Yo, Mr. Cop, Mr. Bagel Baker, Mr. High School Shop Teacher. Were
your football dreams hijacked before takeoff? Do you watch the
pros on Sundays and know you could still do that? Do you throw
30-yard down-and-outs at neighborhood squirrels?
Well, grab your cup. The NFL wants you.
First, grocery stocker Kurt Warner becomes the league MVP. And
now Tommy Maddox, who was selling insurance three years ago, is
starting for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Is this a great league or what?
"I never stopped believing," says Maddox, who went 10 years
between NFL starts. "I knew sooner or later I'd get my shot."
Yeah, right, Tommy Gun. Welcome to your life's movie: How to Blow
Up a Can't-Miss NFL Career Without Really Trying.
Remember 1992? You're a leading Heisman Trophy candidate
following your All-America sophomore season at UCLA, and what do
you do? You turn pro! Everybody tries to talk you out of it, but
you hear a rookie salary cap is coming, and you want to get into
the NFL before it hits. You idiot!
And where do you go when you're picked 25th in the draft? Right
into the ugliest brawl in the league: John Elway versus Dan
Reeves. Congratulations, you just won a time-share in Beirut.
"I can't tell you how nasty that situation was," Maddox says of
joining the Denver Broncos. "John thought he was one good young
receiver away from the Super Bowl, but Coach Reeves was like,
'You ain't gonna tell me what to do!' I think I was sort of Coach
Reeves's f--- you! to John."
Next thing you know, Elway gets hurt, and you become, at 21, the
youngest QB to take an NFL snap in 46 years. First up, the Los
Angeles Raiders. "He looked like my paperboy," Howie Long says
after the game, picking parts of you out of his teeth. You start
four games for the Broncos and lose them all.
Reeves gets canned. You throw one pass in '93. The Broncos ship
you to the St. Louis Rams. You throw 19 balls and get released.
In '95 Reeves, then coach of the Giants, brings you to New York.
You throw 23 passes. You don't make it out of Giants training
camp the next year or Atlanta Falcons camp the year after that,
with Reeves overnighting you to the waiver wire each time. Next
thing you know, you're selling term and whole life in Dallas.
Hey, at least there's no rookie salary cap, right, Tommy?
But you won't let the dream die. You help coach at a high school.
You bug NFL buddies for game tapes. You ache for one more chance.
And one night in 2000 you turn to your high-school-sweetheart
wife, Jennifer, and say, "Honey, what if we sold the insurance
business and joined the Arena Football League?"
And she says, "Whatever your heart tells you."
Whose heart says to go to the New Jersey Red Dogs? Use your car
trunk as your locker? Jam your 6'4" self into a center coach
seat, bound for such metropolises as Grand Rapids? Take yellow
school buses to carpeted hockey rinks?
But a funny thing happens on the way to Nowheresville. In
claustrophobic Arena ball you learn to be a pinpoint passer.
Three-step drops. Tiny throwing lanes that close up like
speakeasy peepholes. Decisions made in nanoseconds.
Next thing you know, you're turning to your wife and saying,
"Honey, what if we joined the XFL?" And she says, "Whatever your
heart.... What's the XFL?" Well, it's strippers posing as
cheerleaders. Cameramen covering your receivers. Wrestlers in the
But a funny thing happens on the way to Schlockville. You learn
how to be a leader. You steer the L.A. Xtreme to the XFL
championship and get named league MVP. O.K., MVP of the XFL is
like being Miss Akron, but it's still football.
Then, in the summer of 2001, you find you're a real, live
Pittsburgh Steeler. "I kept dropping back and not believing how
much time I had," Maddox says of winning the backup job in camp.
"Plus, the holes looked huge." Still, all season, you throw nine
And now, with rigatoni-armed Kordell Stewart benched, redemption
time in the NFL finally arrives with a start on Sunday against
the New Orleans Saints. A decade older, not much richer, 18
pounds heavier, half a brain smarter, you sit in that Pittsburgh
locker room and say, "Whatever happens, it's been a great ride."
So you go out and act as if you belonged there all along,
throwing for 268 yards and three touchdowns, but the Steelers
come up short, 32-29. That figures, right?
It takes more than 10 years to be an overnight success.
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA
A decade older, not much richer, 18 pounds heavier, half a brain
smarter, Maddox starts for the Steelers.