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Cook: Van Pelt makes mark on Bills

Wednesday, December 26, 2001

Don't look now, but Pitt's all-time passing leader is on the verge of an astonishing NFL comeback.

No, they aren't that lucky in Miami.

Alex Van Pelt, not Dan Marino.

As hard as it is to believe Van Pelt broke Marino's passing records at Pitt, it's even harder to believe what he's doing with the Buffalo Bills this season. At 31, after a long NFL career as a little-used backup to such quarterbacks as Joe Montana, Jim Kelly and Doug Flutie and nearly forced into retirement two years ago, he has played so well since replacing injured Rob Johnson at mid-season that the talk in Buffalo is the Bills might go with him as the starter next season and dump the brittle, overpaid Johnson.

"It's been a long, weird road for me," Van Pelt said, "but this is really a great audition."

Weird doesn't even begin to describe the man's career. Check out the resume:

Drafted in the eighth round by the Steelers in 1993 and released during training camp. Signed by the Kansas City Chiefs late in the '93 season when Montana pulled a hamstring and released after three games. Signed again by the Chiefs -- his coach at Pitt, Paul Hackett, was their offensive coordinator -- before the '94 season and released during training camp. Signed late in the '94 season by the Bills when Kelly blew out a knee. Made his only three starts before this season in '97. Let go after the '99 season in a salary-cap move only to be re-signed by the Bills during the 2000 training camp when Flutie pulled a groin.

Who could have seen Van Pelt's performance this season coming?

The laughable Bills are 1-5 since he replaced Johnson as the starter and 2-12 overall, but that's not his fault. He threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns in a 23-20 loss to Seattle. He threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns and built a 27-17 lead against Miami only to see the Bills' defense blow it in the fourth quarter of a 34-27 loss. He led a 70-yard scoring drive in 35 seconds against Carolina -- throwing a 7-yard touchdown pass to Peerless Price with one second left in the second quarter -- and sparked a second-half comeback in a 25-24 win. And Sunday, he brought the Bills back from a 30-20 fourth-quarter deficit against Atlanta -- throwing the tying, 3-yard touchdown pass to Eric Moulds with 48 seconds left -- only to see the Falcons' Jay Feely break their hearts with a 52-yard field goal as time expired to win the game, 33-30.

"The losing has been hard, especially for the older guys," Van Pelt said. "John Fina and Phil Hansen went to the Super Bowl with this team. Ruben Brown" -- another Pitt guy -- "and I have been here long enough to remember when it wasn't a question of if we were going to the playoffs but how long we would last. Now, we're in a situation where we're wondering when we're going to get the next win. It's tough."

The Bills clearly have played better with Van Pelt than they did with Johnson. It's led to a quarterback controversy that no one expected. The Bills thought they were done with quarterback controversies after last season when they chose to release Flutie and stay with Johnson. Flutie and Johnson despised each other, and their relationship tore the team apart. Van Pelt could write about a book about the quarterbacks meetings last season.

"I kind of compare to it being the kid of divorced parents when the parents have to get together for an occasion. It was tense."

There is no such animosity between Van Pelt and Johnson, who went down for the season against New England Nov. 11 with a broken collarbone.

"I almost feel bad for him because we're such good friends," Van Pelt said. "It could be awkward, but he's so positive with me and feels so good for me. He's the first one to congratulate me when I do something good."

There have been plenty such moments even if it doesn't show in the Bills' record.

It really has been a long, strange road for Van Pelt. He thought he might be finished when no team wanted him after the '99 season. He was prepared to retire and move back to Pittsburgh. He and his wife, Brooke, who's from Freeport, and their daughter, Payton, 2, and a second child, who is due in February, will live on a farm in Freeport when he's done with football.

That could be years.

"I feel like I've got a lot of football left," Van Pelt said.

Teammates and friends still call him "Pill" -- short for Pillsbury Doughboy. But he has lost a lot of his fat. He said he weighs 212 pounds, down nearly 20 from last season and 10 from his Pitt days.

"I'm probably in the best shape of my life. Maybe I lost a little arm strength, but a lot of people said I never had any to begin with. So what's the difference?"

Van Pelt laughed easily.

It's always easy to be self-deprecating when you and -- now, at long last -- the rest of the NFL know better.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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