Slash & Burn : Stewart Runs / Passes / Catches but Wants to Be QB

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It happens every time. He steps on the field and the defense begins shouting like construction workers who have happened upon a live explosive.

Like tough guys gone scared.

"There's 10! There's 10!" they yell. "Watch 10. Watch 10!"

Then they start guessing.

All defenses guess, but when the Pittsburgh Steelers' No. 10 comes into the game, they guess out loud.

"He's running deep!" somebody shouts.

"Draw! Draw!" someone else shouts.

"Screen, screen," from a third defender.

All when Kordell Stewart s lined up in the same position.

Which he thinks is hilarious.

"Cracks me up," Stewart said with one of his huge laughs. "They have no idea what I'm doing."

Like the time he was lined up as a shotgun quarterback against the Jacksonville Jaguars. One of the defenders yelled, "Option, option, option."

One problem. In the shotgun, you can't run an option because there are no running backs behind the quarterback.

"I'm calling the signals and I'm thinking, 'Option? Option? Who am I going to pitch it to, myself?' " Stewart said. "I got to the sidelines and broke up."

Such is life these days for the rookie known simply as "Slash."

As in, Kordell Stewart, quarterback-slash-running back-slash-wide receiver.

In a matter of weeks, he has slashed through the NFL's self-inflicted doldrums to make jaded fans smile again, and once-struggling teammates happy again.

While driving his opponents mad.

A month ago, he was a fourth-string rookie quarterback, a second-round draft pick going nowhere.

His team was a bust at 3-4. His coach, Bill Cowher, was about to implode.

Stewart was starting to wonder if his game-winning, 64-yard touchdown pass to Michael Westbrook on Colorado's final play against Michigan last season would be his final prayer.

"I was just rotting away," Stewart said.

Then one afternoon after the Steelers were embarrassed by the Cincinnati Bengals on ESPN, Cowher walked into a meeting among offensive coaches and threw up his hands.

"We have this kid with all this talent just sitting around," he said of Stewart. "Can we find some other way to use him?"

The coaches looked at him as if he were crazy.

He endorsed a game plan that proved it.

The Steelers positioned the 6-foot-1 "quarterback" at slot receiver. At running back. At wide receiver. And, yes, at quarterback.

They sent him deep on pass plays. They sent others deep on pass plays, and told him to throw it to them.

They ran him around end. They ran others around end and told him to pitch it to them.

They turned one player into three.

The results have been as astonishing as the schemes.

Before Stewart began playing, the Steelers were 3-4 and averaged 21 points per game.

With Stewart playing, the Steelers are 6-0, have averaged 28.5 points and clinched the AFC Central Division title.

Stewart has caught a touchdown pass, thrown for a touchdown, averaged more than six yards a carry and produced 12 first downs in his 19 plays.

He has not only helped beat other teams, he has beaten a system that rarely gives second chances to black quarterbacks.

In danger of becoming just another guy who ends up throwing passes in some arena or Canada, he has used his talents to persuade the Steelers to keep him around while he holds tight to his dream.

This summer he will attend quarterback school with offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt.

"And I will be a quarterback," Stewart said. "Don't care what anyone says."

Until then, he will continue having the time of his life.

"In practice, Coach will say, "OK, we're going to run such-and-such play--something really different--and the other players will look at me and look at each other," Stewart said. "Then they will laugh. We will all laugh."

*

About the only thing Kordell Stewart cannot do is . . . don't say it.

"Sure, I can kick field goals," he said. "Did it in high school. I was one of those straight-on kickers."

He would be.

It was his kicking that gave him his first chance to be a quarterback, according to Billy North, coach at John Ehret High in Marrero, La.

"His sophomore year, kicked our first-string quarterback right in the hand, broke his hand," North said. "Got him in the lineup."

By his senior year, he was one of the top prep quarterbacks in the nation. And top oddities.

"We picked up the paper to look at our final stats after his senior year and we couldn't believe it," North said. "He had rushed for 942 yards and passed for 942 yards. Exactly the same. We couldn't have done that if we tried."

After four years at Colorado, he was running more than half as much as he passed, and more efficiently. In his senior season, one of every 23 passes went for a touchdown. He scored on one of every 17 runs.

But he was convinced that his future was only as a quarterback. Which many scouts weren't buying.

He was considered small, his arm was not considered strong, and he was encumbered with the worst possible trait for prospective NFL quarterbacks.

He was black.

Only 10% of the 30 NFL teams have black starting quarterbacks--Warren Moon of the Minnesota Vikings, Jeff Blake of the Bengals and Rodney Peete of the Philadelphia Eagles--even though nearly 70% of the league's players are black.

One by one, club personnel employees approached Stewart last winter and asked whether he wanted to play running back, defensive back, even wide receiver.

Backed by agent Leigh Steinberg, who heard every stereotype applied to his client while representing Moon, Stewart stood firm.

"People who think I would have trouble with the position because I am black, they are stupid, ignorant," Stewart said. "If I can throw and lead as well as anybody else, why not give me a chance?"

Even if he might have been drafted higher at another position?

"The excitement and prestige of being an NFL quarterback carries over into the rest of your life, into everything you do," Steinberg said. "If you have a chance to be one, you have to take that chance, no matter what the risk, no matter what everyone else is telling you. Kordell believed this."

So Stewart began ignoring those who talked about him playing another position.

He participated in all-star games, the scouting combine and a personal workout--most quarterback prospects will choose one of those three things--in hopes of raising his stock.

It worked. His speed and athleticism impressed skeptics and he was taken at the end of the second round, the 60th pick overall. As a quarterback, even though the Steelers have three other competent veterans--starter Neil O'Donnell, veteran backup Mike Tomczak and competent third-stringer Jim Miller.

"I can't lie, I'm not ready to play quarterback here yet," Stewart said. "But I know I have enough potential to be given an opportunity. Black or white, ability is ability."

Now, he enjoys watching the shocked expressions.

Like when he lined up in the shotgun against the Cleveland Browns, ran the width of the field, then threw a two-yard touchdown pass to Ernie Mills.

Or when he lined up as a slot receiver against the Bengals and scored on a 71-yard pass play from O'Donnell up the middle for the go-ahead touchdown.

Or, in the same game, when he lined up at running back, took a handoff, then pitched the ball to Erric Pegram, who ran for a two-point conversion.

Most amazing has been his lunging catch of a 31-yard pass up the middle that led to the winning field goal against the Browns two weeks ago.

And to think that he never even ran a route in college.

He has defenses so confused they outthink themselves. He'll line up at wide receiver, but they think he's really going to take a handoff, so they don't cover him. And so on.

"Teams have blown coverages against him," said Houston Oiler safety Blaine Bishop, who helped limit Stewart to a seven-yard run, no catches and one incompletion Sunday. "When he's playing receiver, you have to cover him like he's going to get the ball. If he's at running back, you have to play him like he's getting the ball."

And on the rare times when he's actually at quarterback?

"You have to play him like you would O'Donnell," Bishop said.

That is saying something, considering O'Donnell's emergence is considered the main reason for the Steelers' revival.

'We're giving him just a little bit more each week," Erhardt said. "We still like him as a quarterback, but the guy can run, can throw, and can catch."

And the world continues to notice.

"I went to a store, I'm looking at the shirts, and this kid walks past and makes a U-turn," Stewart said slowly, relishing the story. "He goes to his friends and whispers, 'Look, look, that's Kordell Stewart.'

"I hear this, and I'm smiling and laughing."

But what kind of shirt did he buy? The buttoned-down type favored by quarterbacks? The collared sport variety worn by running backs? Or the floral print of a receiver?

No answer. Still laughing.

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