Kordell Stewart may not have been one of the biggest stars in the National Football League, but he was one of its first truly versatile players.
He played multiple positions throughout his career and played a significant role in the revitalization of one of the game’s most iconic franchises.
In doing so, Stewart showed off a set of physical skills that many football players lacked during his era.
Growing Up In The Big Easy
On Oct. 16, 1972, Kordell Stewart was born in New Orleans, La. to Robert and Florence Stewart, and he was raised in Marrero, which is a suburb of the Big Easy, located just south of the Mississippi River on the opposite side of the city.
Stewart’s father held multiple jobs, including working as a barber, carpenter and house painter, in order to support his three children. But Stewart’s childhood wasn’t exactly easy.
His mother died when he was just 11 years old after losing a battle with liver cancer, leaving a huge void. Many times, when a parent isn’t around for a child for whatever reason, that child ends up having major issues that may last into adulthood.
But young Stewart decided to be a survivor instead of a victim.
“My mom passed away when I was eleven, and my dad’s been there for me ever since,” he once told Reuters. “It’s been a rough one for me, but when things like that happen to you, you can either be a person who goes astray or understand that things happen for a reason, and that’s the approach that I have taken.”
To help make sure he stayed on the right path, Stewart would help his father at his job, or assist with household chores such as cooking and doing laundry.
He carried a sizeable burden, and although it prevented him from getting serious about football until the start of his junior year at John Ehret High School, it helped him hone his work ethic.
Once Stewart made the varsity team at John Ehret, he started to take off. Playing quarterback, he passed for 1,645 yards and 19 touchdowns as a junior.
The next year, Stewart started to display his versatility. Playing in an option offense, he threw for 942 yards and 17 touchdowns, while gaining 923 yards and scoring 23 touchdowns on the ground.
Thanks to his prolific production, his team posted a record of 8-3 and won the district championship while winning Louisiana’s Most Valuable Player and the New Orleans Player of the Year award. He was now a hot commodity as a college football prospect, and many prominent programs were clamoring for him to commit to them.
Taking Flight In The Mile High State
Stewart ultimately decided to play for the University of Colorado, which offered him a scholarship. Head coach Bill McCartney ran an offensive scheme that was option-based, and it would greatly benefit Stewart.
He didn’t play much as a freshman, but he became a starter in his sophomore season of 1992, and it became clear that he was special.
In his first game that year, he led Colorado to a win against rival Colorado State with 409 yards, a new school record, and four touchdowns.
On the season, he set a new Buffaloes record with 2,109 passing yards in his nine games while tying another school record with 12 touchdown passes and adding an additional rushing touchdown. Colorado went on to win the Aloha Bowl.
His junior season saw him rise to another level. In addition to his 2,299 passing yards and 11 passing touchdowns, he also ran for 524 yards and six touchdowns, establishing himself as a multi-threat player.
Stewart still had room for improvement, and a key factor in helping him fulfill more of his potential would be Rich Neuheisel, who became an assistant under McCartney for the 1994 season. That summer, Stewart put in plenty of work with Neuheisel, who had coached Hall of Fame QB Troy Aikman several years earlier while an assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Stewart readily gave Neuheisel plenty of credit for helping him to improve his craft.
“If I’d had [Neuheisel as a coach] since my freshman year, I would have gone in the first round [of the NFL draft],” Stewart later told Sports Illustrated. “He taught me about coverages and gave me confidence.”
The Stewart who showed up for the 1994 season was more refined. His passing stats weren’t better (he had 2,071 yards and 10 touchdowns that year), but he threw only three interceptions, compared to seven the year before and nine as a sophomore.
He also continued to run the ball when he had the chance to the tune of 639 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
Stewart stewarded the Buffaloes to an 11-1 record in ’94. The highlight of the season came against the University of Michigan in late September and produced lasting memories for everyone who saw it.
