Sunday, January 3, 2010

How the NFL Pertains, Part II

They called Kordell Stewart "Slash" after his first season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. At the time, there were very few black quarterbacks in the NFL, and there were even fewer that could run with the ball if they had to. Most quarterbacks preferred to throw the ball or hand it off to a running back from the safety of the pocket of space created by the protecting offensive line. Kordell Stewart brought something completely different to the game. He could throw the ball, sure, and he did. He could catch the ball, and sometimes the Steelers would call a trick play that would send him to a wide receiver slot, where he would catch a ball thrown by a running back. "Slash" was born of Kordell Stewart's ability to run with the ball, though. In the scant seconds a quarterback has to make the decision most likely to advance the ball toward the end zone, a crazy array of choices present themselves. Sometimes none of them are good, and sometimes one or two of them need waiting on. Stewart was sometimes overwhelmed by the options and impatient for the outcome. That's when he would take matters into his own hands, despite what play had been called, and just run with the ball. He had an amazing ability to explode into a run, and there was no way to predict when he might do it, so it was hard to defend against. He could simply slash his way through the defense, running back and forth, diagonally, even backwards, eluding one player after another. Time after time, he ran the ball in for a touchdown. The inventive way he played was thrilling to watch, it just was, even for someone, like me, who was just coming to the game.

The thing is, it took me a while to understand what it was about Kordell Stewart. I tried to figure him out. His wild plays were exciting, all the more because they were so unpredictable. The commentators would say things like, "The Cowboys need to be ready here on third and long. This looks like an opportunity for Slash to break out!" Stewart either would or wouldn't pull off an amazing play, but the anticipation that he might was just as much fun as seeing him score a touchdown.

I tried to never take my eyes off Kordell Stewart, and I paid particular attention to him when he was on the sideline, waiting while the other team had the ball. When he'd botched a play, he'd be surrounded by chiding coaching staff; when one of his "Slash" plays had ended in a touchdown, he'd be surrounded by celebrating teammates. There were times, though, when he was standing or sitting apart from everybody else.
He often had a distant look in his eyes, but he would watch the game and I would watch him watch the game. I had the feeling that he was somehow disconnected from it. And he was, intellectually. He played purely from instinct. Once I understood that, I realized that Kordell Stewart was a natural athlete, one who just happened to end up playing football. Drawing on his instinct, he played the game in a way that forced me to understand the defensive side of the game, because defending against him was so hard. Of course, I never wanted any opposing team to be able to shut Kordell Stewart down. Once I recognized what he was, a player who responded fearlessly to his instinct instead of his playbook, I couldn't get enough of watching him.

But I was just a fan. NFL coaches want something more from their players than instinct, unless the team wins every time they step on the field. Instinct isn't quantifiable, measurable; it can't be shaped or replicated. The day the Steelers' coaching staff begin to try to define and shape Kordell Stewart is the day he began to slip away.

That's what I'm going to describe next.

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