Heroes of the past: Kordell Stewart brought a unique element to the game

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

The multiple of talents of Slash captivated a generation of Steelers fans

There will never be another Kordell Stewart.

For a space of time in the late 90s and into the 2000s, the multi-talents of the running back/quarterback/wide receiver created many memoriable moments that are now great memories for Steelers fans that witnessesd his theatrics.

But that's only a part of the story. The other part is the rollar coaster ride Steelers fans embarked on when Stewart traded his "Slash" role for the starting quarterback position.

Stewart had a mythical persona before his arrival on the professional sports scene. He was famous for his Hail Mary touchdown pass against Michigan at the Big House his senior year at Colorado. Stewart heaved a pass that sailed over 70 yards in the air for the shocking score, just one of the many plays he made while leading the Buffaloes to an 11-1 record and victory in the Fiesta Bowl.

Buried in the Steelers depth chart in 1995, Stewart mostly watched from the sidelines during the first half of his rookie season. At 3-4, Pittsburgh needed a boost to get them going, and Slash came to the rescue.

First came his scrambling touchdown pass during Monday night's 20-3 win over Cleveland.Then his 71 yard catch and carry for a score in a comeback win in Cincinnati. Then there was the 22-yard touchdown run against New England that was forshadowed just seconds earlier when NBC broadcaster Bob Trumpy jokingly said "if one more (Pittsburgh) back goes down, (Stewart) may be in at running back."

But it wasn't just that he scored touchdowns. It was how he reached the end zone. He was an athletic marvel that spun, cut, and found spaces when there didn't appear to be one.

He earned the nickname "Slash" because he would line up at all three skilled positions. His popularity soared, starring in a Nike commercial with Jerry Stiller portraying Vince Lombardi. Stewart was a celebrity in Pittsburgh. No.10 jerseys were seemingly everywhere, along with billboards and local commercials featuring the newest Pittsburgh sports icon.

Stewart added another dimension to a Steelers offense that became one of the NFL's best by seasons end. They won the AFC Central and a divisional playoff game against the Bills before hosting the underdog Colts in the AFC Championship game. Trailing before halftime, Stewart ran for three first downs before finding space in the back of the end zone for a touchdown reception. The Steelers won 20-16 to advance to their first Super Bowl in 16 years.

"Slash" provided even more highlights in 1996. He rushed for five touchdowns and caught three more that included a 48 yard touchdown catch against the 49ers. When he finally made his first career start at quarterback against the Panthers in Week 17, Stewart made history. He burst free and outran every Panthers' defender for an 80-yard touchdown run that stood as the longest touchdown run by a quarterback until Terrelle Pryor rushed past the Steelers for a 93 yard score last year.

Stewart and newcomer Jerome Bettis dismantled the Colts in a playoff rematch in the Wild Card round. Trailing 14-13 at halftime, Bettis capped a 92 yard drive with a touchdown to start the third quarter to give Pittsburgh the lead for good. After another Bettis score, Stewart scored his second touchdown to close out the 42-14 route. The highlight was Stewart's 24-yard run late in the game that saw him break three different tackles leading to Bill Cowher to laugh and linebacker Levon Kirkland to simply shake his head on the sideline.

The career of Kordell Stewart changed forever in 1997. He was now the team's starting quarterback charged with leading a team that was ready to win. Stewart and the Steelers struggled to a 1-2 start before embarking on a season unlike any other.

After rushing for two scores and passing for another in a win over Tennessee, Stewart accounted for five touchdowns as the Steelers turned a 21-0 deficit into a 42-34 win in Baltimore. As always, Stewart delivered the game's signature play, zipping past the Ravens for a 74 yard touchdown that led to him collapsing in the end zone.

Stewart would lead the Steelers to two more wins before hosting the rival and first place Jaguars. In overtime, Stewart gave Pittsburgh the AFC Central lead for good when Bettis took Stewart's shuffle pass to the house in a 23-17 win.

As the season progressed, the Steelers offense morphed into one of the most exciting in the NFL. Yancy Thigpen emerged as Stewart's favorite receiver, recording 1,398 yards while Stewart become the second Steelers quarterback since Terry Bradshaw to throw for over 3,000 yards in a season. He also became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 20 touchdowns and rush for 10 more. Bettis finished third in the NFL in rushing, and his 142 yards and three touchdowns helped Pittsburgh prevail in overtime in Arizona.

The trio's talents were on full display a week later against Denver. Trailing 21-7 early, Stewart hit Thigpen down the right sideline for a 69 yards touchdown pass. The duo connected for the third time to tie the score before halftime.