Trailing with just seconds remaining, Stewart launched 64-yard Hail Mary pass that landed in the hands of wide receiver Michael Westbrook for a touchdown, giving Colorado an improbable one-point win.
This Day In 1994: Kordell Stewart’s “Hail Mary” pass at Michigan travels an astounding 75 yards in the air, as No. 7 Colorado shocks No. 4 Michigan at “The Big House,” 27-26.
Keith Jackson and Bob Griese on the call, of course… pic.twitter.com/d4Xb0tQlhQ
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) September 24, 2021
Stewart would end his time at Colorado by leading it to a win in the 1995 Fiesta Bowl over the University of Notre Dame by throwing for 205 yards and running for another 143 yards on just seven carries.
With that, he entered the 1995 NFL Draft.
Finding Himself In The Steel City
Stewart was considered a serious prospect and a first-round talent. However, scouts and coaches didn’t seem totally sold on him being a full-time quarterback, like he was insistent on being at the pro level, and suggested that he could go higher in the draft if he were willing to play other positions.
“I can do a lot of different things,” Stewart said before the draft. “But my main thing is to be quarterback, and it always will be.”
It illustrated his versatile potential, but at the same time, it perhaps made him seem like the classic “jack of all trades but master of none.”
Nonetheless, the Pittsburgh Steelers took him in the second round of the draft with the 60th overall pick. Coming off a trip to the AFC Championship Game, they were set at QB with Neil O’Donnell and backup Mike Tomczak, but head coach Bill Cowher still wanted to find a way to take advantage of Stewart’s elite speed (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds).
At the same time, the rookie backed off his insistence of only playing under center.
Thus, Stewart saw spot duty at multiple positions in 1995. He only started two of the 10 games he appeared in, and while playing QB, he only threw seven passes, but he completed five of them, one of which turned into a touchdown.
Browns@Steelers on MNF
Kordell Stewart throws TD on 1st career pass
Steelers go on to win 20-3 in their last home game against the original Browns (1995)
— Steel City Star (@steelcitystar) January 2, 2022
As a wideout, he had 235 yards and a touchdown, and he also recorded 86 yards and a touchdown on the ground, giving him the rare feat of scoring a passing, rushing and receiving touchdown in the same season.
Back in the 20th century, NFL players were typecast into rigid roles, especially quarterbacks. Signal-callers were supposed to either pass the ball or get it to their tailback and not call their own number.
Quarterbacks back then were also not very mobile and therefore not adept at gaining yardage by keeping the ball and running it themselves. It was a time before Michael Vick, Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson would change the job description of a pro quarterback to include “running the football when necessary or available.”
But Stewart would be a harbinger of a more free-wheeling NFL that was still years away from emerging.
He earned the nickname “Slash” from Steelers color commentator Myron Cope. It wasn’t because Stewart could slash through defenses (although he was adept at that) – it was because his job description was listed as quarterback/wide receiver/rusher, thus the “Slash” moniker referred to the slashes in his positional description.
Pittsburgh won 11 games in ’95 and advanced to the conference title game for the second-straight year. There, they faced the Indianapolis Colts, a Cinderella team that was heavy underdogs against the Steelers.
Just seconds before halftime, O’Donnell made a short pass to Stewart for a touchdown and a 10-6 lead. Although Stewart had barely stepped out of bounds before catching the pass, which should’ve made him an ineligible receiver, officials didn’t see him do so, and the NFL didn’t have instant replay at the time, so the touchdown stood.
When Colts QB Jim Harbaugh failed to connect on a Hail Mary pass at the end, the Steelers had won 20-16 and were on their way to Super Bowl XXX against the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys were a much superior team, however, and they pulled away in the second half for a 27-17 win.
O’Donnell left before the 1996 season, making Tomczak the starting QB. Stewart played in all 16 games and started two of them at wide receiver, where he registered 293 yards and three touchdowns.
On the ground, he had 171 rushing yards and an impressive five touchdowns, and in a December game against the Carolina Panthers, he converted an 80-yard run into a touchdown, which was the longest such rush by a QB.
