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The Big Picture: Movie imitates Maddox's life

Monday, December 16, 2002

Stop me if you've heard this one: Hotshot collegian flames out as NFL quarterback.

Sells life, home and auto insurance.

Luckily lands back in NFL.

Starts and stars this time.

TNT on Wednesday debuts a made-for-television movie about ... The Life and Times of Tommy Maddox?

Not quite. But it's close.

This work of fiction called "Second String" -- I mean, really, who would buy this story? -- sprang to the small screen from the minds of writers Tom Flynn and Jere Cunningham plus director Robert Lieberman, he of "Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story" and once a shooter of Buffalo Bills video. They're the ones who conjured notions of Notre Dame alum Dan Heller leaving the insurance business and leading the Bills to a Super Bowl triumph. They started filming at least two years ago, completed it in 2001 and bring it to TV the same season UCLA alum Thomas Alfred Maddox goes from Allstate to all-star comeback story while propelling the Steelers to a 6-3-1 record as their quarterback.

OK, so life doesn't imitate art completely. But it's close.

In the beginning, Heller (played by Gil Bellows wearing a Bill Cowher goatee) is making house calls selling policies. The woman of the house turns out to be an adoring fan from his college days. The man of the house belittles him, insults him, tears him a new earhole.

Yeah, Maddox has been there, done that.

"A couple of times with life insurance you go to people's houses. I did have that happen a few times. Most people were really nice, but you always had a couple of guys: 'I went to USC ... ' "

Heller gets his lucky break when Buffalo's general manager calls during the playoffs looking for a fourth quarterback, a designated practice arm. The pushy missus, Connie Heller (Teri Polo), agrees to the deal over the telephone and informs her husband upon his return from a tough day of house calls.

Maddox got his break after stints in Arena Football and in the ill-fated XFL, where he became MVP. He faxed each NFL team, and the only positive response came from the Steelers -- who dumped Pitt's John Turman and signed Maddox as a fourth quarterback for camp, behind Kordell Stewart, Kent Graham and Tee Martin. One more thing: His placid missus, Jennifer, never really pushed her husband because they did have two young mouths to feed. But ...

"She was sitting there going crazy that I'd get back into it. But if it was just the two of us [like in the movie], there's no telling where all I would have played. Probably wouldn't have been selling insurance or sitting around all those years. I almost went to Edmonton and the Canadian Football League -- '98, I think it was. Then I started looking on the map. They have an outdoor stadium. Ooooooh."

Heller went to Buffalo, where he was reunited with the same Coach Dichter (Jon Voight) who shafted him in those early years.

From 1992-95, Maddox played mostly for Dan Reeves, the only NFL coach who seemed to want him until Cowher and the Steelers came along.

Heller became a starter when Doug Flutie -- oops, he has been in San Diego for two seasons now -- and the rest of the Bills' first-stringers were hospitalized with a brutal case of oysters poisoning.

Maddox became a starter when Stewart gagged on Patriots, Raiders and Browns stew.

From this point, art and life clearly begin to separate. Heller isn't blessed with much more than good people skills, a knack for trickeration and, of course, a lovely wife. The football scenes, mixing live crowds and game action with staged productions starring thespians, sometimes look less believable than even the Houston Texans' offense. I mean, the Metrodome as the Superdome? This is art, though. This isn't a documentary.

This isn't "The Junction Boys," but it's an enjoyable "Second String." A fun little swig of football lite. Of course Heller and his old coach develop a mutual admiration. Of course the Bad News Bills win.

Wonder how the Maddox tale turns out?

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.

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