He sensed his opening and charged into the clear, and then Bubby
Brister, a bayou thunderbolt on a Rocky Mountain high, exhaled
and told himself, It's all downhill from here. Brister and his
bride-to-be, Bonnie Creaghan, were two of the happiest skiers on
Aspen Mountain back in February 1994. New Orleans Saints coach
Jim Mora had just told Brister, who grew up in Monroe, La., that
he was the Saints' quarterback of the future and offered him a
three-year, $6 million contract. Ecstatic over his return to his
home state, free-agent Brister, coming off a solid season with
the Philadelphia Eagles, canceled visits to three other teams
and headed to the winter playground of the wealthy while his
agent, Jim Steiner, and the Saints fine-tuned the details. For
12 days he and Bonnie lived it up--skiing, sipping cocktails and
chilling, at least as much as the NFL's most hyper quarterback
could pretend to chill.
The happy couple returned to Monroe on a Tuesday, with a press
conference to announce Bubby's signing scheduled at the Saints'
headquarters the following afternoon. They threw down their
bags, switched on the TV and, within seconds, watched their
two-week buzz turn into a three-year bummer. A sportscaster
announced that New Orleans had signed quarterback Jim Everett,
leaving Brister out in the cold. "No one from the Saints called
to tell me," Brister says.
It was all downhill from there, all right. His other
opportunities extinguished, Brister slinked his way back to
Philadelphia as a $900,000 backup for the 1994 season and then
spent '95 as a human tackling dummy for the 3-13 New York Jets.
The following fall he was back in Monroe, unable to land so much
as a spot on an NFL team's training-camp roster. In football
circles Brister's name had become a synonym for washed-up
quarterback. Against all reason he kept his Remington 280 arm
and lanky (6'3", 205-pound) body in shape. During his daily
throwing sessions to anyone not afraid of breaking a couple of
fingers, Brister would think, If I could only have one more
Now, five years after his career began sliding down that
slippery slope, Brister is riding high again in Colorado, hoping
to seize the chance of a lifetime. When the Denver Broncos open
their season on Sept. 13 against the Miami Dolphins at Mile High
Stadium, in the first game of the post-John Elway era, coach
Mike Shanahan's intricate offense likely will be in the hands of
a man named Bubby. Not only will Walter Andrew Brister III,
slated to be the Broncos' first opening day quarterback other
than Elway since 1982, perform in the shadow of history, but
he'll also have a chance to make some of his own. If Brister can
parlay his two-year Denver apprenticeship--one launched after
Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski, Brister's former Eagles
teammate, recommended him to Shanahan--into an unprecedented
third consecutive Super Bowl title for the Broncos, all the
slights he has endured during his four-team, 13-year NFL odyssey
will be washed away. "I went about it in a roundabout way, with
a lot of pain and agony along the road, but now I'm here and all
that stuff's a wash," says Brister, who turns 37 in August.
"There are a lot of people I can prove wrong, but the biggest
thing is that I want to prove Mike Shanahan right for taking a
chance on me. I'm going to bust my ass for him and for this
team, give them every ounce of energy I've got."
In Brister's case, that's a scary prospect. He's a morning radio
deejay after too many cups of coffee, a guy who makes playing
quarterback look like an X-Games event. Consider the first time
Brister appeared for Denver in a game that counted, in the late
stages of a season-ending rout of the San Diego Chargers in
1997. He came roaring into the huddle at the start of the fourth
quarter with the Broncos leading 31-3 and bellowed, "All right,
guys, let's take it 90 yards and score!" Guard Brian Habib, a
notorious griper, grimaced and said, "Hey, man, why don't you
slow down a little bit?" The other players nodded. "No, you
speed your asses up!" Brister barked. The Broncos marched down
the field and scored on a six-yard Derek Loville touchdown run,
which Loville hoped to celebrate with a spike. But before he
could get off the ground, Brister flattened him with a
celebratory body slam.
Brister was so restless during his time as a backup in
Philadelphia and Denver that he volunteered his services for the
kickoff-coverage unit. (The offer was refused.) Brister has been
known to head-butt his receivers after completions, pollute NFL
Films sound tracks with his R-rated rants against officials, and
engage in hand-to-hand combat with larger and stronger
opponents, such as Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas.
