Saga of `Slash' continues

Ravens backup quarterback Kordell Stewart, who has had his ups and downs, to say the least, looks for an up in a town that once scorned him.

Ravens Training Camp

August 08, 2004|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Shortly after another Ravens training-camp practice, a scene unfolded that would have been sinister had it happened a mere two years ago.

Even today, with Kordell Stewart well removed from being the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers - and consequently public enemy No. 1 with Ravens fans - seeing those same fans chanting Stewart's name and listening to one with a Ravens logo on his T-shirt offer up a heartfelt, "Welcome to Baltimore, Kordell," the picture seemed a little eerie.

But such is the way things work in the NFL these days; a player can go from villain to - if something were to happen to starter Kyle Boller - potential savior seemingly overnight.

Stewart, who signed a one-year contract with the Ravens after a failed season in Chicago with the Bears and stands to be the backup for at least the first six games, thinks his newfound popularity is as funny as it is reassuring.

Autographs and a little schmoozing have become enjoyable again.

"They let me know that they hated me but love me now that I'm here," Stewart said. "If you can't beat them, you've got to join them. They remember the things that happened when we played against them, and now I have the opportunity to come and be part of this ship. And it's a great opportunity."

Stewart, 31, enters his 10th NFL season having been to purgatory and back. His story, from entering the league as a second-round pick to creating the "Slash" role during his rookie season - when he started at receiver, played a little quarterback and even had spot duty as a running back and punter - to being released by the lowly Bears earlier this offseason, could easily fill a book.

Half of it would be a boy-makes-good story, while the other half would be near tragic. There would be the chapter on how Stewart helped pave the way for the league's transition toward more mobile quarterbacks with his strong arm and quick feet, but also the dark chapter about how he performed so poorly during a Steelers home loss to the New England Patriots in 1998 that a fan poured a beer over his head.

There's the Pro Bowl quarterback who led the Steelers to a 13-3 record, a playoff win over the defending Super Bowl-champion Ravens and received serious consideration for league MVP honors in 2001, only to be benched after five games the next season.

Then there is the quarterback who a year ago had the city of Chicago and its passionate fans firmly in his corner, only to lose their support as well as the coaching staff's and his job after a 1-4 start. But that situation was doomed from the get-go, according to Stewart.

"Everybody was on the hot seat," said Stewart, who has lost the starting job four times over his career.

"So when everybody else's seat was hot, I walked in on a lukewarm one. Obviously, wins are what they wanted. It just couldn't happen, I don't care what nobody says. It was a downward spiral before I even walked in. I didn't see it because I just saw the opportunity to start."

The Bears cut him with a year left on his contract, believing Stewart was done. The Ravens believe otherwise.

"When I look at Kordell," said Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, "I see a guy with incredible ability whose one shortcoming has got to be consistency throwing the football.

"He's capable of making great plays, but with the exception of his one year when he went to the Pro Bowl, he has not been a consistent 60, 62 percent completion guy. Other than that, he's been competitive and a winner."

And that is just Stewart's life on the field.

There is also the Stewart who grew up in New Orleans, lost his mother to liver cancer before he turned 11, then lost his 27-year-old sister the same way eight years ago.

Not surprisingly, Stewart sometimes has trouble hiding his emotions, and when they spilled over a week after that loss to the Patriots when he was benched in the third quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he and coach Bill Cowher had a public argument in the midst of what would be one of the NFL's most-talked-about love-hate relationships.

Stewart shed a tear that day as he sat away from the team, setting off a firestorm in Pittsburgh that had fans on talk shows using racial slurs against him as well as questioning his sexual preference, showing how ridiculous and unthinking sports can make people at times.

"It got bad," Stewart said. "It got to the point where it was really a lot of hate going on all the way across the board.

"It was an attack. The vultures were out there. But I'm a man. I'm not going to hide from nothing. But when stuff that is foolish comes my way, I don't deal with it. I don't have time. I don't like dealing with ignorance and addressing ignorance. Before I stoop myself down to that level because of someone else's low character, I would turn my shoulder and keep walking."

Faith in himself

After eight sometimes sweet but mostly bitter seasons with the Steelers and one pointless one with the Bears, Stewart comes to the Ravens confident, not broken.

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