You can shred your way down virtual ski runs, throw real punches at simulated Mike Tysons or gun down a gang of video villains. You can even get a decent quesadilla at Dave & Buster's, the arcade-and-restaurant chain whose branch in the Homestead section of Pittsburgh is a few miles east of the Steelers' training facility. But last Friday afternoon, in the midst of such sensory overload, all anyone in the joint wanted to do was lavish affection on the smiling man in the brown hooded Sean John sweatshirt. Though Steelers Pro Bowl quarterback Kordell Stewart has never been comfortable with his celebrity, he gladly spent a half hour charming old ladies, kissing babies and posing for photos with fawning waitresses. It sure beat the alternative, reasoned Stewart, who's more aware than most athletes of fame's harsh side. "You could be doing this," he said, "or you could be back at the crib waiting for Pop Tarts to come out of the toaster, because you don't want to leave the house. I've been that guy, bro, and it's not easy."
As difficult as it was for most Pittsburgh fans—hell, most football fans—to envision barely six months ago, Stewart is the toast of Steel-town. He's the unquestioned leader of the AFC's best team, which closed out its regular season on Sunday with a 28-7 victory over the Cleveland Browns at snowy Heinz Field. Early in the third quarter, as Stewart jogged to the sideline after being pulled from the meaningless game, 59,189 fans gave him a warm ovation that saluted both his trying four-year journey back into their good graces and the promise of the immediate future. In the coming weeks Stewart has a chance to become this year's Trent Dilfer and answer his critics on the grandest of American stages. If Stewart, 29, can lead Pittsburgh (13-3) to its first Super Bowl in six seasons, not to mention its fifth NFL championship, his legend may swell to Bradshawesque proportions.
He has already won over Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who said after Sunday's game, "No one can exemplify this team's unselfish attitude more than Kordell Stewart. I'm sure he'll never forget some of the things he's had to go through, and I wouldn't wish them upon anyone, but he's buried the hatchet and handled himself like the consummate pro. It wasn't easy, but he has won back this city and this team."
It would be convenient to portray Cowher, one of football's best coaches, and Stewart, one of the NFL's most exciting performers, as ideally matched partners. It would also be inaccurate. Consider that 10 months ago Stewart was holed up in his off-season home near Atlanta, refusing to return Cowher's calls. When he finally phoned back, the two men seared the lines, engaging in what each describes as an emotional three-hour conversation.
Stewart did most of the talking. He began by giving Cowher a detailed recounting of all the adversity he had faced since leading the Steelers to the 1997 AFC Championship Game in his first season as a starting quarterback. Stewart's dirty-laundry list included two failed relationships with offensive coordinators; a switch to wide receiver late in 1998; his loss of the starting quarterback's job to Kent Graham in a preseason competition the next year; rumors about his sexual preference; and a stream of abuse from Steelers fans, one of whom doused him with beer following a game.
After he vented his frustrations, Stewart, who had gone 19-19 as a starting quarterback over the previous three seasons, made demands. "If I throw an interception," he recalls telling Cowher, "I'm riot going to the bench. If I throw an incompletion, I'm not going to have you screaming at me. Let the outside forces run their mouths, but inside here, do what's right and let me be the quarterback of this football team. Let me play the way I know how to play, and we'll win games."
The Steelers won the AFC in 1995, the season that Cowher turned Stewart, Pittsburgh's second-round pick from Colorado, into the triple-threat rookie sensation known as Slash. Two years later, when Stewart became a full-time quarterback and nearly took the Steelers to the Super Bowl, he appeared to be the next in line, after John Elway and Steve Young, as an athletic wonder who evolved into a champion passer. Then it all came crashing down. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey left to become coach of the Dallas Cowboys, and Stewart didn't hit it off with Gailey's replacement, Ray Sherman. After '98 Cowher replaced Sherman with the demanding and volatile Kevin Gilbride, who over the next two years tried to mold Stewart into a disciplined pocket passer. It was the worst pairing since Dan Rather and Connie Chung. "Kordell is a guy you need to talk to, not scream at," says his father, Robert. "I'm 60 years old, and I've never yelled or cussed at my son."
"I was miserable the whole time," Kordell says. He accuses Gilbride of many slights, most of which Gilbride denies.
"Did I push him? Of course," says Gilbride, who has been out of football since being fired by Cowher after last season, "but he's the first quarterback I've ever had who resented it. I'm very proud of the progress he made under my tutelage, and the foundation that was laid has certainly helped him do what he's doing this year."
Stewart has no patience with those who portray him as a man magically transformed by hardship. "I've learned and matured along the way," he says, "but I didn't turn into a good player overnight."