During one practice in 1988, his first year as the Pittsburgh
Steelers' starter, Brister brawled with 260-pound defensive end
Off the field Brister is similarly amped. All you need to know
is that Bonnie regards Bubby as a "carbon copy" of the couple's
ebullient daughter, Madeline, who's two months shy of her third
birthday. Bonnie says Bubby, like Madeline, "has to take naps
every day, because he's so hyper."
The Broncos have pegged Brian Griese, a third-round pick in
1998, as Elway's eventual successor, and in April, shortly
before Elway announced his retirement, Denver signed veteran
Chris Miller, who quit playing football in 1995 after suffering
a series of concussions. But for now Shanahan is entrusting his
offensive machine to the popular Brister, who auditioned for the
role last year by filling in brilliantly whenever his good buddy
Elway went down. Brister started four games and played most of
two others, all of which Denver won, and he finished with a
higher quarterback rating than Elway did (99.0 to 93.0).
Still, there's a huge difference between stopgap and starter.
"Everyone's saying I'm under pressure," Brister said last week
after completing his daily three-hour workout at the Broncos'
practice facility. "Hell, pressure was playing for the Jets in
1995, knowing you were going to get your ass kicked every week."
That disastrous season completed a harsh slide for Brister, who
six years earlier had looked like an emerging star when he nearly
led the Steelers to a second-round playoff upset of the Broncos
at Mile High Stadium. (Elway pulled out a 24-23 comeback
victory.) Brister, a third-round pick out of Northeastern
Louisiana in '86, had seemingly willed those Steelers to the
brink of glory. "We were this ragtag group of young guys,"
recalls Brian Blankenship, a former Pittsburgh lineman who is
Madeline's godfather, "and everything we did revolved around
Bubby's excitement and exuberance."
The next season the Steelers replaced offensive coordinator Tom
Moore with Joe Walton, who revamped the team's entire system, and
Brister began his backslide, throwing 20 interceptions and only
14 touchdown passes in 1990. The public turned on him: That year
a Pittsburgh rock station began playing a song parody, Mamas,
Don't Let Your Bubbys Grow Up to Be QBs. When Brister was knocked
out of the '91 season opener with a concussion, Steelers fans
cheered. He tore up his right knee, lost his job to Neil
O'Donnell and four depressing autumns later found himself back in
Monroe, helping his father beat prostate cancer while smart
alecks across the country took potshots at a good man with a bad
Part of it, of course, is the name, a product of being the only
boy in a Deep South household with five older sisters. "My
sisters killed me by naming me Bubby," he says, "though it
probably made me tougher." Brister developed a strange
relationship with his nickname, simultaneously being protective
of it and embarrassed by it. During summer league baseball
games, Brister, whose fastball was clocked at 92 mph in high
school, heard chants of "Buh-bee, Buh-bee" from opposing
dugouts. "People would say it in a way that made me sound like
some sort of girl," he says. "I confronted a few people and made
sure they'd never chant that again. But even now, people call me
Bubba Brewster or Buddy Blister or Bobby Breaster. I end up
having to repeat my name three times and then spell it, and they
still get it wrong."
Drafted out of high school in the 10th round by the Detroit
Tigers in 1981 and converted to shortstop, Brister "got bored
watching the grass grow" during 48 games of rookie and winter
ball and decided to head to college to work on his football. By
the time he got to the NFL, he was a man's man who enjoyed
bachelorhood, free to pursue his true loves (hunting and bass
fishing) while not tied down by any romantic strings. Then, while
back in Monroe rehabilitating his right knee following the '91
season, Bubby saw Bonnie in a burger joint one night, and
everything changed. "She was wearing jean shorts, a tight red
shirt and looked like the finest thing you've ever seen in your
life," he says. "My friends wanted to go, but I said, 'I'm not
leaving till I get her phone number.'"
Bonnie, eight years his junior, was a tough sell. "I'd heard he
was a player," she says, "and I don't mean football player."
Bubby smiles and finishes the story: "She had just gotten out of
a relationship. I was in about five of 'em. We got married a year
later, and it's the best thing that ever happened to me. She
likes to cook, and she doesn't mind getting on a four-wheeler and
having fun. As we say back home, I'm way overchicked."
