You can tell Kordell Stewart had not given much, if any, thought about the Steelers‘ Hall of Honor before he was asked about it on a recent weekday afternoon. It’s been nearly two full decades since Stewart, once hailed as one of the NFL‘s most exciting players, has donned the Steelers’ jersey.
But Stewart did not hide what it would mean to him if the Steelers decided to one day include his name alongside the greatest players in franchise annals. For Stewart, it would bring closure to a memorable time in not only his career, but in Steelers history.
“It would allow me to grab a cigar and go off into the sunset and say it was all worth it,” Stewart said during an exclusive interview from CBS Sports. “From working with the team to be a receiver, to then want to have a chance to play quarterback and have success, to the changing of the guard of coordinators and still trying to maintain the dignity of that position and handling it professionally. … That would mean the world to me.”
Created in 2017, the Steelers’ Hall of Honor was made to “serve as a tribute to the many individuals who have contributed greatly throughout the history of our franchise,” team president Art Rooney II said at the time of the Hall’s unveiling. To be considered for induction, players need to have been retired for at least three seasons, played for the Steelers for a minimum of three seasons, and should have “noteworthy career highlights, records and achievements.”
Stewart’s career in Pittsburgh, which spanned from 1995-02, included a bevy of highlights, records and achievements. The team’s MVP in 2001, Stewart also earned Pro Bowl recognition that season while leading Pittsburgh to the team’s fourth AFC Championship Game appearance in eight years. Below is a rundown of the other accolades Stewart achieved during his time with the black and gold.
- 48-31 record as Steelers’ starting QB
- Two AFC Championship Game starts
- Key member of 1995 AFC championship team
- Steelers QB career leader in TD runs (38)
- Steelers QB single-season leader in TD runs (11)
- NFL’s first 20/10 QB (20 TD passes, 10 TD runs)
- First Steelers QB to complete over 60% of passes in single season
- First NFL QB to record an 80-yard run
- Only NFL player history with at least 75 TD passes, 35 TD runs, 5 TD receptions
- Finished fourth in the league’s MVP voting in 2001
- Threw final TD pass at Three Rivers Stadium
- Scored first TD at Heinz Field
- First starting QB to win a playoff game at Heinz Field
Stewart is also the owner of several jaw-dropping highlights, including his then-NFL QB record 80-yard touchdown run in a 1996 game against the Panthers. But in order to truly appreciate Stewart’s career, one has to look at each individual facet of what made his time with the Steelers truly unique. With Stewart’s quotes serving as a guide, we’re going to do just that, starting with his first act in Pittsburgh.
Following a decorated career at Colorado, Stewart was selected by the Steelers with the 60th-overall pick in the 1995 NFL Draft. The Steelers, who were coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Chargers in the AFC Championship Game, were looking to add depth to a quarterback room that was led by Neil O’Donnell, a 1992 Pro Bowler who was entering the final year of his contract.
Along with taking reps at quarterback, Stewart decided to keep himself in shape during practice by running routes and returning kicks on the scout team. Practicing against arguably the league’s top defense, Stewart was having success getting behind a defense that featured Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake, a perennial All-Pro safety. When injuries began to besiege the Steelers’ receivers, Stewart and the Steelers decided it was time to use his unique talents during a regular season game.
Before diving in to his new role, Stewart made two requests to Steelers coach Bill Cowher.
“All I ask is if I do this, I keep my number 10, and I get a chance to compete for the starting [quarterback] job,” Stewart recalls telling Cowher. “That was our handshake.”
Inactive for the season’s first five games, Stewart finally got onto the field against the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 8. Stewart’s first NFL regular season touch, a 16-yard gain on a third-and-short play, set up the Steelers’ second touchdown en route to a 24-7 win. It was a pivotal win for Pittsburgh, who were hoping to right the ship following a disappointing 3-4 start.
Stewart provided game-changing plays for the remainder of the ’95 season. A week after making his regular season debut, Stewart caught his first NFL reception, a 27-yard pass that helped the Steelers pull out a three-point win on the road in Chicago. The next week, against Bill Belichick’s Cleveland Browns on “Monday Night Football,” is when Stewart’s star really began to shine. With a national TV audience looking on, Stewart had two carries for 13 yards and two receptions (on two targets) for 21 yards. But the play that left everyone talking was his first NFL pass attempt, a touchdown to Ernie Mills that jumpstarted Pittsburgh’s 20-3 victory.
“I’m just wanting to play football,” Stewart said. “I’m going back to my childhood days of playing ball like I could have done anything I wanted to. I could have played safety if I wanted to, it didn’t matter. I was just that confident in myself.”
