Joe Gilliam was the first to experience being a ‘black’ quarterback in the city of Pittsburgh and so much so that Sports Illustrated felt obliged to tell us when it put him on the cover in September of 1974 with the headline; “Pittsburgh’s Black Quarterback.”
Yesterday in Pittsburgh, another black quarterback returned to formally announce his retirement after last playing in the National Football League in 2005. Kordell Stewart came back to retire a Steeler yesterday which seemed only right as bizarre as the timing may be. The exciting, the controversial and the polarizing Stewart saw every face of the Steeler Nation during his time here and seemingly has become a better and stronger person for it.
My first recollection of Stewart as a player came when he heaved a 74-yard hail mary to teammate Michael Westbrook at the end of the game to defeat Michigan in the Big House sending his Colorado Buffaloes into a frenzy and making 110,000 people turn into a group of silenced monks. Stewart was exciting to watch. He was extremely nimble and had a very strong arm so when the Steelers drafted him in the 2nd round in 1995 I was excited about the prospects of what he might bring to the team. Although I was a little shocked to see him drafted that high, he nevertheless brought excitement with him.
Nicknamed ‘Slash’ by the late and great Steelers’ announcer Myron Cope, Stewart didn’t immediately play quarterback in the NFL for Bill Cowher’s Steelers. Instead, he saw time at receiver/running back/returner/punter and so on. It was a role he and the city embraced as just his presence on the field made it difficult for defenses to adjust. The Steelers would go on to lose Super Bowl XXX in his rookie campaign but the issues with where Stewart would play were just starting.
It was no secret that Stewart wanted to play quarterback in the NFL, but Bill Cowher always seemed reluctant to make the move and with good reason. While Stewart had the physical tools to be an excellent quarterback, he never seemed to be able to put them all together. Twice he helped lead the Steelers to the AFC Championship game but both times the Steelers lost at home to Denver in 1997 and New England in 2001.
In the Denver loss, Stewart threw three interceptions including a crucial one late when the the team was pounding the ball behind Jerome Bettis at will for a tying or go-ahead score. In the New England loss, special teams gaffes and Stewart’s three interceptions doomed the Steelers again in their quest for ‘one for the thumb.’
Fans in Pittsburgh are demanding and Stewart knows this as well as anyone. It’s fair to say that Stewart never really recovered from the loss to the Pats. He started the 2002 season as the starter but was replaced by the ever-popular Tommy Maddox in week three. Stewart would make a few more appearances in that season, but he was released following it and played for Chicago and Baltimore from 2003-2005.
Cowher’s commitment to Stewart as the starting quarterback was never with full conviction and the fan base felt the same way. Like myself, many felt Stewart was much more valuable in his ‘Slash’ role but no one could blame him for wanting to be a quarterback. Although he did have a Pro Bowl season in ’01, the doubters remained. The offense under Mike Mularkey at that time many argued, was scaled back with a short passing game and a reliance on the run perhaps too much but was done to limit turnovers.
Had Stewart been able to get one of those teams to the Super Bowl perhaps his legacy in Pittsburgh would be different, but it was not to be. Stewart will always be remembered for his ‘Slash’ role more than anything else he accomplished at quarterback which may or may not be fair.
While Gilliam’s shot at QB was short-lived, Stewart had tremendous opportunities and at times flourished. Unfortunately, in the most crucial of times, he left us needing more. His decision to comeback to Pittsburgh and officially retire a Steeler seven years since he last played here will certainly elicit some humorous comments because of how odd it is but for some reason it almost seems too perfect for Stewart. In a way, it kind of sums up his time in the black ‘n gold.