“Look, man ... are you sitting down?”
You never want to hear those words coming from the other end of the telephone. Especially when they hit you on the landline. It’s never good news, right?
It’s November, 1998. I’m down in the basement with my girlfriend watching a movie. Matter of fact, it was a LaserDisc. Yes, the LASERDISC, buddy. Welcome to 1998. Get comfortable because we’re taking a trip now. Starter jackets and backwards snapbacks and the six-CD-changers and all that.
How ’90s are we talking? O.K., let me put it to you like this. I’d just been in my first Nike commercial. The whole concept was that Vince Lombardi had his team preparing to play against me, and he’s going crazy trying to figure out how to stop me. They got the old-school projector showing my highlights, and he’s ranting and raving like, “Kordell Stewart!!! This kid can do it all — from SHOUP tuh NUTS!!!!!!!!”
Guess who they had playing Vince Lombardi? The crazy dude from Seinfield. You know who I’m talking about — George Costanza’s dad. Mr. Costanza was a wild boy.
He’s like, “We couldn’t slow this kid down if we ran the film BACKWUHDS!!!!!!!!”
That’s how nineties we’re talking, bro.
Back then, I’m at the top of the mountain. I’m 26 years old. I’m the quarterback of the greatest franchise in the NFL. I just played against John Elway in the AFC Championship game the previous season. I’m not just “Slash” anymore. I’m not just a gimmick. I’m the quarterback.
We’re 5–3, and everything’s in the right place.
What could go wrong, right?
Well, what always happens in the horror movies when it’s all going too good, and everybody’s chillin’ in the house?
THE TELEPHONE RINGS.
(Some people reading this are already screaming, “Kordell, runnnnn!!!! Get out of the house, bro!!!!”)
Man, we’re down in the basement watching this LaserDisc, and somebody calls my landline.
I let it go.
Two minutes later, it rings again.
If you’re a friend, you’ll hit me on my Nokia. If you’re family, you’ll call the landline. But the only person who calls me twice on the landline is my father. So I walk over and pick up the Batphone.
“Hey man, what the hell you doing?”
It’s not my dad. It’s Dr. Frank Sessoms.
Some people reading this are already screaming, “Kordell, runnnnn!!!! Get out of the house, bro!!!!”- Kordell Stewart
Dr. Sessoms was kind of a local legend in Pittsburgh because he was a Black doctor who used to do at-home visits all around the city, especially in the lower-income communities. You always knew it was Dr. Sessoms because he had a certain style and he walked with a cane. Just a real character, you know? He was a family friend, and when I got to the Steelers he was kind of like the older uncle you’d always be messing with, right?
So I’m thinking this is just barbershop talk, and I fire right back at him like, “What the hell you doing, old man? You forget your medication? Why you calling my house phone?”
He said, “Listen, I was about to bust somebody upside the head with this cane after what I just heard. Look, man … are you sitting down?”
I said, “No, I’m standing up talking on the phone with you. What’s going on?”
He said, “Man, somebody told me you got arrested.”
I said, “Arrested? I’ve never been arrested in my life. What are you talking about, old man? Stop messing with me. I gotta watch this movie. I’ll call you later.”
“No, listen. That’s not it. They said you got caught in the park doing uh….”
“Lewd acts with uhh....”
“Lewd what? With who?”
“Listen, this is crazy. But I’m just telling you what they were saying in the barbershop. They said you were having lewd acts performed on you. In the park. And you got locked up. And look, man … I’m just telling you, they’re saying that you’re gay. They’re saying a whole lot of stuff.”
Alright, timeout. We need to take a step back for a minute. Because I’m telling you this story today as a 48-year-old man who has learned a lot and has grown a lot. I got nothing but love for everybody, no matter what their sexual orientation is. It’s great to see how much the world has evolved in the last 20 years. But when this was all happening? Man, you have to understand, I’m a young Black quarterback in a blue-collar town. Being the target of those kinds of rumors? At that time? In that era? In that NFL?
Come on, man. You know what it was.
It’s sad to say, but at that time, it was a death sentence.
