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Black Quarterbacks

Kordell Stewart and the legend of Slash

Steelers quarterback became one of the most versatile players in NFL history

The Pittsburgh Steelers caught a glimpse of their new game-changer early in training camp in 1995. During a sprint session that wide receiver Yancey Thigpen usually dominated, a new kid was making a mad dash at the king.

“I was in a nice little stride, and all of a sudden this guy is step for step alongside me,” Thigpen recalled. “I had to put in a little extra to pull away. But at the end I’m like, ‘Damn, this guy can run.’ ”

That guy was Kordell Stewart, a second-round pick in the 1995 draft after a standout career at Colorado, where he once threw a 64-yard Hail Mary (73 yards on the fly) to break Michigan’s heart. During Stewart’s first training camp in Pittsburgh, coach Bill Cowher was salivating at the prospect of getting his fourth-string quarterback — and his 4.4-second 40-yard dash time — on the field.

But Stewart, who probably could have been drafted in the first round had he agreed to change positions, was adamant about the position he wanted to play in the NFL.

“I can do a lot of different things,” Stewart said before the draft. “But my main thing is to be quarterback, and it always will be.”

It appeared Stewart was destined to be a season-long sideline clipboard holder as a rookie (playing behind Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak and Jim Miller at quarterback) had he stuck to his guns.

George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Yet when Cowher suggested early in the season that he’d like to find ways to incorporate the rookie into the lineup, Stewart couldn’t resist. “I’ll play whatever position they want me to play,” Stewart told Sports Illustrated in 1995. “And I’ll take the ball whenever they want to give it to me.”

Thus was born the man known as Slash (quarterback-slash-wide receiver-slash-running back). Stewart showed signs of his versatility as a rookie, as he recorded passing, rushing and receiving touchdowns during limited stints at each position. Stewart even caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from O’Donnell in the AFC Championship Game win over the Indianapolis Colts, helping the Steelers advance to the Super Bowl (where they lost to the Dallas Cowboys).

While once again playing three positions, Stewart moved up the depth chart when O’Donnell signed with the Jets after the Super Bowl. Stewart’s only two starts were at wide receiver, as Tomczak assumed the starting quarterback role. Stewart’s stats: 171 yards rushing (five touchdowns) with a career-high 293 receiving yards (three touchdowns).

Opponents spent hours devising ways to defend Stewart, even though he played only limited snaps each game.

“He scared the heck out of people,” Mike Preston, NFL columnist with The Baltimore Sun, told NFL Films. “You couldn’t go into the game without game planning for the guy.”

Even as Stewart’s role as a multiposition threat increased, this comment from late in his rookie season told where he stood on his future:

“I just don’t know why a quarterback has to be 6-8 and 230 pounds with blond hair and blue eyes. 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 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.”

In 1997, the legend of Slash grew as Stewart replaced Tomczak as quarterback and led the Steelers to the AFC Championship Game. He threw for 3,020 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushed for 476 yards and 11 touchdowns to become the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 20 touchdowns and rush for at least 10 in the same season.

“He was adjusting to being a starter and didn’t have a lot of productivity for the first three games of the season,” Thigpen remembered. “But his confidence grew each week, and you could see his talent emerge.”

Thigpen, considered one of the best receivers in the NFL in the mid-’90s, wound up having the best season of his career with 1,398 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on the way to his second Pro Bowl appearance in 1997.

“His success and my success went hand in hand,” Thigpen said. “I caught passes from Neil O’Donnell and Steve McNair during my career. But Kordell threw the best ball that I caught from any quarterback. It was always a very nice, tight spiral.”

But Thigpen left after 1997. The Steelers also lost three offensive linemen from that 1997 AFC championship team. And the team was in the midst of having three offensive coordinators in three seasons, disrupting the team’s continuity.

Stephen Dunn

The result: The Steelers failed to make the playoffs for three straight seasons, and Stewart temporarily lost his starting job to Kent Graham at the start of the 2000 season.

Stewart rebounded in 2001 with a career-high 3,109 passing yards, earning him a Pro Bowl appearance as the Steelers reached the AFC Championship Game, which they lost to the New England Patriots.

But his 14 touchdowns (to go with 11 interceptions) were seven fewer than in 1997, his first season as a starter. One of the biggest criticisms of his play during his 11 seasons was his touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio (77 passing touchdowns to 84 career interceptions).

In 2003, Stewart left the Steelers after eight seasons to play with the Chicago Bears, for whom he started seven games. His career ended quietly after he played his final two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.

Stewart may have struggled with consistency over the course of his career, but he’ll still be remembered as being one of the NFL’s most transcendent players.

The proof? In 2008, NFL.com named Stewart as the No. 6 most versatile player in league history.

“It would have been easy for me to play wide receiver; I could have played running back if I wanted to,” Stewart said during the 2016 NFL scouting combine. “I was committed to be a quarterback on the National Football League level … and I had tons of success.”

Liner Notes

The Undefeated will profile 30 black quarterbacks leading up to the 2018 Super Bowl, which marks 30 years since Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win the big game.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.