I don’t know what the timeline is for most of you guys, but for me, when I was really first becoming an active football fan and figuring out what I was interested in and identified with the Pittsburgh Steelers—yes, I’m sure many or most of you were born Steelers fans—it was Kordell Stewart under center.
And I liked him. He was cool. He was fast. He had a big arm. Most importantly, he was exciting. That’s from the fan perspective, anyway. Nearly decades on from the end of his playing career, Stewart understands that there is one thing above all that was important about his time in Pittsburgh: he was Kordell Stewart. He stayed true to himself.
Yes, he was ‘Slash’. He still ran the ball plenty when he was under center. But that’s become more established now, with players like Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray, than when he was playing. A lot of people wanted Jackson to move to wide receiver. Stewart did move to receiver. He didn’t really have a choice.
But he kept working, and waited his turn, and eventually became the starter. He helped bring the Steelers to two AFC Championship Games. He even made it to the Pro Bowl one year, in 2001, when they went 13-3.
Stewart reflected on his legacy in an article that he penned for the Players Tribune, in which he discussed the rumors that circulated in the late 1990s about his personal life. It was said that he was arrested while performing sexual acts with a man in a park.
Much of the article talks about the fallout from that, and how he handled it, but ultimately about how he emerged from and grew from it. He recalls the backlash in Pittsburgh, how he was taunted and mocked in Three Rivers Stadium.
But he’s most proud of the fact that he never walked away. Not from the rumors. Not from the haters. Not from the critics. Not even from the coaches, who kept insisting that he belonged at wide receiver. He even recalled a moment with Dan Rooney at Jerome Bettis’ Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony, when Rooney told him that if he’d stayed at wide receiver, they would be here for his jacket.
You know, my whole career, people told me that I’d be in Canton if I’d just make the switch”, he wrote. “No, sir. It wasn’t going down like that. See, with all love and respect to Mr. Rooney, I wasn’t concerned about a gold jacket. I needed to do something more important. I needed to be me”.
Perhaps it is true that he ultimately would have had a more successful career as an athlete in the NFL—even if the Steelers might not necessarily have been successful—if he’d always done what others wanted him to do. But sometimes it’s important to stick to your guns.