They called him "Slash" and he did just that.
After starting the game on the bench, Kordell Stewart entered in the second quarter and almost immediately ripped off an 80-yard TD run.
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) November 9, 2018
The Steelers finished 10-6 in ’96, and in the playoffs, they had their way with the Colts in the opening round, as Stewart flashed his all-around abilities.
OTD 25 years ago….
Kordell Stewart was used sparingly but still had himself a day
— Steel City Star (@steelcitystar) December 30, 2021
After that, however, Pittsburgh got walloped in the divisional round by the New England Patriots.
Running The Show
Finally, for the 1997 season, Stewart would accomplish his ultimate goal of being a starting quarterback in the NFL, as Cowher turned over the keys to the offense to him.
He would have plenty of help, as he had running back Jerome Bettis and wideout Yancey Thigpen, both Pro Bowlers, lining up with him.
That season, Stewart had a whale of a campaign with 3,020 passing yards, 21 passing touchdowns, 476 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. This made him the first QB with at least 20 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns in the same season.
With Stewart keeping defenses off-balance, both Bettis and Thigpen had career seasons, and the Steelers went 11-5, finishing first in the AFC Central.
After squeaking past New England in the divisional round, Pittsburgh returned to the AFC Championship where it would play John Elway and the Denver Broncos, a team that had been there before themselves and gotten to the Super Bowl but hadn’t won it all.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) January 3, 2018
Stewart had one passing and rushing touchdown, but he had three interceptions, plus a fumble, resulting in a gut-wrenching 24-21 loss.
In 1998, he regressed, throwing more interceptions (18) than touchdowns (11) and scoring only two rushing touchdowns. It was the same story the next season, and it seemed that perhaps opposing defenses were starting to figure Stewart out.
It was around this time that Stewart also had to deal with some drama off the field, as fans were having a hard time warming up to him and rallying around him as their team’s leader.
After a game in 1998 against the Patriots, Stewart was leaving Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers’ home field, when a fan of his own team threw a beer at him and called him a racial slur.
Some men would’ve put their heads in the sand in response, but just as he had done when his mother passed away, Stewart dug in and persevered.
Coach Cowher decided to bench him and start Kent Graham at the outset of the 2000 campaign. After starting 1-3, Graham suffered a hip injury, and just like that Stewart returned to the starting lineup under center.
He showed more steadiness that year, limiting himself to eight interceptions, although he only threw for 11 touchdowns. On the ground, he remained a threat with 436 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Steelers won seven of his 11 games as the starting QB, but they narrowly missed the playoffs.
For the 2001 season, Pittsburgh hired two new coaches: Tom Clements, a QB coach, and Mike Mularkey, its new offensive coordinator. They would play a role in Stewart continuing to improve.
He would turn in a career season with 3,109 passing yards, 14 passing touchdowns, 537 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns, which earned him his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
December 16th 2001:
Kordell Stewart (@KSlash10) puts on a show, throws for 333 yards (and 2 TDs) and runs for another 55 yards. Hits Bobby Shaw for a 90 yard strike in the 4th Q to put the Steelers up 2 scores.
— Derrick (@Steelers_DB) October 30, 2020
The Steelers’ offense greatly improved, and they finished with a 13-3 record, their best record since the 1978 season and the peak of the dynastic “Steel Curtain” era. By now, Steelers Nation had fully embraced Stewart as the leader of their team.
Pittsburgh had high hopes entering the playoffs. The team knocked off the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round to face the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.
The Patriots were just starting to build their dynasty and mystique, and Stewart struggled with three interceptions and no touchdowns, resulting in a 24-17 Pittsburgh loss.
Things did not exactly improve for him in 2002. In just the third game of the season against the Cleveland Browns, he threw a pass into double coverage, looking to find a receiver for a score, but it was intercepted instead.