It never happened. It was a lie. But that wasn’t the point, right? It was Twitter trolls before Twitter existed, trying to put me in an impossible situation. (Oh yeah, Twitter didn’t invent haters, brother. Haters been around since the Old Testament.)
But another thing that you have to understand is that I was a product of the times just like everybody else. I want to be real about that. I apologize if anything in this story comes off as insensitive, but I'm just being as authentic as possible, because I think there’s something to learn from it.
So when Dr. Sessoms said what he said … to be honest? I just started laughing. I thought he was messing with me. I made some stupid jokes back at him, thinking we were on some barbershop s***.
I hung up the phone, went back to the movie, and I didn’t think twice about it.
I had absolutely no idea what it was going to become.
Next morning, I get to Three Rivers Stadium and our PR person is waiting for me at the front door. And she’s looking at me like she’s seen a ghost.
She says, “Hey, Kordell, how you doing? Listen, before you go to the meeting, Mr. Rooney wants to see you.”
I said, “Haaaahhh???”
The big fella wants to see me??? The owner????
I’d never been called to the principal’s office before. And honestly, Mr. Rooney was like a father figure to me. So I’m thinking to myself, Man, I’m going to the bench? And they gotta have Mr. Rooney tell me? For real???
I get up to Mr. Rooney’s office, and man … I could just tell from the look on his face that it was bad. When somebody really cares about you, they have that look when they’re really hurting for you. You know what I mean? Mr. Rooney was sincere like that. He genuinely cared about me.
I said, “What’s up, big fella?”
He said, “Oh nothing, I just wanted to make sure you’re doing O.K.”
“Yeah, I’m good, Mr. Rooney.”
But now I’m putting the pieces together, and I’m like — “Wait, Mr. Rooney, this isn’t about some crazy rumor you heard about —”
He cut me off, and he said, “No, no, no, I don’t care about that nonsense. I just wanted to make sure you’re O.K.”
“I’m good. I’m just trying to go watch some film and get ready for next week.”
“Well, when you get a minute, Coach wants to see you.”
Coach wants to see me???
Now I'm starting to think, O.K., What’s really going on????
So I walk into Coach Cowher’s office, and he’s sitting there looking like Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer. Nose all red from crying. Eyes bloodshot. I mean, listen, me and Coach Cowher may have had our differences over the years — like any head coach and quarterback. But at that time? We were on a run. Me and Coach were good.
(And I know he’s gonna call me up on the phone and give me hell for saying this, but you know what his kids even named their baby kitten? SLASH.)
Coach Cowher saw me go from being Slash to the starting quarterback to the AFC Championship Game….
…. To this.
So he looked devastated, for real.
He said, “How you doin’, kid?”
I said, “Come on, coach. For real? Seriously?”
“I know, I know, I know. This is some malicious bleepity-bleep. I’m sorry, kid.”
“Wait, does the team know about this b.s.?!”
“Yeah, Slash. They all heard.”
“Well, what are we supposed to do about it?”
“Maybe you should address the team.”
In my head I’m like, Address the team???? And say what?????
Imagine a team suggesting to their quarterback that he should get up in front of everybody and defend himself against some wild lie from Twitter.- Kordell Stewart
I mean, time out!! Imagine this happening in 2021. Imagine a team suggesting to their quarterback that he should get up in front of everybody and defend himself against some wild lie from Twitter. No police record of it happening. No one standing behind it. Nothing.
It’s almost comical, right? Seems impossible now. But this was a different era, and the next thing I know, I’m standing up in front of all my teammates and coaches like there’s something to talk about.
I mean, what am I supposed to even say?
In hindsight, as a grown man, I probably should’ve just said, “Guys, this is crazy. Mr. Rooney is looking into who started this foolishness. End of story.”
Or maybe I should’ve just said nothing.
But I reacted how I was “supposed” to react. (Remember, 1998 now.) I basically tried to do a stand-up routine. I did my best Bernie Mac. You know, “Come on, guys. Y’all know me. Y’all know how I am. Y’all know what I like to do.”
You can fill in the blanks, right? “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” and all that. I’m not proud of it. That’s just what it was. That’s just how you were conditioned to act.
