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The Life


ESPN The Magazine: Slash and Burn
ESPN The Magazine

You flipped him off, didn’t you? You called him gay, didn’t you? You dumped Rolling Rock on him one day, and asked him to sign your No.10 jersey the next. His daddy was in the bathroom at Three Rivers one Sunday, and he overheard one of your drunks say, “Get that Kordell Stewart out of here,” and you slapped that drunk five, didn’t you? You begged for Mike Tomczak and Kent Graham, didn’t you? You thought you got in your quarterback’s head, didn’t you?

Don’t worry, he isn’t bitter. He was a hermit there for a while, but he’s got it figured out now. He knows how you harassed your other quarterbacks, what you did to Bradshaw and Gilliam and Malone and Stoudt and Brister, but he’ll never cave like they did; this black man will take all of your fair-weather BS.

You did him a favor, actually. He got closer to God. Says he’s dipped in holy water now. He learned how to be a teammate, learned that he used to come off as the locker room snob. Plays golf with his O-linemen now. Is kicker Kris Brown’s personal psychologist. Has the boys over to his house. Even lets them wear their shoes on his Berber carpet. He knows this is all part of his job now, part of being the quarterback, part of being the Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback.

So you love him now, don’t you? You’re AFC Central champs, and he got you there with his arm, of all things. He was a full-time receiver 24 months ago, and now he’s probably Pro Bowl bound, and you’re lucky your coach, Bill Cowher, didn’t cut him two years ago like he thought of doing. You’re lucky tackle Wayne Gandy sat next to him on the team plane, lucky that Gandy kept pleading, “Stew, don’t be so uptight. Stew, you gotta loosen up.” You’re lucky Stew finally said screw it, I’m scrambling with the football. You’re lucky he reinvented himself in your uniform, not somebody else’s.

How he overcame you is the story of the year, because he used to blame himself for every one of your team’s losses. But now you can boo and hiss him the next time he throws a pick, and Kordell Stewart will still be in his safe place. He’s beaten you, all of you, and when his contract is up in two years, he actually wants to re-sign. This is the one, Pittsburgh. This is the quarterback you couldn’t kick to the curb. This is the one you must not let out of town.

***

Would you let me go play for the Tennessee Titans? The Jacksonville Jaguars? The Kansas City Chiefs? Bro’, this is not a time to be letting me go. I’m 29 years old. I’m a frickin’ puppy, dude. A puppy. As a QB, I’m a puppy. I haven’t reached my prime. And that’s what I love. Because I’m getting good. I’m telling you, dude. I’m loving this right now. You don’t understand how much fun this is for me right now, as we speak, man. I’m loving it. And trust me, this is not me gloating, or saying I-told-you-so to nobody.

You know what this is? This is me sticking it out. This is me not having to change teams to get this done. This is me getting it done with the same people around who were around before. That’s what’s sweet! Everybody said, “You got to go away to do it.” But I’m not going nowhere. I’m not running from this. You’ll run from me before I run from you. And then I start thinking about the Mark Malones, the Bubby Bristers, the Neil O’Donnells. None of those guys were capable of really getting in there, really getting it. They never really hung in there and took over what they had. Which was a lot of power, especially when you play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Pittsburgh Steelers, bro’.

***

When he hit his low point is debatable. Was it the day Chan Gailey left for Dallas? The day in Tampa he had a good cry? It’s all of this. The sad truth is that the Steelers somehow managed to forget, for three seasons, how best to use Stewart’s extraordinary gifts. Under Gailey in 1997, Stewart was a mobile weapon, throwing for 3,020 yards and 21 TDs, rushing for 476 yards and 11 scores, reaching the AFC title game. But Gailey left, and the next two Steeler coordinators -- Ray Sherman in 1998 and Kevin Gilbride in 1999-2000 -- had their own game plans. Rather than change their systems to fit Stewart, they changed him to fit theirs. They scolded him for freelancing. They chained him to the pocket. He’d make suggestions, and they’d say, “We’ll do the play-calling, thank you.”

