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."