While Bettis bullied the Broncos for 125 yards, Stewart also got into the act on the ground. He scored two rushing touchdowns in the second half as Pittsburgh prevailed, 35-24.It was his second five touchdown game of the season, the only Steelers quarterback in team history that can make that statement.

Pittsburgh's season took another turn in New England the following week. Trailing 14-3, Stewart and the Steelers fought to get to within a point late in the game. But a pass intended for a different Patriots receiver was snagged out of nowhere by New England's smallest player, Dave Meggett, who also wrestled away from Kirkland's tackle to give the Pats a 21-13 lead.

Pittsburgh was given a reprieve when linemen Kevin Henry picked off a screen pass, although his lateral pass that Orpheus Roye ran in for a score was rulled illegal. The drama continued four plays later with Pittsburgh facing a fourth and seven. Needing a completion to keep their hopes alive, Stewart found Thigpen, who was able to drag his feet in bounds just before falling out, securing the first down. After hitting Mark Bruener in the end zone a few plays later, Stewart found a sliding Thigpen in the back of the end zone to tie the game on the two point conversion.

The Steelers would go to 3-0 in overtime games that season after Stewart's 41 yard pass to Courtney Hawkins set up Norm Johnson's game winning field goal.

Stewart and the Steelers' miracle season unceremoniously ended in the AFC Championship Game. Rattled by Denver's defense, Stewart threw three interceptions as Pittsburgh lost, 24-21. Trailing by 10 at hafltime, Stewart was able to bring Pittsburgh to within three before Denver picked up a pivotal third and six play late in the fourth to seal Denver's win.

Pittsburgh over-went several changes over the next three years. In 1998, the Steelers changed offensive coordinators as Chan Gailey left to become the head coach of the Cowboys. Yancy Thigpen also went to Tennessee for a fatter contract. Stewart and the offense struggled without Gailey and Thigpen, as Pittsburgh finished 7-9 after starting 6-3. After a 6-10 campaign in 1999, Stewart was benched in favor of Kent Graham to start the 2000 season. After starting 0-3, Stewart was reinserted and helped Pittsburgh finish 9-4 to just miss the playoffs. Coach Bill Cowher had seen enough to start Stewart to begin the 2001 season.

It was nearly 1997 all over again. With Bettis rushing for a career best 4.8 yards per carry, Stewart set a then franchise single season record for completion percentage while leading the Steelers to their best record since 1978. He also rushed for a career best 537 yards en route to his first Pro Bowl berth. His defining moment that season came in Week 14 in Baltimore.Playing in front of a nationally televised audience on Sunday Night Football, Stewart completed 20 of his 31 passes for 333 yards that included a 90 yard scoring strike to Bobby Shaw. Pittsburgh won the game 26-21 en route to the AFC Central title.

Stewart and the Steelers went on to dethrone the defending champion Ravens 27-10 in the Divisional Round of the playoffs before hosting the Patriots in the AFC Championship. The Patriots exploited Pittsburgh's porous special teams for two touchdowns. With Bettis neutralized with an injury, New England focused their efforts on stopping Stewart. Despite nearly rallying his team back with a furious fourth quarter comeback, two late interceptions ended Stewart and the Steelers season in a 24-17 loss. The image of Stewart throwing his helmet after the final pick seemingly symbolized a frustrating end of Slash's era in Pittsburgh.

Despite completing nearly 66 percent of his passes to start 2002, Stewart and the Steelers were 0-2 and trailing the Browns late in Week 3. Needing a spark, Cowher benched Stewart for Tommy Maddox, the former XFL MVP in 2001. Maddox led a comeback victory that day and became the team's starting quarterback.

Stewart's final start as a Steeler came in relief of an injured Maddox in Week 13. In a throwback performance, Stewart completed 16-of-24 passes and rushed for 84 yards and a score as the Steelers edged Jacksonville on the road, 25-23. Stewart watched both of the Steelers playoff games from the bench during his final moments in the Black and Gold.

After eight seasons, the rollar coaster that was the Kordell Stewart era was over. He went to a rebuilding Chicago team and struggled, going 2-5 as a starter in 2003. He spent the final two years of his career as a backup for the Ravens, playing against some of his old teammates in 2005 as the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. He quietly retired without much fanfare following the 2005 season.

So, how do we remember the Kordell Stewart era? I remember it for its exiting moments as opposed to the disappointing ones. Never before had I witnessed a Steelers player with so much pizzaz and excitement surrounding him. You never wanted to miss a play with No.10 lineup up somewhere on the field, because you didn't want to potentially miss the play everyone would be talking about the next day. Slash and the Steelers provided memories that will last a lifetime, and for that, many Pittsburgh fans should be thankful.

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