus. Slash cashed in.
Says director of football operations Tom Donohoe, "It's so
difficult to find a good Number 1 quarterback, and we felt like
we had one in Kordell. He went through a difficult season, but so
did a lot of people on our team. He went through some growing
pains, but a lot of quarterbacks do in their second or third
year. You can look it up."
Indeed, as Stewart's agent, Leigh Steinberg, was quick to remind
Pittsburgh, John Elway, Brett Favre and Steve Young all struggled
in their early NFL years. Guys get benched. They get booed. It
happens to the best. The one thing the greats have rarely done in
NFL annals is cry. On the sidelines. On camera. For Stewart, that
may turn out to be the hardest image to erase from his nightmare
On Dec. 13, after Cowher benched Stewart in the third quarter
against the Buccaneers in Tampa, the quarterback and the coach
exchanged heated words on the sideline. Stewart then moved off
alone and appeared to cry. No big deal if you are a political
candidate looking to close the gender gap, but not great p.r. for
someone trying to carry on a quarterback tradition begun by the
tough-as-nails Terry Bradshaw. Before a tear hit the ground, fans
back in Pittsburgh were asking if the kid was rugged enough to
wear the same uniform Jack Lambert wore. Some also raised
questions about his sexual preference.
"Reporters were talking crazy, people on the street were talking
crazy," says Stewart. "From the rumors about my private life to
the beer [being spilled on me] to all the other crazy stuff, I
guess that's what happens when you're in a city like Pittsburgh
and you play for the Steelers. I never forget that the word fan
comes from fanatic. Some people just take things too seriously."
As he was introduced last Friday night, Stewart ran under the
goalpost to a loud ovation that eventually became louder with
each completion. This time there was no beer, no boos. Just the
unconditional love of Steelers fans, the kind of love that is
sure to last until his next interception. "As soon as I start
doing my job and we start winning again, they'll love me again,"
says Stewart. "You watch. They'll be high-fiving me and calling
takes," says Gilbride.