Stewart the jock of all trades

Matt Tench on Kordell Stewart, the running, catching, passing quarterback
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The Independent Online
For someone who began the season as the Pittsburgh Steelers fourth- choice quarterback - most teams only bother with three - Kordell Stewart can expect to see a lot of the ball come Sunday. Catching it. Throwing it. Running with it. Even punting it. For in a game which specialises in specialists, Stewart is the exception, the jock of all trades.

But if Stewart's story is one of the brighter strands of a troubled NFL season - his novelty and ebullient personality have made him the most talked-about rookie since The Fridge weighed in a decade ago - it also highlights a darker side of American football. The plight of the black quarterback.

Stewart, a likeable and relaxed 22-year-old, has played the pivotal position all his life, and was an outstanding success at college in Colorado. However, when it came to being drafted into the NFL a familiar pattern emerged. Like many of his colour before him, there was great enthusiasm for his remarkable athletic gifts, but reservations about his ability to lead an offense.

Would he consider changing to wide receiver or defensive back? "I just don't know why a quarterback has to be 6ft 8in and 230 pounds, with blond hair and blue eyes," he said recently. "A team will invest in someone like that and say that he's going to be its quarterback six years down the road. But why can't a team do that with someone who's 6ft 1in and black? People think a black guy isn't going to be a smart quarterback, and that's b.s."

Stewart's predicament came a couple of years after Charlie Ward, another outstanding black play-caller, found himself undrafted, ostensibly because he was also considering a career in professional basketball. Jimmy Johnson, the former head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, and now in charge at Miami, suggested at the time that Ward had been the victim of discrimination. "There's still a stigma that blacks can't figure out sophisticated pro- style offenses. It's a tragedy that Charlie Ward wasn't drafted. And don't give me that bull about how he was thinking of playing in the NBA," he said.

Stewart insisted he only wanted work as a quarterback, and was taken by the Steelers in the second round, though his place in their depth chart hardly suggested he was being groomed as their play-caller of the near future. As the season began he did not even need to put a uniform on.

Then, as the Steelers made an uncertain start to the season, the head coach, Bill Cowher, approached Stewart to play wide receiver. Recalling the conversation, Stewart said: "When coach Cowher came to me and asked me, I asked him, 'Will quarterback be my thing in the future?' He said yes."

Ron Erhardt, the team's offensive co-ordinator, soon realised that in Stewart he had a player whose talents incorporated many positions. When this was transferred to the field his impact was little short of sensational. In a Monday night game against Cleveland Stewart ran twice, caught a couple of passes and threw for his first NFL touchdown. The match was screened coast-to-coast and a legend was born. He even had a nickname, "Slash", given to him by Cowher, because he was now listed as quarterback/receiver.

Erhardt, whose strategy was normally not so much conservative as Gingrichian, relished the scope for unorthodoxy that Stewart allowed, and suddenly the Pittsburgh offense, long regarded as prehistoric, became the talk of the league. As the Steelers rebounded from a poor start to forge a route to Sunday's Super Bowl, the rookie became an increasingly vital part of their offense.

The Steelers are firm underdogs but Stewart presents one of the game's few intangibles. The Cowboys have the best defense he will have played against, lightning quick and unforgiving. Given the predictable nature of the Pittsburgh attack without Stewart though, Erhardt surely has no option but to try to involve him as frequently as possible. And it is just possible that Stewart's versatility will confuse what is not the most adaptable unit.

As to the future, Stewart said this week that he trusted Cowher to give him the chance to play quarterback. The contract of Neil O'Donnell, the team's starter, is up next month, but it would be a surprise if he is not offered a lucrative new one. Of Stewart, Cowher will say only: "I think he has a future as a quarterback-slash-receiver."

Stewart's best hope may rest with the league's rules makers. The NFL, which has a fascination for petty bureaucracy to make the boys in Brussels look positively laissez-faire, has already expressed its concern that Stewart is wearing No 10, a quarterback's number, but playing mainly as a wide receiver. Stewart says the only thing he will not do for the Steelers is change his number. Which means his team may have to play him more at quarterback, or trade him to someone who will.

Either way, there are many reasons for hoping that Kordell Stewart one day gets his chance to be a starting quarterback. It would be a shame if he were just a Slash in the pan.