For a few seconds each Sunday, he runs past the moving vans, cuts through the courtrooms, shakes off the temporary injunctions and steamrollers Art Modell on his way into the end zone. He plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but when rookie Kordell Stewart touches the ball, the whole country stands and cheers as if each point he scores strikes a blow against seat licenses, $350 Super Bowl tickets and Houston Oiler owner Bud Adams's hair. In an otherwise dark NFL season, number 10 in black and gold is a small flicker of fireworks.
"He's bubbly, he's enthusiastic, he's bright-eyed," says Steeler coach Bill Cowher. "I think anyone who spends any time with Kordell will walk away thinking, Isn't it refreshing to see a player like that in the National Football League?"
Stewart has a quarterback's number, a special-teamer's heart and a nickname even Art Donovan can love. Cowher dubbed Stewart, who was Pittsburgh's second-round selection in last spring's draft, "Slash" because Stewart is a quarterback/runner/receiver. Of course, Slash also describes what Stewart, who is 6'1" and a wrought-iron 212, often does when he gets his hands on the ball. This season he has seven carries for 53 yards. He has completed three of four passes for 19 yards, including a two-yard touchdown, and has caught seven for 170 yards and a 71-yard score. He has touched the ball at least once in each of the Steelers' last six games, and Pittsburgh has won them all, including a 21-7 home win over the Oilers on Sunday.
The NFL had better hurry up and pass a rule against this kind of thing or Stewart might start a trend. "I'm just having a lot of fun right now," he says. "I'll play whatever position they want me to play, and I'll take the ball whenever they want to give it to me."
When he finished his eligibility at Colorado last year, Stewart told NFL scouts that he was a quarterback and only a quarterback. He even hired Leigh Steinberg, the agent whose clients include 23 NFL quarterbacks and who says that Stewart—who was the 60th pick overall—could have been selected in the first round had he agreed to switch positions. No deal. Stewart refused to give up his dream of playing quarterback in the pros. The Steelers grabbed him late in the second round, gave him jersey number 10 and let him be a quarterback.
Unfortunately for Stewart, they let him be the fourth-string quarterback. Most teams don't even have one of those. Going into the season Pittsburgh had veteran Neil O'Donnell as the starter and another veteran, Mike Tomczak, as his backup. Second-year man Jim Miller was No. 3.
Stewart, 23, spent the season opener, a 23-20 win over the Detroit Lions, in street clothes, and after O'Donnell was injured in that game, Stewart suited up the next four weeks as the third quarterback, clipboard in hand, waiting for an emergency. He played not a single down.
By the seventh game of the season, the wide receiver position began to look more inviting to Stewart. On Oct. 19, in a 27-9 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Stewart lined up at wideout for three plays but didn't touch the ball. He had two carries from quarterback in a 24-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars the following week, and then he had a catch and a carry in a 37-34 win over the Bears at Chicago. In his fourth game, at home against the Cleveland Browns on Monday night, Nov. 13, the folk hero was born. Stewart ran twice for 13 yards, had two catches for 21 at wideout and completed the first pass of his NFL career. Somewhere Sammy Baugh was smiling. Stewart left the fans talking about something very exciting and unusual this NFL season: football. It had been too long.
Hey, Jerry. Sue this.
Each week Cowher and his offensive coaches spend a few minutes drawing up a couple of plays for Stewart. They don't actually scratch the plays into a patch of dirt with a Popsicle stick. It only seems that way. When Stewart plays quarterback, O'Donnell lines up at wideout (if he left the game and was replaced by the third quarterback before the fourth quarter, he would not be allowed to return), though Cowher is not expecting to discover another pass-catching gem among his quarterbacks. "Kordell is a slash," says Cowher. "Neil, he's just a quarterback."