American Football: Stewart set to crown journey back from ignominy

The quarterback who leads the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's NFL play-off was once booed by his own fans
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By the very nature of their profession, all quarterbacks experience peaks and troughs during the course of a career. Brett Favre recalls being deemed surplus to requirements by the Atlanta Falcons, but that was before he arrived in Green Bay, where he has since established himself as one of the most gifted playmakers of his generation.

This weekend Favre's Packers will duel with the St Louis Rams and their prolific passer Kurt Warner, a man once so completely overlooked that he left his job stacking shelves in an Iowa supermarket to play with the Amsterdam Admirals in NFL Europe. Warner has subsequently been named the NFL's most valuable player in two of the last three seasons, a feat bettered only by Favre, who managed three in a row in the 1990s.

Both have won Super Bowls, and as the play-offs reach the second round this weekend, only two wins from another championship appearance, both have established reputations beyond question.

Which is more than can be said for Kordell Stewart of the Pittsburgh Steelers. On Sunday, the Steelers face the daunting obstacle of the Baltimore Ravens, not only the defending champions, but a side capable of shattering the spirit of the most battle-hardened quarterback. This will be the sternest test of his seven-year career.

In that time, Stewart has experienced more highs and lows than Favre and Warner combined. He entered the league in 1995 with the reputation as a player who could do anything. The Steelers used him as a receiver, running back, quarterback and even punter, his versatility earning him the nickname "Slash" from his combative coach, Bill Cowher.

The Steeler faithful, a tough, blue-collar crowd, fell in love with him. He could do it all, rushing for a first down here, tossing a touchdown pass there, catching another, as he did in a play-off win over the Indianapolis Colts in his rookie year to book the Steelers a place in the Super Bowl. Slash was the toast of Steeltown.

There is no place for utility players in the NFL however. Kordell wanted to be a specialist quarterback, and that's where the problems began. Stewart struggled with the complexities of the role. The open-field running that had thrilled fans and terrified opponents became a memory; fans booed when he was introduced before kick-off; replica jerseys were burned; ugly rumours about his private life circulated freely; team-mates openly questioned his commitment.

In 1999, Stewart was told he would no longer be the team's quarterback and the Steelers signed the journeyman Kent Graham, with a clearly distraught Stewart returning to his earlier role of wide receiver. The Graham experiment was always doomed, and with the Steelers already eliminated from the play-offs late last year, Cowher decided to give Stewart another look.

With the pressure of expectation removed, he performed with sufficient poise to earn the job back for 2001. When the season began, Cowher announced: "This is a big year for Kordell. He took some steps last year and has taken hold of the system. We're going to be successful as long as the quarterback is successful."

The Steelers have certainly been successful, winning 13 of their 16 matches, the most since 1978, and the renaissance of Kordell Stewart has been one of the stories of the season. "I've always had confidence in myself, and that's where the frustration has come," he said. "I've always said that once things were right, with the coaches or whatever, we can win."

Much of the credit goes to the new offensive co-ordinator, Mike Mularkey, who not only simplified a complex offense, but allowed Stewart the freedom to run when he wants to. The results have been astonishing. This season, Stewart completed 60.2 per cent of his passes, a Steeler record, for a career-high 3,109 yards.

"I knew it was there," said Mularkey, "all I had to do was reach in there and grab it. I just needed to go back and get the old Kordell."

The Ravens thrive on breaking quarterback hearts and bodies. In their last five play-off games, the defending champions have yielded a miserly 26 points, leaving a trail of hollow-eyed passers in stunned bewilderment. When Stewart faced Baltimore in the regular season, he threw a career-best 333 yards against them in a flawless performance.

Now, with the stakes raised, comes the real test. If he prevails, the restoration of Kordell Stewart will be complete.