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Finder on the Web: Looking for Kordell Stewart in his home town

Tuesday, December 05, 2000

MARRERO, La. -- You cross the Huey P. Long Bridge and ride high above the Mississippi River, high enough to glimpse the skyscraper center of New Orleans and the white head of the Superdome a few miles to the east.

You carefully navigate the skinny, half-century-old Huey Long as it carries U.S. 90 motorists to this bending river corner known as the West Bank, depositing them in Bridge City and the marshy bottom of Jefferson Parish (that's a county to you and me). Turn next onto Business 90 East, pass Bayou Segnette State Park and the city of Westwego, and when you get to the Popeye's and Church's fried-chicken establishments, you are there.

Marrero, Lou-see-anna, home of Kordell Stewart.

You see no sign for Marrero. You see no sign anywhere saying this is the West Bank location that produced an NFL quarterback with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This is an unincorporated community that sprawls almost to the encroaching edges of St. Charles and Plaquemines parishes. Canals line the roadsides containing trickles of water and resting cranes. The shuttered Belle Promenade Mall sits beside the fenced-in high school with the sheriff's car out front, the school with the prominent quarterback alumnus and a long-standing sign: "Welcome to John Ehret High. We have 'opportunities for everyone.'"

Here you find that Kordell Stewart's hometown reacts to him much the same way Pittsburgh does.

Some people don't like him.

Some people like him.

A few don't care.

"All the talk here is the high school game," Gee says as you settle into his barber's chair at First Impressions, which you choose for its name and its symmetry. Kordell Stewart's daddy, Robert, used to cut hair in their home in the Haydel section, barely a half mile from Ehret. He supposedly called his side business First Edition. "Ehret's playing Shaw. The winner goes to the Superdome. St. Aug, across the river, they're playing to go to the Superdome, too. I went to Higgins, up Westwood here. But it's what folks are talking about. It's exciting. Be a good game.

"That man in the chair before you, the one in the Saints hat? He was trying to get me to bug on the Saints. They might not even make the playoffs. I'm a Dallas fan. Dallas Cowboys first, Jets second, then ... nobody else I care about. The Saints aren't that good.

"Where'd you hear about our shop?"((ENDITAL))

Drive up and down 4th Avenue on the north end of Marrero, and you wonder if much has changed here in the past 25 years, even longer. The blue metal arms of the shipyard tower over the Mississippi to the north. A field of oil tanks, sprouting as if planted there, stand between the river and the industrial end of this community. There are old, Deep South establishments with placards for old Jax beer and rooms for rent. There is an Angry Cajun Diner two doors down from a Friendly Inn. There is nary a sign for the Saints or the Steelers or anything other than folks scratching out an existence each day.

The Celotex plant sprawls along Fourth Avenue, spouting smoke into the powder-blue midday sky. The company makes fiber board, and you'll see that name on most every house being built in these parts. Celotex employs about 100 folks. You go ahead and ask the woman in the plant entrance: Have you heard of Kordell Stewart?

"No."

"Patrick Surtain, plays for the Miami Dolphins? He's from around here," Gee begins. Barber shops are great places for chit-chat, for trying to take the pulse of a community. Marrero's pulse reads: 5A high school football state semifinals and scratching out an existence each day. "My mother's married to his grandfather. Or great grandfather. Never met him, though.

"What do people here think of Kordell? Well, some folks are down on him because they think he doesn't want any part of here. Say he said something bad, about projects or something. I don't know.

"Get on the bus one day, and folks are talking about it. Say he turned his back on his people.

"Like I say, I didn't hear it myself. Maybe it wasn't what he said. Maybe the media wrote something else, you know?

"Some black folks here think once you make money, you don't want any part of black folks. I don't know about that. It's just that you have to handle yourself differently. Me, I want to see the man prosper. I want everyone to do well, whatever they do. White people and black people ..."

You are white. Gee is African-American. You understand. You feel sad for everyone.

After all, it probably has been far too long since this shop last saw a white customer. Or a Jewish customer.

Or, worse, a sports writer.

So you pore over newspaper stories that mentioned Kordell Stewart and Marrero, and the only conceivably derisive comment you find is from Aug. 28, 1994. It was a Denver Post story profiling the Buffaloes quarterback and previewing his senior season at Colorado University. It was a long time ago and far, far away from the delta heat.

Deep in the article, the writer remarked about a potential NFL career and the possibility that the kid could afford to do something for the widowed father who cut hair in their home, worked construction, cooked meals large enough to last three days, raised two boys.

"He wants him out of Marrero, which has changed from a sleepy suburb into a spill off for New Orleans gangs," the author wrote. "Kordell has had a friend shot to death accidentally and a cousin killed in a drug-related accident.

"'I just want to get my daddy away from there so he doesn't have to look over his shoulder,' Stewart said."

Billy North clucked at the idea of Marrero folks maligning the Steelers quarterback he tutored as Ehret's quarterback coach. "Let me tell you something," said North, now the head coach of Patriots who lost, 18-15, last Friday to Shaw, the parochial rival located a half-mile up Barataria Boulevard, across from the Diocese's Hope Haven and Madonna Manor. "When you're in Kordell's position and everything is looked at under a microscope, people can take things the wrong way. I'm a football coach. I know things can be taken out of context.

"I'm very proud of Kordell. I remember the kid when he was in the seventh grade. Kordell loves Marrero. He loves the people here. He came back here last spring and worked out with the kids. Took a couple of kids under his wing and really helped them out, like our quarterback, Bruce Petty, who lives four houses down from Kordell's house. Kordell worked almost every day with our weight coach, Kenny Bourgeois. People got used to seeing him around here, walking the halls and working out, it was like he was back in school."

"Why don't they use him as Slash again?" Gee asks. You explain that he has returned to that role to a degree, running and throwing and using his abilities at quarterback to lead the Steelers to a 7-3 record in games when he gets significant playing time. "That's good," Gee says. "He's fast."

"I knew a game like that Raiders game was coming, too," North continued. "I'm serious. You guys up there have been through a lot of changes the last few years -- players in and out, coordinators ... All of the sudden, people say he can't play quarterback? That's a crock.

"It seems like now he's getting back on his feet. So don't hate him when he's losing and love him when he's winning."

That's part of being a fan.

That's part of being human.

Sometimes people forget, underneath the glory and the football uniform and skin there is a human being the same as me and you. It's just that some get different opportunities than others.

"You ever hear of Reggie Wayne, plays at the University of Miami?," Gee asks. "He went to Shaw. Our third barber played with him."

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