In Control Kordell Stewart demanded his coach's support and excelled when he got it, but can he lead the Steelers to a title? That's one of several big questions as the playoffs begin

January 14, 2002

You can shred your way down virtual ski runs, throw real punches
at simulated Mike Tysons or gun down a gang of video villains.
You can even get a decent quesadilla at Dave & Buster's, the
arcade-and-restaurant chain whose branch in the Homestead
section of Pittsburgh is a few miles east of the Steelers'
training facility. But last Friday afternoon, in the midst of
such sensory overload, all anyone in the joint wanted to do was
lavish affection on the smiling man in the brown hooded Sean
John sweatshirt. Though Steelers Pro Bowl quarterback Kordell
Stewart has never been comfortable with his celebrity, he gladly
spent a half hour charming old ladies, kissing babies and posing
for photos with fawning waitresses. It sure beat the
alternative, reasoned Stewart, who's more aware than most
athletes of fame's harsh side. "You could be doing this," he
said, "or you could be back at the crib waiting for Pop Tarts to
come out of the toaster, because you don't want to leave the
house. I've been that guy, bro, and it's not easy."

As difficult as it was for most Pittsburgh fans--hell, most
football fans--to envision barely six months ago, Stewart is the
toast of Steeltown. He's the unquestioned leader of the AFC's
best team, which closed out its regular season on Sunday with a
28-7 victory over the Cleveland Browns at snowy Heinz Field.
Early in the third quarter, as Stewart jogged to the sideline
after being pulled from the meaningless game, 59,189 fans gave
him a warm ovation that saluted both his trying four-year journey
back into their good graces and the promise of the immediate
future. In the coming weeks Stewart has a chance to become this
year's Trent Dilfer and answer his critics on the grandest of
American stages. If Stewart, 29, can lead Pittsburgh (13-3) to
its first Super Bowl in six seasons, not to mention its fifth NFL
championship, his legend may swell to Bradshawesque proportions.

He has already won over Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who said
after Sunday's game, "No one can exemplify this team's unselfish
attitude more than Kordell Stewart. I'm sure he'll never forget
some of the things he's had to go through, and I wouldn't wish
them upon anyone, but he's buried the hatchet and handled himself
like the consummate pro. It wasn't easy, but he has won back this
city and this team."

It would be convenient to portray Cowher, one of football's best
coaches, and Stewart, one of the NFL's most exciting performers,
as ideally matched partners. It would also be inaccurate.
Consider that 10 months ago Stewart was holed up in his
off-season home near Atlanta, refusing to return Cowher's calls.
When he finally phoned back, the two men seared the lines,
engaging in what each describes as an emotional three-hour
conversation.

Stewart did most of the talking. He began by giving Cowher a
detailed recounting of all the adversity he had faced since
leading the Steelers to the 1997 AFC Championship Game in his
first season as a starting quarterback. Stewart's dirty-laundry
list included two failed relationships with offensive
coordinators; a switch to wide receiver late in 1998; his loss of
the starting quarterback's job to Kent Graham in a preseason
competition the next year; rumors about his sexual preference;
and a stream of abuse from Steelers fans, one of whom doused him
with beer following a game.

After he vented his frustrations, Stewart, who had gone 19-19 as
a starting quarterback over the previous three seasons, made
demands. "If I throw an interception," he recalls telling Cowher,
"I'm not going to the bench. If I throw an incompletion, I'm not
going to have you screaming at me. Let the outside forces run
their mouths, but inside here, do what's right and let me be the
quarterback of this football team. Let me play the way I know how
to play, and we'll win games."

The Steelers won the AFC in 1995, the season that Cowher turned
Stewart, Pittsburgh's second-round pick from Colorado, into the
triple-threat rookie sensation known as Slash. Two years later,
when Stewart became a full-time quarterback and nearly took the
Steelers to the Super Bowl, he appeared to be the next in line,
after John Elway and Steve Young, as an athletic wonder who
evolved into a champion passer. Then it all came crashing down.
Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey left to become coach of the
Dallas Cowboys, and Stewart didn't hit it off with Gailey's
replacement, Ray Sherman. After '98 Cowher replaced Sherman with
the demanding and volatile Kevin Gilbride, who over the next two
years tried to mold Stewart into a disciplined pocket passer. It
was the worst pairing since Dan Rather and Connie Chung. "Kordell
is a guy you need to talk to, not scream at," says his father,
Robert. "I'm 60 years old, and I've never yelled or cussed at my
son."

"I was miserable the whole time," Kordell says. He accuses
Gilbride of many slights, most of which Gilbride denies.