In the end, it was a big mistake.
I could feel a change in the atmosphere right away. Maybe some of it was in my own head, but I felt like guys were looking at me differently. And the saddest part about it was, I actually had a teammate who I really respected come up to me and say, “Hey Stew, I just want you to know that I don’t care either way. You can be whoever you want to be. I got your back, dog. You’re our quarterback and I’m with you. It’s cool.”
And I just snapped. I was like, “But it’s not cool, bro. This is all lies. I’m not that guy.”
He was doing a really great thing, in retrospect, but I was just too caught up in everything, and I couldn’t appreciate it. I was hypersensitive to how everything I did was being perceived, you know? I was in my own head, and that’s not a good place to be for a quarterback.
A couple weeks later, we were playing against New England, and I had a rough game. We lost, and as we were walking off the field, about to go into the tunnel, I got hit with a beer. Right in my face. Drenched. I looked up into the stands, and this guy said plenty of words I’d heard before.
“You effing this and that.”
Then he took it to a whole other level.
He said, “You effing n******.”
I can already hear people getting defensive. Just some trash talk, right? Just how it was back then when you went on the road, right?
We weren’t in New England.
We were playing at home. We were in Pittsburgh. Dude was wearing a Steelers jacket.
Now is a good time to ask yourself this question….
How does a rumor travel around a whole city at the speed of light — wayyyy before social media? A rumor that took Mr. Rooney one phone call to find out was a lie? A rumor that was designed to ruin somebody’s reputation in a blue-collar town?
How does it spread so fast?
Man, it’s easy.
All you need is enough people who are more than happy to believe it.
Mr. Rooney had his law firm look into who started this whole thing, and Pittsburgh is a small town. It didn’t take them long to track down the original source. People around the city kept saying they heard it from someone who would know. Somebody who knew somebody, right?
“My friend heard it from a cop.”
How many people in Pittsburgh heard that same story? Show of hands.
That’s because … plot twist!! The call was coming from inside the house, buddy.
All you need is enough people who are more than happy to believe it.- Kordell Stewart
See, when Mr. Rooney called me back into his office to give me an update on what was going on, I said, “Hey, big fella, did your people find anything?”
That’s when he told me that the rumors were (allegedly) spread by a local police officer.
I said, “Well, did they get the name?”
And Mr. Rooney, God bless his soul, told me something that probably shouldn’t have surprised me.
He said the sources wouldn’t reveal the name of the exact officer — just that it came from a cop.
Yeah. Sit with that one for a minute.
Now, I’m not stupid. You think I’m going to cause a firestorm? You think I’m going after the Pittsburgh Police department? As the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers? In 1998?
At that point, just leave me alone, man. Just leave me be.
I’m not going to lie, that was a really dark time for me. But what killed me wasn’t that people were trying to diminish me as a “man” or whatever. It wasn’t about the gay rumors. Ultimately, I was able to handle that. I knew who I was. What killed me was that there were people in the city who really wanted to see me suffer.
Two years ago, I was “Slash,” and you loved me.
You were probably rocking my jersey.
Now I’m the quarterback, and I’m a what now?
Now I’m an n-word. Now I’m an f-word. Now y’all just want to see me hurt.
Not everybody. No, no, no. Not everybody.
But enough of y’all.
That’s when I just kind of isolated myself. I went to practice and went home. That was it. Posted up by myself in a big old house, just sitting and thinking. I had to go deep inside myself. I had to meditate on the darkness.
In the end, I actually made friends with the darkness. We became buddies.
See, that’s the thing that people don’t understand about my story. It’s not a tragedy, bro. I don’t want anybody to feel bad for me. At the time, that phone call from Dr. Sessoms was the darkest moment of my life. But it was also one of the most important things ever to happen to me.
For about two years after that, it was a struggle. I’m not gonna to lie to you. But I used it as an opportunity to go deep within myself. I went to the bottom of the deepest well. And you know what I saw? This is the reflection that was staring back at me….
It was my mother, smiling.