It was around this time that Myron Cope, the legendary Pittsburgh sports broadcaster and then-Steelers radio analyst, dubbed Stewart with the nickname “Slash,” alluding to his role as the team’s quarterback/running back/receiver. The nickname immediately caught fire in Pittsburgh, and when the national media picked up on it, “Slash” emerged as one of the NFL’s most popular players.
Six days after his exploits against the Browns, Stewart’s 71-yard touchdown catch gave the visiting Steelers the lead for good after they had fallen behind, 31-13, in Cincinnati. In Week 14, Stewart’s 31-yard grab in Cleveland set up Norm Johnson’s game-winning field goal, as the Steelers improved to 8-4. Two weeks later, facing Bill Parcells’ New England Patriots, Stewart broke several would-be tacklers en route to his first touchdown run, a 22-yarder on a third-and-four play, as the Steelers won their eighth straight game while also capturing their third AFC Central Division title in four years. Pittsburgh went 8-1 in games where Stewart touched the ball, with the only loss coming in the Steelers’ final game of the regular season.
The Steelers rolled over the Bills in the divisional round of the playoffs, with Stewart catching two key passes while also recording his first career punt. The win gave Pittsburgh a chance to avenge the previous year’s loss in the AFC Championship Game, a loss Cowher later said was the toughest of his career.
Similar to the previous January’s AFC title game, the Steelers found themselves in a dog fight against an inferior opponent, only this time it was the Indianapolis Colts. Midway through the second quarter, the Steelers trailed 6-3 and were in need of a spark. Once again, Pittsburgh turned to “Slash”, who converted on three consecutive third-down plays before making the go-ahead touchdown reception (also on a third-down play) as the Steelers took a 10-6 halftime lead. Pittsburgh fell behind again in the second half before rallying, then holding on to secure the franchise’s first trip to the Super Bowl in 16 years.
The Steelers would not win the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl; two interceptions by O’Donnell was the difference in Pittsburgh’s 27-17 loss to the dynastic Dallas Cowboys. The loss, however, did little to take away from the shine of Stewart’s rookie season, which continues to stand as one of the most remarkable rookie campaigns in franchise annals.
‘Slash’ Part II
Super Bowl XXX was the final game as a Steeler for O’Donnell, who signed a lucrative, long-term deal with the Jets during free agency. Instead of promoting Stewart to starter, the Steelers instead trotted out Jim Miller, a third-year pro who threw two touchdowns against five picks in ’95, as their Week 1 starter. After Miller failed to make it through that game, Pittsburgh turned to 34-year-old Mike Tomczak, who as a rookie won a Super Bowl with the Bears as Jim McMahon’s backup.
Tomczak played well enough to help the Steelers return to the playoffs with a 10-6 record. Tomczak was aided by a player the Steelers acquired via a trade with the Rams during the 1996 NFL Draft. Jerome Bettis, a former Pro Bowler who had fallen out of favor with then-Rams coach Rich Brooks, found a new home with the Steelers after he initially signed off on a trade that would have sent him to the Titans, who ended up drafting former Ohio State standout Eddie George after talks with Bettis fell through.
Bettis brought power football back to the Steelers, who had relied considerably on then-offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt’s five wide receiver set the year before. Appropriately nicknamed “The Bus,” Bettis trucked over defenders that season while rushing for 1,431 yards and 11 touchdowns. With Bettis and Stewart in tow, the Steelers owned two of the league’s most talented offensive weapons. The two players would become household names while becoming the faces of the Steelers for the remainder of the decade.
Stewart’s second act as “Slash” was as impressive as his first. He finished tied for third on the team in both receptions and receiving yards. He also rushed for seven scores (including two touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s blowout win over the Colts in a playoff rematch) that included what was then the longest run by a quarterback in NFL history, an 80-yard bolt against the Panthers in the Steelers’ regular season finale.
“Playing ‘Slash’ allowed me to hear this plays in my head,” Stewart said. “I knew where I needed to be, where I needed to go. So I got that tutelage. I got some reps with Mike Tomczak being the starter. I wasn’t mad at that. I was appreciative. … I still feel like that made ’97 look easy. ”
After two years as “Slash,” Stewart was given the keys to the Steelers offense in 1997. The season did not start well; Pittsburgh was clobbered by Dallas in a rematch of Super Bowl XXX in Week 1, and in Week 4, Cowher nearly committed an all-time folly by almost tackling a Jaguars player during the final moments of a loss that dropped the Steelers to 1-2. Despite the loss, Stewart played his best game to that point, going 11 of 16 with two touchdown passes along with a TD run.
