- Rick Telander
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Somebody should have noticed.
Kordell Stewart dropped back from his own 36, eluded a rush, sighted his man downfield and let it fly. The football arced 74 yards—about the distance from the leftfield wall at Yankee Stadium to first base— and fell into the hands of Michael Westbrook fo rthe last-second touchdown that gave Colorado a 27-26 win over Michigan. This was in 1994, and everybody should have known right away what it meant. But everybody didn't know. That's because people are still in need of having their senses jarred by the transcendence of this 6'1'', 212-pound quarterback. The 25-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers leader, who beats on his drum set when he's not beating on overmatched defenders, sometimes wonders if anyone has noticed the maazing things he can do on the gridiron.
"I know I have an arm," he says. "But I had to get a chance to play quarterback in the NFL."
And why was that?
"Oh, who knows," says Stewart, as if we don't. Partly because of the stereotyping that says blacks should play positions other than quarterback. Partly because he was coming from a sometime-option team at Colorado. And partly—heck, largely—because he was too good an athlete. Drafted in the second round by the Steelers in 1995, stewart was observed by coach Bill Cowher, analyzed, and then cautiously set on the field the way a weasel is carefully set in a henhouse. Thus was created "Slash." This was the name Cowher gave to Stewart to show that the kid with the 4.4 speed, cannon arm, glove-soft hands, tailback moves and eagle vision was a wideout/running back/option-dropback QB/gamebreaker. Lining up all over the place, Stewart simply scared foes into submission. He ran for an 80-yard touchdown, the longest by a quarterback in NFL history. Then he ran for a 74-yarder. He caught passes, including one for a 71-yard TD. He threw passes and racked up a 317-yard game, a 232-yard first half and a pair of three-touchdown games. Just for kicks, so to speak, he punted once, for 41 yards.
This past season Cowher simply gave Stewart the ball and said, "Run the team." And why not? "Hey, they don't hold speed and agility against Brett Favre, Steve Young or Mark Brunell, do they?" Stewart says. "And look at John Elway—even at 37, he can move."
But none can move like Stewart. The Slash handle has faded, and "NFL Prototype Quarterback of the Future" has emerged. In an odd twist, Stewart has finally been able to live down his physical skills and at the same time prove tha a remarkably adroit quarterback is a lot better suited to the nuances of today's league than a lead-footed robot.
"I always knew I could play quarterback," he says. "I mean I've only been doing it my whole life. But what I think it's going to come down to is this: All of the best quarterbacks at this level have to be fast and athletic because of the speed of the defenses. You have guys like Big Daddy Wilkinson and Warren Sapp running down guys like Steve Young and weighing over 300 pounds. Do you want somebody who throws the ball away all the time or falls on his face to avoid sacks? Or do you want somebody who can bring that extra dimension, that extra threat? I mean, what do you want?"
We want you, Kordell. Indeed, it's no accident that Stewart has rekindled Steeler fans' thoughts of their beloved Hall of Fame helmsman Terry Bradshaw, another quarterback who had to prove to all that he was the future of the league and not its bane. Stewart ran for 11 touchdowns in '97, breaking Bradshaw's team record set a quarter-century ago. This year he also became the first quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger who, without ever having previously started an NFL game at quarterback, started every game of a season and led his team to the conference championship game.
The thing about this young man from New Orleans is that he knows tragedy—bot hhis mother and older sister died young from cancer—and he knows hard work: These days he will barely leave new offensive coordinator Ray Sherman's office as the two men endlessly break down film in the dark. But he knows above all that a gift is something that mus tbe used, or else it's squandered. Why, for instance, shouldn't a quarterback be faster than hell? Stewart is a guy who, at long last, makes opponents think about the full range of danger presented by the quarterback position. And just now something novel has occurred to him. "Hmm, maybe I should run down the line of scrimmage and throw the ball up in the air—and catch it myself."
Hey, it's all there for the taking.
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