She was actually diagnosed with liver cancer when I was a kid. The doctors gave her a few months to a year to live. But she wasn’t hearing that. She fought for more than five years, and I did get to know her, and what I remember the most is that she was always smiling.
She was always keeping people on their toes, always spreading joy and good energy. Always lighting up a room, even though she knew she was facing so much pain.
So if she could do that with all the pain that she was in, mannnnn, what do I have to complain about? Why can’t I go into the facility and smile? Why can’t I go out on the football field and experience it like I’m still a little kid on the playground?
When my mother finally passed away when I was 11, my dad stepped up and was there for me every single day of my life. He was a mother, father, best friend — everything to me. We really did everything together. He was a carpenter and a house painter and a barber, so guess what I was? An assistant house painter, an assistant carpenter and a junior barber. He had a shop in our garage, and it was like $7 for a cut from my dad and $5 if you wanted to take a chance with Kordell.
My mother left me with her smile, but my father left me with a deeper lesson. Whatever cards life hands you, you stay in the game. You play the heck out of the hand you’re given, buddy.
He’d come home from work and say, “Kordell, what you doing? You want to go play tennis? You want to go bowling? You want to go to the movies?”
We were partners.
I remember when I was young, he was painting a house for a really successful roofing contractor, and the guy gave him these golf clubs as a gift. This was the late ’70s and they were those old-school Browning clubs — the utility clubs. So my dad brings them home and then one day I see him outside with the lawn mower, doing all kinds of crazy loops around the grass.
He says, “Kordell, come on outside, look what I made for us.”
Man, he cut the grass in a perfect circle and made a golf green.
So I went into the garage and I got my bicycle flag. Remember them? The red triangle flags from the back of the ’70s bikes?
Stuck it in a hole in the ground, and we had our pin. Got some wiffle balls out my baseball bag, and now we got a whole pitch-and-putt course and we ain’t even gotta break the windows.
We used to spend hours in the backyard, just learning the game, messing around, making up games. No fancy clubs. No private lessons. No country club.
Nahhh, bro. DIYDS. Do it ya damn self.
Just me and my dad.
He was teaching me a lesson without teaching me a lesson. He didn’t have to sit me down and give me a speech. He lived it.
Life is whatever you make it. It’s limitless.
We used to spend hours in the backyard, just learning the game, messing around, making up games. No fancy clubs. No private lessons. No country club.- Kordell Stewart
Even after my mother died, I could still go to a place deep within myself and have fun. I always used sports as my sanctuary. Even when I got to the league, you know how it felt when I got on that grass every Sunday?
It really felt like I was at recess. I was having fun, man.
If you go back and watch the film, I’m always smiling.
Even when I was going through all the b.s. in ’98 and ’99, when I got on that field, I was like a little kid. I mean, I’d be on the sidelines watching the defense and Coach Cowher used to scream at me, “Kordell!!! Wipe that smile off your face!!! Get serious!!!”
Despite everything that happened, I didn’t let anybody steal my joy.
Despite everything that happened, I stayed in Pittsburgh.
That’s the thing that I’m most proud of.
I didn’t run.
Over the years, I was tested in every way you can imagine. They benched me. They tried to move me back to receiver. They even kept me out of the quarterback room for a while. (“Kordell, they need you in the receivers meetings.”) Certain media members played into the rumors, the foolishness, the dog-whistles.
I didn’t run.
You can say whatever you want about Kordell Stewart, and I’ve heard it all, but one thing that you can never say about me is that I quit. I stayed, and I fought my way back, and I won for the city.
Three years after I had my name dragged through the mud, three years after they threw beer in my face, three years after they called called me n***** in my own stadium, I led the Steelers back to the AFC Championship Game in 2001.
Nobody can ever take that away from me, man.
And I’ll never forget this. We were playing Cleveland in the last game of the season, and we’d already locked in the division and the bye. Coach Cowher pulled me from the game in the second half just to rest me, right? And as I was walking to the sideline, the whole stadium stood up and applauded. This was in December, and the snow was coming down. We’re 13–3. I’m a Pro Bowler. I’m the AFC Offensive Player of the Year. I’m the MVP of the team. And now I got 60,000 people on their feet, giving me a standing ovation.