Similar to ’95, the Steelers went on a run after a slow start. They rolled off five straight wins that included the greatest comeback victory in franchise history. Trailing 21-0 in Baltimore in Week 6, the Steelers rallied and went ahead on Stewart’s second of three touchdown passes in the second half. After the Ravens scored to make it a three-point game, Stewart sealed Pittsburgh’s 42-34 win with a 74-yard scoring run, his fifth touchdown run of the day. Stewart, who collapsed in the end zone after the score, received a kiss from Cowher on the sideline after completing one of the most bazaar wins in Steelers history.
“I didn’t eat breakfast that morning for whatever reason,” Stewart said of his exhaustion upon scoring his fifth touchdown. “I wanted to go sit down but I was holding Coach Cowher to stay upright because hurting that bad.
“I remember it like it was yesterday, Coach Chan Gailey came up to me and said, ‘You can’t do that, Kordell. You have to eat, son! That’s the reason why we struggle so much in the first half.'”
It was that type of season for the ’97 Steelers. In Week 8, Pittsburgh defeated Jacksonville (who had emerged as the team’s greatest divisional rival) when Bettis scored off a shovel pass from Stewart in overtime. Six weeks later, despite sacking Jake Plummer a franchise-record 10 times, the Steelers went to overtime in Arizona before winning the game on Bettis’ third touchdown run of the day. At home the following week against the 11-2 Broncos in Week 15, the Steelers trailed by double-digits before Stewart and Yancey Thigpen connected on three first-half touchdown passes. Stewart scored both of the game’s only touchdowns in the second half, while Bettis’ 125 rushing yards also contributed to Pittsburgh’s 35-24 win.
“That team was loaded,” Stewart said of the ’97 Steelers. “Our defense was probably, what, number one in the league? Offensive was probably in the top two or three. But we had such good balance across the board. There was nothing that we could not do.”
The season’s most memorable game took place in Foxborough the following Saturday. At the site of the team’s 28-3 loss in January’s divisional round game, the Steelers found themselves trailing, 14-0, less than two minutes into the second quarter. New England’s defense, determined to control the Steelers’ running game, held Bettis to just 14 yards on his first eight carries. With the AFC’s second playoff bye at stake, the Patriots were intent on stopping Bettis while putting the game in Stewart’s hands.
Stewart responded by leading Pittsburgh on three unanswered scoring drives to cut the deficit to a point. The comeback, however, appeared to be snuffed out when Drew Bledsoe hit Dave Meggett on a flukey, 49-yard touchdown that pushed New England’s lead back up to eight points.
Nearly two decades before they were big beneficiaries of a bad play call by a Pete Carroll led-team, the Patriots were bedeviled by one. Out of timeouts and defending a third-and-seven from midfield, the Steelers took full advantage when Bledsoe threw a lazy pass that was picked off by lineman Kevin Henry. The pick set the stage for what was arguably Stewart’s greatest drive as an NFL quarterback.
Four plays following Henry’s pick, the Steelers faced a fourth-and-seven from the Patriots’ 15. With Foxborough Stadium rocking, Stewart calmly surveyed the field before looking right and throwing to Thigpen just before he was hit. Stewart’s pass was pulled in by Thigpen, who caught the ball over Ty Law while getting both feet in bounds. Stewart hit tight end Mark Bruener for the touchdown three plays later before threading the needle to Thigpen for the game-tying, two-point conversion.
The two-point play perfectly illustrated the nightmare Stewart created for defenses. It also showed how far Stewart’s game had evolved in such a short time. On the play, Stewart rolled out, forcing the Patriots’ defense to step up to defend the run. Instead of taking off, Stewart slung a perfectly thrown pass to Thigpen that managed to fit between four Patriots defenders.
Pittsburgh won the toss, and then the game, in overtime after a 41-yard completion from Stewart to Courtney Hawkins put the Steelers in field goal range.
During the win, Stewart became the NFL’s first quarterback to throw for 20 touchdowns and run for 10 more in the same season. Stewart, who accounted for 32 touchdowns that season, was complemented by Bettis’ 1,665 rushing yards and Thigpen’s then-franchise record 1,398 receiving yards. Pittsburgh’s defense was anchored by Lake, linebacker Levon Kirkland, free safety Darren Perry and nose tackle Joel Steed, who was named to his first Pro Bowl in his fifth year as a full-time starter.