Stewart felt so disrespected he closed himself off. To his teammates. To his coaches. The drill was home-practice-home -- and lock the door. Then, after a three-interception game against Tennessee at Three Rivers in November 1998, a cup full of beer landed on his head. It gushed inside his eyes, and he told people that if it happened again, he was going into the stands. That was the start of the three-year downward spiral.

As he distanced himself from the team in 1998, the rumor began to circulate that Kordell Stewart was homosexual. It became the No.1 unspoken topic in the locker room. It became the talk of the town. And it wouldn’t go away.

“We didn’t think he was gay, but we didn’t know, because we never hung out with him,” says wide receiver Hines Ward. “Nobody really knew what he was doing. So, to us, we couldn’t just say no, it’s not true.”

Stewart called a team meeting to squash the whispers. He stood up and said, “I believe in Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” He simply asked his teammates not to spread the rumor and left it at that. “People may have still felt the same way,” says cornerback Dewayne Washington. “But at least he cleared his conscience.”

***

That rumor wasn’t true, bro’. But I knew I had to do something, because this was becoming malicious and vicious. I had to talk to my teammates, because that’s a sensitive topic around here. You’re walking around with your buddies all day, changing together. I had to let my teammates know: I’m the same guy you knew when I was Slash. Don’t let these people who don’t have a clue, based off the fact we’re losing games, cause you to think differently about me. I’m your quarterback. Period. Period.

***

But then he wasn’t their quarterback. Cowher, a defensive-minded coach who never sensed his offensive staff was misusing his best weapon, yanked Stewart from a close Week 14 game in 1998 at Tampa Bay and set the whole ordeal on fire. Stewart had thrown three picks that day, but his replacement, Tomczak, was faring no better. That prompted Stewart to approach Cowher and say, “This is why you’re sitting me on the bench? For that?” Cowher flared up, so Stewart flared up. Their ensuing argument was profane and public, and the cameras caught Stewart weeping.

The incidents lent credence to criticism that he was soft, but his critics didn’t know the real Kordell Stewart. They didn’t know that, growing up in Marrero, La., he’d been the antithesis of soft. They didn’t know his mother, Florence, was found to have liver cancer right after he was born and given six months to live, and that she ended up living 10 years more. They didn’t know he grew up believing there was nothing he couldn’t withstand. His brother Robert Jr., a decade older, would clothesline him playing football and tell him to jump off seven-foot roofs, and so he would tie a blanket around his neck, as if it were a cape, and leap down like his hero, Batman. Never fractured a bone, either.

Kordell was 11 when his mother died, and his dad, Robert Sr., who had separated from Florence, scooped him up. His daddy was a carpenter and house painter by day and a barber by night, and the two of them became inseparable. They went to movies and to the lakefront. They played horseshoes and walked two miles together to pick up groceries. They were two loners who at least had each other. “From Day 1,” Robert Sr. says. “Kordell was the best thing to come out of my marriage.”

His daddy brought him to church, and when he was a 12-year-old hallucinating in school about his mother, his daddy would say, “Give it time.” His daddy comforted him again, in 1996, when his older sister, Falisha, died of stomach cancer. Every woman from his immediate family was gone now, but he had his daddy to talk to every day on the phone. Every day during college at Colorado. And every day in the pros from what would become his own personal hell, Pittsburgh.

The Steelers were 7-9 in 1998, and were on their way to a 6-10 record in 1999 when Cowher, with five games left, moved Stewart to wideout and barred him from QB meetings. The coach also considered playing Stewart only on the road to free him from the Three Rivers mob. “I heard the booing,” his father says. “But I couldn’t say much because I’m a black man there in the stands all by myself. I didn’t want the hell beaten out of me.”

That summer, according to a former Steeler assistant, Cowher contemplated releasing Stewart, but rejected the idea due to the potential salary cap hit. Stewart emerged in 2000 as the browbeaten backup to newly acquired Kent Graham. He was still guarded, convinced he was the reason for the Steeler decline. And then the team started 0-3.