Gives you chills, right?
I remember thinking, Oh, you love me now, huh?
Because I remember another time I got a standing ovation, three years before that. It was a few months after the rumors started, and I just needed to get out of the house. I took my girlfriend out to dinner at a nice restaurant in the city. Morton’s steakhouse. And as we were walking through the dining room to our table, somebody stood up and started clapping.
My girlfriend looked at me like, What the heck is going on?
Then the whole restaurant started clapping. They gave me a standing ovation. The whole place.
Because I was there with a woman.
For a minute, I felt like an animal in a cage.
But I had a choice at that moment. I could have turned around and left. I could have hit somebody. I could have made a comment back. But I didn’t do any of that. I just stood there and looked everybody in the eyes and smiled.
I didn’t have to do the macho b.s.
I was at peace with being me, man.
We sat down and had dinner in the middle of the restaurant, with everybody looking at us the whole time.
Now, were those people in the restaurant evil? Were they bigots? Were they trying to humiliate me? I don’t know, man. I really don’t know. Deep down, most of them were probably decent people who thought they were “supporting” me, in their own way. Some of those same people were probably at Heinz Field three years later, giving me that standing ovation as I walked off the field.
That’s the thing.
I always felt like Pittsburgh wanted to love me.
But they wanted to love me on their terms.
They wanted me to be SLASH.
They were more comfortable with SLASH.
Well, guess what? I wanted me to be me.
Now, I didn’t make it all the way to the Super Bowl as a quarterback, but I got dang close, twice. And I gave the city a lot of good Sundays, buddy. I found a way to give the city a lot of those dubs. I got us to two AFC championships playing my style out of the friggin’ I-form.
Remember when I took it 80 yards to the house against Carolina out the jumbo set?
Maybe I was a little too ahead of my time, but hey, I did my part for the game. And I have no regrets.
I tell people all the time ― was I perfect? Nah, bro. As a quarterback, I wasn’t perfect.
But I was 46–29.
And you know what’s funny? I’ll leave you with this last story.
About a decade later, after my career was over, I was in Canton for Jerome Bettis’s Hall of Fame induction. It was an amazing reunion with guys I hadn’t seen in a long time. I even got to see the Big Fella again. And at that time, Mr. Rooney was nearing the end of his life. He was having some health problems. He was kind of hunched over. So when I saw him walking with his wife, I snuck up behind him and I kind of surprised him.
I said, “Hey, big fella! What you doing down there?”
He said, “Who’s that?”
“It’s your favorite player, Mr. Rooney! It’s your old buddy!”
He turned around and his eyes just lit up, man. He says, “Holy smokes! Kordell!! Slash!!! How you doing?”
“I’m good, Mr. Rooney, I’m good.”
“Hey look, I’m wearing one of those ties you gave me!”
“You’re looking slick, buddy. What you doing here?”
“Oh, just hanging out. Here to see our old friend The Bus. Can you believe it? Where did the time go?”
As a quarterback, I wasn’t perfect. But I was 46–29.- Kordell Stewart
We talked for a minute and then he had to go. And as he was walking away, arm-in-arm with his wife, he stopped in his tracks and turned around.
He said, “Hey, Slash.”
I said, “What’s up, big fella?”
He winked and he said, “I told you, buddy, you should’ve stayed a wide receiver. We’d be here celebrating you, too.”
You know, my whole career, people told me that I’d be in Canton if I’d just make the switch.
Just make the switch, Stew!
Just line up in the slot.
Just be who we need you to be.
Just be Slash.
Just get in that receivers meeting.
They need you in there.
No, sir. It wasn’t going down like that.
See, with all love and respect to Mr. Rooney, I wasn’t concerned about a gold jacket.
I needed to do something more important. I needed to be me.
“You know what I heard about Kordell Stewart???”
Oh yeah, I heard it all.
But let the record show….
I took all the shots.
I took all the slurs.
I took all the slander.
I made a lot of mistakes.
But I stayed in that pocket.
And dammit, I did it my way.