"Did I push him? Of course," says Gilbride, who has been out of
football since being fired by Cowher after last season, "but he's
the first quarterback I've ever had who resented it. I'm very
proud of the progress he made under my tutelage, and the
foundation that was laid has certainly helped him do what he's
doing this year."

Stewart has no patience with those who portray him as a man
magically transformed by hardship. "I've learned and matured
along the way," he says, "but I didn't turn into a good player
overnight."

Stewart's sensitivity and his low profile off the field made him
seem distant to teammates during his difficult periods.
Moreover, some Steelers admit they were fazed by rumors that
Stewart was gay, until he called a meeting before the 1999
season and issued a denial that included graphic descriptions of
heterosexual acts he enjoys. "I could see the humor in the
situation," Stewart says, "so I decided to have some fun with
it. At one point I said, 'You'd better not leave your
girlfriends around me, because I'm out to prove a point.' A
couple of guys said, 'F--- you, Kordell,' and we all cracked up."

Shedding his resentment of Cowher wasn't so easy. On Dec. 28,
2000, four days after the Steelers completed a 9-7 season and
missed the playoffs for the third straight year, Stewart flew to
Georgia and, he says, "closed myself off from everyone." Though
heartened when Cowher promoted Mike Mularkey, who had been
Pittsburgh's tight ends coach the previous five seasons, to
offensive coordinator and hired Tom Clements to be the Steelers'
first quarterbacks coach in 28 years, Stewart remained aloof. In
March, Jerome Bettis, Pittsburgh's star halfback, flew to Atlanta
and spent two days playing golf with Stewart. "I wanted to see
where his head was," Bettis says. "He was at the end of his rope,
and who could blame him?"

A few days later Mularkey visited and made Stewart feel even more
wanted. "Mike's a very sincere guy," Stewart says. "I had built
up walls as high as the sky and vowed that nobody was going to
tear them down, but Mike did."

Says Mularkey, "He's had to be awfully strong. He's been a
closet sufferer. Or maybe his suffering showed up in some of his
performances."

Shortly thereafter Stewart finally called Cowher, and since their
heart-to-heart the world has become a lot brighter for the
quarterback. Mularkey simplified the offense to suit Stewart's
speed and spontaneity. The Steelers' young wideouts
blossomed--Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress each exceeded 1,000
yards this season, and Bobby Shaw became a potent third-down
threat. Most of all, Stewart stopped trying to be perfect. "He
trusts the people around him now," says tackle Wayne Gandy. "He
knows it's not his game to win; it's his game to help win."

Despite a choppy finish that included six interceptions in his
final two games, Stewart ended the season with impressive stats.
He completed 266 of 442 passes (a career-best 60.2%) for 3,109
yards, with 14 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. He also ran
for 537 yards and five touchdowns on 96 carries. After Bettis
went down with a groin injury in early December, Stewart jacked
up his game a notch, most notably with a superb
performance--completing 20 of 31 passes for 333 yards and two
touchdowns and rushing for 55 yards on 10 carries--in a 26-21
victory over the Ravens in Baltimore. "It used to be that if you
stopped the run against Pittsburgh and let Kordell throw 20
times, you'd win," says one Ravens defender. "Now it's a
different story."

Adds Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes, "He's more
poised and patient, and he's obviously more comfortable. All
these experts who told us he had to stop running to succeed look
stupid."

Stewart has also made a point of spending more time with
teammates, though he's still a homebody. When kicker Kris Brown
struggled during November, Stewart became his staunchest ally.
"Bill stuck up for him, too," Stewart says, "because he's
educated now, after hearing me."

Cowher may not entirely agree, but he's clearly averse to
engaging in a public dispute with Stewart. "I separated myself
from Kordell last year, and I probably didn't realize the extent
of what he went through until we talked," Cowher says. "Look,
every hire I've made hasn't been a good one, and I admit I've had
some growing pains, but I have 53 guys to look out for. I
wouldn't change anything that happened, because Kordell's a
stronger player and person and a better leader for our team."

Long after finishing a plate of catfish at Dave & Buster's,
Stewart voiced a similar sentiment: "I appreciate what Coach
Cowher put me through--as hard as it was--because it made me a
10-times-better person and player."

He stood up and turned to leave, but a waiter blocked his path.
"I have to admit I used to be a big-time doubter," the waiter
told Stewart, "but you won me over."

Stewart smiled and said, "Thanks, dude. I appreciate that."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER He's no flake A more poised Stewart, who played only a half against the Browns on Sunday, put Pittsburgh back on the postseason track. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS

"Let me play the way I know how to play," Stewart told Cowher
last March, "and we'll win games."

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