***

Bro’, I began that year saying “If they want to start another quarterback, let ’em.” But almost every time we’ve started another QB, we’ve lost. I think it’s eight out of nine times. So we were 0–3, and I’m like, Is it me? Is it me? I realized I’m a scapegoat. And it set me free. I was like, if I play, I’m gonna play my way. I was gonna wing it, scramble, get the first down how ever I could get the first down.

I started praying again and called my daddy and my old Colorado coach, Bill McCartney, all my Christian friends. And I visualized positive things. I took myself away from the city of Pittsburgh and put myself in Colorado, put myself home in New Orleans. Put myself in the AFC title game, put myself in the Super Bowl as Slash. I did those things to let myself know, It’s not me! And then Kent Graham gets hurt on a Friday before the fourth game. I hadn’t practiced all week, so I had to play off of straight instinct. Didn’t care what nobody said. Ran for 61, threw for 132 and we win.

But I wasn’t sure the guys trusted me. So we play Oakland in December, and I hurt my knee in the first half. And I was nervous about going back in, because I didn’t know where people stood with me. I didn’t know if the guys were going to block hard, didn’t know about the coaches. I was just real skeptical because I was going through it. So I’m like, “Man, I’m scared my knee is going to fall out of the socket, and if something happens to me, them people ain’t going to worry about me. I’ve got to worry about myself.” So I go inside to the training table and start praying. I say, “God, I’m as scared as all outdoors, but whatever you have in store for me, let it be seen.” And I hear this boom.

It’s the door. It’s the fellas. We’re down 17-7. It’s halftime. And Will Blackwell looks at me and goes, “Hey, man, what you gonna do, man? We at least need you on the sideline, man. We all hurt, I understand your pain, and I’m not saying nothin’, but we just need you out there.” Then Jerome Bettis comes and starts pointing at his thumb and at his feet, and points some more and says, “Surgery in this knee, surgery in that knee.” Starts pointing at his back. And tears start coming to my eyes. All the fellas are coming. Lee Flowers is, “Stew, brother, we need you, baby.” Chad Scott is, “Whatever you want to do, boss.” So I’m sitting up here, dealing with this. And I’m like, if this is the calling I have, if this is being presented to me like this, I’ll let it be. I’m crying, I’ve got a towel over my face. Our trainer, John Norwig, tapes my knee up.

So, first drive. It’s third and 16, and some dude knocks the ball out of my hands. The guy’s holding my left arm, but the ball hits the turf and bounces straight up into my right hand. I ain’t lying! Suddenly there’s nobody within 10 yards of me. I can run as far as I can see. And I run for like 25 yards. Now, you tell me what that is. That’s confirmation, bro’. We score, get the ball back, and we call a quarterback draw. I take off, and Anthony Dorsett comes and hits me in my chest and falls off me like I’m a block of ice. And I score, and all the boys jump on me, and we win the game, man. And that was one of the most inspirational moments in my life, like the Hail Mary pass against Michigan in college. Because this was a test of my faith. Because I could’ve sat on the sideline and said, “Man, I ain’t worrying about these people. These people don’t care if I get hurt.” But from then on, it’s been totally different with my teammates and coaches. That game was huge. Because, think about it. If Kent Graham had gotten it done, I wouldn’t be here. Come on. If Kent Graham wins one of those first three, would I be here? I was done, bro’, I was done.

***

Instead, he moved up the depth chart. Gilbride left after the season, and Cowher promoted tight ends coach Mike Mularkey, who designed an offense specifically for Stewart, full of rollouts, bootlegs and simplified reads. First thing Mularkey did was fly to Stewart’s off-season home in Atlanta, where Stewart took him for Cajun food and ordered him the spiciest dish on the menu. Their trust was forged there. Then Cowher hired the first Steelers quarterbacks coach since 1973 -- former Notre Dame QB Tom Clements. Clements reminded Stewart of Gailey, and allowed Stewart's input when game-planning.

So Stewart’s protective shell came off. In June, at the urging of Mularkey, Gandy and his daddy, he had a team party at his home during the NBA Finals. About 15 or 20 guys -- offense and defense -- showed up to watch Lakers-Sixers and eat pizzas and chicken wings. “It was a great day,” Gandy says. “Kordell brought himself back to the pack. He let people wear their shoes inside, which he never does, and guys were spilling punch on the carpet, and he went along with it.”

