Stewart's confidence not slashed by loss

January 12, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

PITTSBURGH -- Walking out of his news conference, Kordell Stewart slapped palms with a young Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

"Sorry about that, man," the first-year quarterback told the boy. "Next time. Next time."

Stewart walked into a hallway with his father, hugging Steelers employees and teammates' relatives, offering a friend a ride.

"Be cool," he told one teen-ager.

"How you doing?" he asked another.

Out in the stadium lobby, more family and friends were waiting, reliving the Steelers' 24-21 loss to Denver yesterday in the AFC championship game.

As Stewart moved toward the exit, people whispered encouragement, slapped him on the back, congratulated him on the Steelers' season.

"Don't worry about it,"Jerome Bettis' father, Johnny, said, embracing Stewart. "You've got a lot more ahead of you."

Then the quarterback walked through the glass doors at Three Rivers Stadium, and a small group of fans waiting outside in the cold cheered.

Three interceptions and one lost fumble, and they still loved him. Three interceptions and one lost fumble, and Stewart was looking ahead, not behind.

"The way we played this year, we have a lot to look forward to, man," he said. "I know I do as a player. I'm very eager to have that chance."

Stewart, 25, spoke as if he will play in six more AFC title games, not even considering that he might never get the chance again.

Call him naive, but even while accepting blame, Stewart remained full of hope, full of youthful confidence.

Was he disappointed? Yes.

Was he crushed? Hardly.

"The way things unfolded this year, no one gave us a chance," Stewart said. "It was my first year. I wouldn't change it for anything. It was the best ride of my life."

The ride continued deep into the fourth quarter yesterday, with Stewart pulling the Steelers within three points by throwing a 14-yard touchdown pass with 2: 46 left.

One defensive stop, and he could have moved the Steelers into position to kick the tying field goal. But that John Elway guy converted a third-and-six just after the two-minute warning, and that was that.

You expected the future Hall of Famer to lose to a kid who was just 14 years old when he engineered "The Drive" in the 1987 AFC championship game?

Of course not.

Elway threw his only interception on the game's second play, produced 14 points in the final 1: 47 of the first half and got the one completion he needed at the end, even though the Broncos were shut out in the second half.

Someday, perhaps, Stewart will play under the same control, instead of throwing interceptions into double- and triple-coverage. No first-year quarterback has ever reached the Super Bowl. Yet even on one of his worst days, Stewart came within three points.

"You know, Kordell is a magician," Denver coach Mike Shanahan said. "He can throw the ball. He can run with it. Fortunately, we came up with some big plays when we needed it."

Indeed, one of the lasting images of this game came at the start of the second half, after Stewart threw an interception into the end zone from the Denver 5-yard line.

Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski confronted Stewart after the play, barking at him and slapping his helmet, as if to say, "Use your head! Use your head!"

"I was just trying to get into his head a little bit," Romanowski said. "He was like, 'Oh no, what did I do?' I said a lot of things to him all day, not very many that I can repeat."

So, is it unrealistic to expect a first-year quarterback to reach the Super Bowl?

"No," Stewart said firmly. "We had every opportunity today, every opportunity. I didn't play my best game. If I would have played my best game, we would have won."

And if Norm Stewart had made a 38-year field goal in the first quarter ah, forget it.

Stewart ran 33 yards for the Steelers' first touchdown, but his first interception was a turning point, helping transform a 14-10 lead into a 24-14 halftime deficit.

Perhaps the Steelers should have run Bettis on second-and- two at the Denver 35. But Stewart shouldn't have forced his pass to Yancey Thigpen into double coverage, enabling Ray Crockett to intercept in the end zone.

"It's an unfortunate part of this business -- the great lessons of life are through experience," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "He'll grow. He's grown this year. Where he is today and where he was four months ago, it's night and day."

Go back even further, and it's downright incredible.

Stewart was the 60th player chosen in the 1995 draft (the Ravens, then the Browns, took linebacker Craig Powell at No. 30). He was "Slash," a wide receiver/quarterback/running back, his first two seasons. And there he was yesterday, matched up with the great Elway.

"If I keep working out, I might have a chance to keep running around at the age of 37, have the opportunity to win a Super Bowl, and not sit here and say, 'I know I made it to the AFC championship game. What happened? Why didn't I win the big game?' " said Stewart, a standout at Colorado.

"I've won big games. But this is one we needed more than any of 'em. I'm young. I'm 25 years old. I'm a first-year player at the position. People say, 'He's an athlete, he's this, he's that.' But I don't care what you say. I had a great time. I'm looking forward to next year."

What was it he told that young boy?

Next time. Next time.

Pub Date: 1/12/98

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