As the AFC’s No. 2 seed, the Steelers hosted the Patriots in the divisional round. Stewart’s 40-yard touchdown run on Pittsburgh’s opening series proved to be the game’s only touchdown, as Pittsburgh prevailed in a 7-6 grudge match. The Steelers had a similar start the following week against Denver in the AFC Championship Game, as touchdown runs by Stewart and Bettis gave the home team an early 14-7 advantage. But 17 unanswered points by the Broncos, several miscues by the Steelers offense, and a crucial late third-down conversion by Denver’s offense marked a painful end to what was a magical run for Stewart and the Steelers.
“That overall team was unbelievable,” Stewart said. “It was unbelievable. It hurts to know you’re that close with those kinds of teams and don’t finish it. And you can’t even say, ‘At least I played the Super Bowl.’ You can’t even say that. When it comes as being a competitor, and knowing how hard everybody worked and what you wanted to see happen for your teammates. That was a tough loss.”
Trials and tribulations (1998-99)
Like every NFL team during that era, the Steelers were trying to navigate their way through free agency and the salary cap. Pittsburgh had lost several key players to free agency from 1994-97 but had managed to remain competitive. That would not be the case in 1998, when the Steelers lost Thigpen (who signed with Tennessee), Lloyd, and longtime starting LT John Jackson. But just as big of a loss that offseason was the departure of offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, who left to become the Cowboys’ next head coach.
The Steelers were erratic in 1998. A bad outing would often be followed by an impressive win, which was often followed by a head-scratching loss. But despite this, the Steelers were 7-4 going into Detroit for their Thanksgiving Day bout with the 4-7 Lions. The favored Steelers came out strong but too often were forced to rely on short field goals instead of touchdowns. They watched a 13-3 lead evaporate behind the strong play of Lions QB Charlie Batch and receiver Herman Moore. The Steelers trailed, 16-13, before salvaging overtime on a late-game drive orchestrated by Stewart.
A wild game would have one of the wildest moments in NFL history, when official Phil Luckett ruled that Bettis called heads during the coin flip, a sequence of events that led to the NFL changing the rule on coin tosses (teams now choose heads or tails before the flip, not during). With the Steelers’ sideline incensed, the Lions quickly gained the yards needed for Jason Hanson’s game-winning kick.
The loss sent Pittsburgh into a tailspin that would last well into the following season. The Steelers never won again in 1998, as Pittsburgh went 7-9 while suffering the first non-playoff season under Cowher. Things got even worse in ’99, as the Steelers suffered through a 6-10 season, their worst record since 1988.
The Steelers were a team in transition, but caught at the crossroads was Stewart, who was on his fourth offensive coordinator in ’99. With players and coordinators constantly coming and going, Stewart was expected to continue to play and play and a high level. After three years of being the toast of the town, Stewart learned how to deal with the negative side of professional sports, the side that comes with being the starting quarterback of a struggling team.
“Having thick skin was important,” Stewart said when asked how he navigated through this period of his career. “It’s compartmentalizing all of the stuff that comes along along with playing that position.”
The comeback (2000-01)
The turn of the century brought a notable change to the Steelers. Kevin Colbert arrived in Pittsburgh after spending the prior decade as the Lions’ pro scouting coordinator. One of the Steelers’ first free agent signings under Colbert was Kent Graham, a veteran quarterback who had gone 10-5 as a starter during the previous two seasons with the New York Giants. Graham was named the starter over Stewart to start the 2000 season.
The Kent Graham era lasted three games. After an 0-3 start, the Steelers turned again to Stewart, who played well in helping the Steelers get their first win of the year in Jacksonville in Week 4. Stewart would win seven of his 11 starts that year as the Steelers finished the season with a 9-7 record. Among the team’s notable wins that year was a 9-6 triumph against the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens, a one-point win over a 12-win Raiders team, and a 24-0 win over Washington in the final game at Three Rivers Stadium. The starting quarterback in each of those victories was Stewart, whose 6-yard touchdown pass to Bruener against the Raiders served as the final touchdown pass thrown inside Three Rivers Stadium.
They didn’t make the playoffs that season, but the momentum from the 2000 season carried into the 2021 campaign, the first to be played inside Heinz Field. Cowher was given a contract extension that offseason, while Stewart had reclaimed sole possession of starting quarterback. Stewart, after watching several of his previous teammates leave in free agency, was rewarded by the maturation of former rookies that included lineman Alan Faneca and receivers Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward. Pittsburgh’s defense had also rebuilt itself through the draft, with rookies Casey Hampton and Kendrell Bell joining a young, emerging defense for the 2001 season.
