November has arrived, and the National Football League, having finally wrested the national spotlight from Major League Baseball, is in full swing. Thus far, fans have already been fortunate enough to witness the brilliant play of John Elway and his Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, the return of Jerry Rice, and the emergence of rookie sensations Randy Moss and Peyton Manning. Yet the most compelling stories of this season are unfolding in Buffalo, where one quarterback is proving that hard work, courage, and good leadership win football games, and in Pittsburgh, where another quarterback is proving that a high salary and an uncontrollable ego do not translate into victories on the field.
Throughout the first nine weeks of the football season, Kordell "Slash" Stewart of the Pittsburgh Steelers has been mired in a prolonged sophomore slump; during that stretch, he has frequently relied upon his teammates - namely running back Jerome Bettis and defensive lineman Levon Kirkland - to carry the weight of the team upon their hefty shoulders. Luckily, the team has responded to the challenge, posting five victories against three miserable losses to Miami, Cincinnati, and, most recently, the lowly Tennessee Oilers. Yet the future appears bleak for the Pittsburgh faithful. After a disappointing performance against the Kansas City Chiefs, during which Stewart threw for a measly 82 yards (in a 20-13 Steelers win), the young quarterback returned to Three Rivers Stadium the next week with something to prove against the division-rival Oilers. The results? Slash completed 23 passes for 230 yards, but his three costly interceptions sealed the fate of the Steelers, who had fallen behind 34-15 before Stewart was replaced by journeyman quarterback Mike Tomczak. For the season, Slash has completed just 53 percent of his passes, with six touchdowns and ten (!) interceptions. Currently, his efficiency rating, as compiled by the National Football League, places him behind 30 fellow quarterbacks, including such legends as Tony Banks of the St. Louis Rams, Trent Green of the Washington Redskins, and Kerry Collins, whose performance as a Carolina Panther was so poor that he was released after the fifth week of the season and then acquired by the desperate New Orleans Saints, whose passing attack annually ranks among the league's worst. (Incidentally, that makes Collins the third Saint quarterback with a higher rating than Stewart.)
In Buffalo, a very different story has been unfolding. Doug Flutie, a 5'10", 35-year-old quarterback who last played in the NFL with the Chicago Bears in 1989, has staged an improbable comeback with the Bills, who have managed to defy the odds by posting a 5-3 record, good for a share of the division lead in the competitive AFC East.
During the first week of the season, Flutie was called upon to relieve injured starter Rob Johnson in the second half of an eventual loss to the San Diego Chargers. Having been removed from the big leagues for nearly a decade, the former darling of the Canadian Football League entered the game facing a deficit of 10-0. Without missing a beat, he completed 23 of 28 passes, gaining 213 yards and two touchdowns in two quarters. He did not stop there. Over the course of six games this season, he has transformed a team riddled with aging veterans and failed prospects into a winner and engineered victories over superior teams in San Francisco and Miami (although he will probably be remembered most for his impromptu, last-second heroics in a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars). Meanwhile, he ranks as the second-best quarterback in the NFL (behind Randall Cunningham of the Minnesota Vikings) with 1718 passing yards, ten touchdowns, and three interceptions. He is an aging athlete in the twilight of a career that was thought to be over years ago, but he has fought to return to the prime time. His persistence paid off. On November 4, Bills coach Wade Phillips announced that Doug Flutie had replaced Johnson as his starting quarterback.
Unlike Flutie, who compensates for his comparative lack of size and skill with heart and effort, Kordell Stewart has enough raw talent to become one of the great quarterbacks in this league, a la Mark Brunell, whose passing ability is surpassed only by his keen awareness and his willingness to run the ball under pressure. Yet Stewart has proven very little during his stint as the starting quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, nor has he justified the media hype that surrounds him. Like Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, and Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers, he has been heralded as a superstar since the very first day he donned a uniform. He has even been hailed as the next John Elway and, according to one NFL publicist, "a hero of the first Internet age." He has amassed millions from lucrative endorsement deals with Nike, Playstation, and Sprint, money that most professional athletes - Doug Flutie, for instance - will not earn throughout their entire careers. Along the path to riches and stardom, however, Stewart has forgotten that the true measure of success is not his bank account or the number of commercials he produces; it is wins and, ultimately, the number of championship rings on his fingers that will make him great.
Perhaps he should follow the example of Flutie, who earns the league minimum but consistently displays an intensity and passion for the game that would humble the likes of Favre, Bledsoe, and Aikman. In an age when the media creates superstars overnight and attempts to exploit the marketability of athletes on television, in the theaters, and even in the music music industry, Stewart should put aside the distractions and concentrate on the game. Doug Flutie is not a part of the Internet age that Slash supposedly represents; he is a quarterback from a different era, a time when professional sports seemed more pure and less like big business. He is separated from Slash by a generation and a tax bracket. Still, his courage and love of the game are timeless and should be an inspiration to any athlete, young or old.
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 8, November 6, 1998
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