It carried over into the season, where Stewart turned into a regular motormouth in the huddle. Gandy and he held running conversations in there, with Gandy always urging him to “do that thang you do! Do that thang!” Gandy just loved to see Stewart use his feet, and after every outrageous scramble, Gandy would tell him, “I can already see tomorrow’s headline, dude: ‘Kordell F’s Up Ravens.’”

***

We started winning, bro’, and it throws me for a loop how the public changed. Now people come up and congratulate me on being a better person. They’re not talking about me as if I was on drugs, selling drugs, selling crack, being a problem child in the city of Pittsburgh, cussing people out, not signing autographs, not doing what Mr. Rooney asks me to do. If I was doing all that before, then you can say I’m a changed man. But I’m the same guy. People are like, “Terry Bradshaw is the dumbest man with four Super Bowl rings.” Well, I’ll switch positions with him today. That is the smartest dumb man I’ve ever seen in my life. Four Super Bowl rings, and you’re the dumbest guy? I’ll be dumb just like it, with a bald spot and everything else.

I wasn’t a changed person, bro’. I just matured on the football field. Yeah, I hid from the boys for a while. Didn’t hang out. But I was going through it, man. What was I supposed to do? Go cry to people? I don’t want to do that to my friends, bro’. But I get it now. In ’97, I did well, but I had no clue. I was just playing. I was a chicken with my head cut off, a kid in the parking lot. Playing hopscotch. Double-dutch. Had no clue. But guys go through this. Randall Cunningham, he leaves the game. What happens? He comes back and is the league MVP. Hear me, dude? Steve Young? Him too, man. He’s yelling and screaming at his coach at the top of his lungs. But you got to let it go sometimes.

So that’s what I did. I let it go, bro’.

***

And so, going into this season, the Steelers had a new go-to-guy. Entering Week 15, Stewart has completed 60.8% of his passes, is about to break his own QB rushing record, and has supplanted Bettis as the offensive MVP. Not that he’d admit that. He calls Bettis and himself Batman and Robin, and before every kickoff, Stewart catches Bettis’ eye and says, “Holy cow, Batman, who we gonna beat today?” It’s the new/old Kordell. When Brown, their erratic kicker, missed a field goal and PAT at home in a 18-7 victory against the Jets and was heckled the way Stewart used to be, it was Kordell who urged the masses to applaud when Brown took the field for his next field goal attempt. When the kick was good, it was Stewart who led the stadium cheers.

***

Bro’, I knew how Kris Brown felt. Been through it. Fighting against that demon? Hard, man. That boo-bird in that dang stadium is so real. People are talking crazy, cussing you out. I been through it, and I wasn’t gonna let Kris go through it. If we go to the Super Bowl this year -- I’m not saying we are -- but if we do something great, trust me, all those fans are coming with us. So why would you boo him? If you want us to go the Super Bowl, you don’t boo him! You keep him going. This is the kicker for your city.

So sometimes, dude, I feel like a father figure around here, man. I feel like 49 instead of 29. But what I’ve been through the past three years, I would not change for nothing. I’ll cherish those three years more than the next 50 years of my life. Because I will never go through it again. Won’t let it happen. You can talk about me until you’re blue in the face, but I’m gonna get you a W. You might not like how I gave it to you at the end of the day, but I’m giving you a W. And you’re going to enjoy it or else. If you think you’re going to get me feeling bad again, you’ve got it twisted. You messed with the wrong cat. Ain’t going through it again. I’ve been dipped in some holy water. I’ve been dipped, bro’. Terry Bradshaw may not want to come back here, but I’ll come back. I’ll come back here and scratch your back. The same cat who threw beer on me? I’ll shake his hand and go eat dinner with him today. And he’ll be nervous as all outdoors, and I won’t be. Tellin’ you, bro’. Tellin’ you.

***

So who’s in whose head now?

This article appears in the January 7 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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