Brister never seems too far from back home. Last fall teammates
began calling him Bubby Boucher, after Adam Sandler's
swamp-dwelling character in The Waterboy. The nickname started
with Elway, who had witnessed the bayou lifestyle firsthand
while accompanying Brister and his hometown buddies to the Rota
Quinta fishing retreat in Clayton, La., shortly after the 1997
season. Among the three-day trip's highlights were Elway's
snagging of a nine-pound bass--"the biggest one any of us had
ever caught," Brister says, "which was typical John." Among the
lowlights was the night the guys had to crash on a screened-in
porch in the rain. At one point, Brister says, "I snuck a peek
at John, who was curled up in his sleeping bag, shivering and
getting poured on. I'm thinking, Great, John's gonna get
pneumonia, and I'm gonna get cut."
Denver's huddle figures to be significantly louder this season,
not to mention wetter: Brister is a nervous spitter and
constantly loogies during games. But as long as All-Pro halfback
Terrell Davis stays healthy, the Broncos don't expect many
substantive changes. The offense may be expanded slightly to
account for Brister's arm strength, which Shanahan
says--seriously--is more potent even than Elway's. "Bubby can
throw the ball 70 yards," Shanahan says. "There are maybe five
guys in the league who can do that."
The passing of the torch came in early May, toward the end of
the all-night celebration following Elway's retirement press
conference. The after-hours crew included the Bristers and the
Elways (John and his wife, Janet), and the man of the moment
turned to his successor and said, "Bubby, you're the greatest,
but if there's one thing I could tell you, it's calm down a
little bit--just calm down." Brister pondered that statement for
a moment and then looked at the TV set a few feet away, where a
career retrospective was flashing a clip of a younger Elway
brawling with an opposing defender. "Hell," Brister said, "why
would I possibly listen to that guy?"
Bubby laughs at the recollection of that moment as he sits with
Bonnie in a steak house south of Denver and finishes his filet
mignon. A woman from an adjacent table approaches and hands
Brister a napkin. "My husband and I are celebrating our 30-year
anniversary," she says. "We used to worry about Life After John,
but you've eased our fears." Brister signs the napkin and grins.
"Thirty years?" he asks. "Can I have your autograph?"
The check comes, but Bubby and Bonnie take their time leaving.
They're talking about his good buddy Robert Cobb, who the
previous week suffered a massive heart attack and went into a
coma. When he heard the news Brister chartered a plane and flew
to his friend's bedside in Baton Rouge, but it was too late.
Within hours Cobb, a married man whose wife is due to have a
baby in July, was dead at 30. "I was just lying there in my
hotel room paralyzed, mentally and physically crushed," Brister
says, fighting back tears. "Then I thought about his wife, and
the grandparents who raised him, and I said, 'Get your punk ass
out of bed and do something to help them.'" He ended up handling
all the arrangements and paid for the funeral.
Bonnie reaches across the table to grip her husband's throwing
arm. A minute passes before anyone speaks. "Every day when I'm
working out, Robert is with me," Bubby says. "I'm going to play
my ass off for him. There'll be a lot of pressure this season.
It's going to take everything Bonnie and I have got, both of us,
to pull it off."
Reenergized, Bubby bounces from his chair, walks out the front
door of the restaurant and stares up at the shimmering moon.
Finally, undeniably, things are looking up.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER The free-spirited Brister loves making a splash with his all-terrain vehicle on the ranch he leases near his Colorado home.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Stand in and deliver The Broncos won all four 1998 games in which Brister started in Elway's place.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Waiting his turn Brister stood aside as attention focused on Elway after Denver's 1998 Super Bowl win.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Married with kids Bonnie says Bubby is just like little Madeline: Both are hyper and need afternoon naps.
"There are people I can prove wrong," says Brister, "but I
want to prove Shanahan right for taking a chance on me."
The offense may be expanded to make use of Brister's arm
strength, which Shanahan calls greater than Elway's.
"There'll be a lot of pressure this season," says Bubby. "It's
going to take everything Bonnie and I have got."