Former Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart is finally sharing his side of the story, opening up in a Players’ Tribune essay on Thursday discussing his complicated relationship with Pittsburgh and his fans.
In the essay, Stewart details the homophobic rumors and racism he experienced during his Pittsburgh career, and how they impacted his connection with the Steeler faithful.
Slander regarding Stewart ran roughshod in 1998, with homophobic rumors accusing him of engaging in lewd actions with another man in a city park.
“It never happened. It was a lie,” Stewart wrote. “But that wasn’t the point, right? It was Twitter trolls before Twitter existed, trying to put me in an impossible situation.”
While the claims were false, Pittsburgh and the world at large were a very different, less accepting place in the late 1990s, a reality which Stewart admits factored into his reaction to the gossip and his teammates’ perception of him.
“I got nothing but love for everybody, no matter what their sexual orientation is. It’s great to see how much the world has evolved in the last 20 years,” Stewart said. “But when this was all happening? Man, you have to understand, I’m a young Black quarterback in a blue-collar town. Being the target of those kinds of rumors? At that time? In that era? In that NFL?”
After former Steelers president Dan Rooney check up on Stewart, head coach Bill Cowher had the quarterback address the team. Stewart regrets how he handled that ensuing conversation, giving the rumors credence and treating it as more of standup routine than an honest conversation among teammates. Paranoia and hypersensitivity set in as a result.
“I could feel a change in the atmosphere right away. Maybe some of it was in my own head, but I felt like guys were looking at me differently,” he wrote. “I was hypersensitive to how everything I did was being perceived, you know? I was in my own head, and that’s not a good place to be for a quarterback.”
According to Stewart, the Steelers later determined the rumor was started by a local police officer. Later that season was when Stewart experienced racism from his own fans. After a loss to the New England Patriots, a fan threw a beer at Stewart and called him the n-word.
“I can already hear people getting defensive. Just some trash talk, right? Just how it was back then when you went on the road, right? Nah, bro. We weren’t in New England. We were playing at home. We were in Pittsburgh. Dude was wearing a Steelers jacket.”
Stewart also discussed his relationship with the late Dan Rooney, and explained why he always resisted switching to wide receiver, a move which likely would have benefited him more in the long run. For Stewart, it was all about being true to himself.
“I took all the shots. I took all the slurs. I took all the slander. I made a lot of mistakes. But I stayed in that pocket. And dammit, I did it my way.”
Selected in the second round of the 1995 NFL Draft out of Colorado, Stewart spent the first eight years of his career in Pittsburgh, breaking through as an all-purpose weapon that birthed his nickname “Slash.”
Upon becoming the full-time starting quarterback in 1997, Stewart took the league by storm, demonstrating athleticism ahead of its time for the position.
He passed for 13,328 yards and 70 touchdowns with 72 interceptions as a Steeler, while also rushing for 2,561 yards and 35 scores.
Stewart led the Steelers to a pair of AFC Championship games, and was named a Pro Bowler in 2001.
You remember the rumors?— The Players' Tribune (@PlayersTribune) February 4, 2021
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