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IF YOU listen to Terry Hoage's modest assessment of his
abilities, it's hard to believe that he has survived nearly a
dozen years in the NFL. "I'm not a great cover guy, I'm not as
fast as I once was, and I don't hit as hard," says the
33-year-old Hoage. So that explains why he's starting at weak
safety for the Arizona Cardinals.

Hoage's football career has given him a lot of opportunity for
self-deprecation. After all, the Cards are Hoage's sixth team in
12 seasons. "There hasn't been anytime in my entire career that
I've had total job security," he says. How, then, does he
explain the longevity? "I'm smart enough to know my limitations."

Hoage is also smart enough to appreciate his own good fortune.
"I get paid a lot more money than most people, for a lot less
aggravation," he says. But if playing football has offered Hoage
some perspective, the birth of his first child afforded him a
strong dose of reality. In 1989 his son, Christopher, was born
with a very rare disease, caudal regression syndrome, which left
the boy with a severely deformed lower body. After more than 20
operations, the six-year-old Christopher, whose lower left leg
was amputated and whose right leg is paralyzed below the knee,
is usually confined to a wheelchair but enjoys a nearly normal
life. He climbs trees; races around the yard with his
four-year-old sister, Natalie; and likes to throw a football
with his father.

"Both of my kids are special, but Christopher is really
special," says Hoage. "He's improved the life of anyone he's
ever met. The day he was born was the happiest and most
devastating day of my life. All the disappointments I've had in
football helped me adjust to Christopher's disability."

Hoage graduated from Georgia with a 3.8 GPA and a degree in
genetics in 1984. A two-time All-America at safety, he was
selected by the Saints in the third round of the draft. Hoage
planned to attend medical school but thought he would first give
the NFL a shot. He figured his football career would last only a
few years.

With medical school now on perpetual hold, Hoage has instead
turned to studying languages of sorts. "I've played for six
different teams, and I've learned six different schemes," he
says. "Once you've learned one foreign language, the rest aren't
that hard. There are 11 guys trying to move the ball and 11 guys
trying to stop the ball."

While defense may be Greek to some, it's Hoage's mother tongue.
The Redskins cut him in August 1993, and within a month the
49ers were calling. San Francisco needed a player who could
learn the defense in a hurry. "I'm not trying to oversimplify,
but football is not rocket science," Hoage says. "There are only
so many defensive permutations, and the geometry of the field
doesn't change." Later in '93 with the Oilers--and again in '94
with the Cardinals--Hoage's former coach in Philadelphia, Buddy
Ryan, beckoned and secured Hoage's services. Last year Hoage
started all 16 games at weak safety for Arizona, making three
interceptions and a career-high 114 tackles. In training camp
this year, he was once again perilously close to unemployment,
yet he made the Cardinal roster as a backup. But in Week 5 he
was seamlessly returned to the starting lineup, and he is
currently fifth on the team in tackles with 71.

"Football is strange," says Hoage. "When Buddy cut me in 1990,
he told me that I might hang around the league for another year
or two but that I would never play for him again. But we've gone
full circle with each other." Wherever and whenever the circle
stops, Hoage is ready to move on with his life. He knows all too
well that football is just a game.

--Stephen Thomas

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH The Cardinal safety (with Natalie and Christopher) gained perspective from all his career moves. [Terry Hoage playing chess with Natalie Hoage and Christopher Hoage]