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Cook: Departing Stewart controversial, strong

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

So the time has finally come, the week when the divorce between Kordell Stewart and the Steelers becomes official. I'm wondering how the Steelers are going to get through it. I'm still not convinced they're better off with Tommy Maddox at quarterback. I'm wondering how the rest of us are going to make it. What are we going to talk about?

There have been huge sports heroes in this town. Roberto Clemente. Willie Stargell. Mario Lemieux. All of the Super Steelers. There also have been significant villains. Dave Parker. Barry Bonds. Roger Marino. But no athletic figure in Pittsburgh history has been more controversial. Kordell was so big, in his way, that he didn't even need a last name.

Sort of like Elvis.

For the life of me, I still can't figure out why.

It can't be because Stewart was such a bad quarterback. He wasn't. Sure, he played pathetic football for a long period of time, but he also led the team to two AFC championship games. If you think about it, it's a lot easier to name the quarterbacks in franchise history who were better than he was than those who were worse. There was only one.

It also can't be because Stewart was a freak or some sort of bad boy. We didn't have a Mike Tyson fascination with him. He wasn't a jerk like Bonds. He never was anything but professional in the good times and bad. He always handled himself with class.

No, it must be because Stewart is black. We don't like to admit that because it makes us look bad and feel sad. But let's face it. There still are a lot of racists out there. It always was easy for them to root against Stewart and try to make his life miserable.

Or maybe it's because Stewart never seemed to take enough blame. I didn't like that, either. After a horrible performance against Houston last season, Maddox stood up and said, "Put this loss on me." Fans respect that. Teammates love it. That's one reason the quarterback gets paid so much. It always was a little irksome that Stewart, after a bad game, would say, "It isn't just about Kordell. It's about the team."

Then again, Stewart probably figured he would get blamed enough anyway.

No matter what he did, it never seemed quite good enough. When the Steelers went to the AFC championship game after the 2001 season, it was because of their great defense, not because of anything the quarterback did. That might have been true to a point, but shouldn't the same thinking have applied when the team stumbled early last season? The defense couldn't stop anybody, but all you heard was how poorly the quarterback was playing.

Then, Bill Cowher made the switch to Maddox in the third game. It had to be one of the quickest hooks of a team MVP in NFL history. At the time, it seemed reckless -- not just because of how well Stewart played the year before, but because of Maddox's weak track record. Maddox ended up playing better than anyone, including Cowher, could have imagined, although, it should be noted, the Steelers didn't go as far in the playoffs as they did a year earlier.

I know, it was that darned defense.

Stewart handled the snub well. He never criticized Cowher publicly. He remained supportive of Maddox. He kept working and was able to lead the Steelers to two wins when Maddox was injured.

No one should have been surprised. This was a man who refused to get down in the dirt even with those who questioned his sexuality. He kept his cool when he had beer poured on him at Three Rivers Stadium by some coward who wouldn't have the nerve to confront him to his face. At the end of each day, he could go home and sleep well. You have to wonder about the snakes who did their best to ruin him.

It's easy to think Stewart is getting the best of this divorce even if it will cost him millions. At this point, the money doesn't matter to him. All he cares about is starting again. And he will win again. He just has to pick the right team, one that takes advantage of his incredible athleticism instead of fretting about his passing inaccuracy. Mike Mularkey brought out the best in him in 2001 and might have done it again last season if Cowher hadn't made the quick change.

Not everyone agrees, of course.

One Chicago newspaper columnist offered this opinion to the Bears, who are believed to be interested in Stewart: "Given a choice between Kordell Stewart and the ghost of Sid Luckman, I'll take the ghost and expect a better touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio." If Stewart can't make it in small-market Pittsburgh, the column went on to say, he'll be devoured in big-city Chicago.

The guy has it all wrong.

Stewart was strong enough to survive and flourish at times here. He's strong enough to make it anywhere.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.

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