Coach Cowher responded by benching Stewart in favor of Tommy Maddox. Later, when Maddox was out with n injury, Stewart briefly returned to the starting lineup, but his play was still mediocre at best.
The Steelers made the playoffs with a 10-5-1 record, but he didn’t see the field for either of their postseason contests. With his future in Pittsburgh in question, Stewart decided to move on.
Playing Out The String
During the 2003 offseason, Stewart was a free agent, and he signed with the Chicago Bears, a franchise that had been sputtering for more than a decade.
After going through a long carousel of QBs who didn’t work out, Chicago gave Kordell the starting spot when the ’03 season began.
However, his struggles continued. He threw quite a few interceptions and was often sacked as Chicago lost four of its first five games.
Prior to Week 7, head coach Dick Jauron decided to replace Stewart with Chris Chandler, who had taken the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl several years earlier.
When Chandler didn’t work out well enough, Stewart played two more games as the starter before being benched in favor of Rex Grossman, a rookie.
The Bears went 7-9 on the season and missed the playoffs, and they released Stewart after the end of the campaign.
He then made his way onto the Baltimore Ravens for the 2004 campaign, who were looking for a backup QB. He did not throw a single pass that season; in fact, his only positive contribution was serving as a punter in Week 10 against the New York Jets when regular punter Dave Zastudil was out.
Stewart was even named the NFL Special Teams Player of the Week for doing so.
The Ravens released him once the season concluded, but when Boller got hurt in Week 1 of 2005, Stewart was brought back into the fold. He played in only one game that year, and once again, he attempted nary a pass.
Baltimore cut him from its roster late that season, and just like that, Stewart’s NFL career was over. A few years later, he told a radio station that he wanted to return to the league, but no team picked him up.
It wasn’t until 2012 that he officially retired from pro football.
Legacy And Post-Football Life
Although Stewart will likely never make it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he did make his mark on the game by transcending the traditional expectations of quarterbacks.
He could do more than simply pass or hand off the football, and perhaps it opened up people’s eyes to other areas in which a signal-caller could provide value to his team.
In fact, in 2008, the NFL named Stewart the sixth-most versatile player in its history.
Away from the game, he has looked to start a family, but with mixed results. He had a son at one point named Syre with his ex-girlfriend Tania Richardson.
In 2009, Stewart looked to have better luck with settling down. While at Luckie Lounge in downtown Atlanta, he met a woman named Porsha Williams Stewart, who is the granddaughter of late civil rights icon Hosea Williams.
In the beginning, she didn’t know Stewart was an NFL player, and he didn’t know she was the descendant of the famous activist who was a part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle. She also became a fixture on the reality show “Real Housewives of Atlanta.”
But they hit it off, and two years later they got married in a posh and flashy reception that was shown on WE tv’s “Platinum Weddings.”
However, in 2013, she filed for divorce, claiming that the union was broken and beyond repair. There were reports that Stewart was not willing to pay any spousal support.
He would also try his hand at being a sports commentator. In 2009 he made appearances on ESPN’s “College Football Live,” and he has also been on some other sports shows, including “NFL Live” and “Mike and Mike in the Morning.”
In 2012 he began a stint as the co-host of WZGC “92.9 The Game”, an afternoon drive radio sports talk show in the Atlanta market, a stint that lasted for a couple of years.
Stewart has also been a contestant on the game shows “Deal or No Deal” and “Pros vs. Joes.”
Once he left Pittsburgh, the team moved on without him and found itself again. After drafting a quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, the iconic franchise returned to prominence, and it won the Super Bowl in just his second season under center.
The Steelers would then win another world championship three seasons later and come close to a third following the 2010 season.
While all the credit for the team’s most recent era of success has gone to men like Roethlisberger and wide receiver Hines Ward, perhaps Stewart was one of the players who helped paved the way for the Steelers’ eventual return to glory, as well as the modern game of football in which it is normal to see quarterbacks running for yardage as a first resort.