Of all the changes, one constant was the running of Bettis, who like Stewart was motivated to play well following several down years. Bettis got off to a red hot start; he had 1,072 yards through 11 games and was on the short list of possible league MVP candidates. But an injury in Week 12 would sideline Bettis for the remainder of the regular season, putting the onus of the offense back onto Stewart’s shoulders.
Without Bettis, the 10-2 Steelers traveled to Baltimore in Week 14 to face Ray Lewis and the rest of the defending champion Ravens. In front of a nationally televised audience, Stewart put together arguably his greatest performance as an NFL quarterback. He riddled the Ravens defense to the tune of 333 yards passing and another 55 yards on 10 carries. Stewart threw two touchdowns: a 25-yard strike to Burress that gave the Steelers a 13-7 halftime lead, and a 90-yard gem to Bobby Shaw that helped seal Pittsburgh’s 26-21 win. The win clinched the division title for the Steelers, the final one played inside the old AFC Central.
The season was vindicating for Stewart, who was selected to the Pro Bowl while finishing fourth in the league’s MVP voting, behind winner Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Brett Favre but ahead of Brian Urlacher. Stewart set a then-Steelers single season record for completion percentage. He also finished as the team’s leader in rushing touchdowns while averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
“That 2001 year was my greatest year for me personally, because I proved a lot to myself,” Stewart said. “That was a window where I had a chance to show that I was capable of relying on us playing the game without depending on just the running game.”
Stewart and the 2001 Steelers won the first playoff game at Heinz Field by dethroning the Ravens in the AFC divisional round. But two special teams touchdowns allowed, along with several harmful turnovers on offense, led to a 24-17 loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Adding insult to injury was the 2015 report that “detailed diagrams” of the Steelers’ defensive signals — including from that title game — were destroyed by the NFL during the league’s investigation of New England illegally recording opponents’ signals during games.
The 2002 season was the final one in Pittsburgh for Stewart. Stewart, who lost his starting job to Tommy Maddox in Week 3, won his final three starts in Pittsburgh. In his final two starts, Stewart completed a combined 70.1% of his passes. In his final start, a road game in Jacksonville, Stewart provided one final highlight, a 28-yard run that helped the Steelers pull out a 25-23 win.
“I loved Pittsburgh,” Stewart said. “I cried when it was time for me to leave Pittsburgh. I did not want to leave. I’m not afraid to say it.
“That place did a lot of great for me when it came down to playing the game. It really did. And I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn’t change it for nothing in the world. I loved every single minute.”
Stewart spent the 2003 season in Chicago before playing the final two years of his career in Baltimore. On two occasions in 2005, Stewart lined up against many of his former teammates, who would go onto win the franchise’s coveted fifth Super Bowl title.
He wasn’t on that team, but Stewart’s influence on the 2005 Steelers was evident. Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El, two of the Steelers’ biggest contributors during that championship run, were receivers who like Stewart had played quarterback in college. In fact, it was Randle El’s touchdown pass to Ward that clinched the Steelers’ 21-10 win over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
Many have said that Stewart would have thrived in today’s NFL, where quarterback mobility is a must. Stewart sees a lot of himself in Russell Wilson, who in 2013 led the Seahawks to the franchise’s first Super Bowl win. And while it’s been nearly 20 years since his last snap, Stewart continues to be among a select few who have passed for 20 touchdowns and run for 10 more in a season. Only Stewart, Cam Newton (in 2015) and Kyler Murray (2020) have accomplished that feat.
On Jan. 9, 2022, an era of Steelers football came to an end. After 18 years, Ben Roethlisberger played his final game at Heinz Field. It was an emotional scene. Steelers fans showered the 39-year-old quarterback with praise every chance they could. Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass, and the Steelers beat the Browns to send Big Ben out as a winner. Roethlisberger and the crowd savored the moment, as he took extended time thanking the fans before heading towards the tunnel. It was the perfect ending for a player and city that were intertwined for 18 years.
Unfortunately, Roethlisberger’s final game was the exception, not the norm. Far too many athletes end their careers without any fanfare or a chance to thank the fan base that was so instrumental to their career. Stewart, whose final game was with the Ravens in 2005, was among the players who weren’t given a proper goodbye. That, however, can change if the Steelers add Stewart into the Hall of Honor. It would give Stewart, and Steelers fans, a chance to celebrate, appreciate, and re-live a career and an era of Pittsburgh football that served as a key bridge between the franchise’s championship eras.
“If I was to get a jacket out of this, that would be pretty nice,” Stewart said. “All of those ‘Slash’ fans would be elated to see that, and it would help the younger generation identify that this guy meant something to us.”