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Finder on the Web: Maddox is new Steelers' quarterback insurance policy

Monday, September 03, 2001

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Columnist

Thomas Alfred Maddox, former insurance agent, onetime Arenaball quarterback, longtime NFL poster boy for premature collegiate exits, prepares for a chance to pitch footballs Sunday in Jacksonville as the Steelers' backup quarterback.

He's working on six NFL years' rest.

"It's probably not as big a shocker to me as it is to a lot of people," Tommy Maddox was saying on Labor Day inside his workplace on the South Side. The Steelers jettisoned their opening-game starter from last season, Kent Graham, and on Monday installed as their No. 2 quarterback this former first-rounder with a six-year hiatus on his resume. "I guess anytime you're away from the NFL as long as I was ... "

You take your backup quarterbacks where you find them. Maddox was at the bottom of the scrap heap.

He was selling home, life and auto insurance in Flower Mound, Texas -- his father is a regional vice president for Allstate in that same surburban Dallas area -- when he decided in late 1999 to revive a quarterbacking career that only Dan Reeves seemed to appreciate. Reeves drafted Maddox as the John Elway heir apparent in Denver in 1992, he brought him to the New York Giants in 1995 (the day after cutting Graham) and played him one game, he brought him to camp there in 1996, he brought him to Atlanta camp in 1997. After that, nothing.

One general manager who Maddox telephoned in the interim thought he was still on Atlanta's payroll.

Another informed Maddox that his club wanted to go in a younger direction when signing a quarterback to send to NFL Europe and then bring to camp. The guy that club signed was an entire year younger.

See, that's the thing with Maddox: perception. He has been around pro footall almost a decade. But he's still young by quarterback standards, he's still maturing like a veteran pitcher. He just turned 30 on Sunday.

Carolina starter Chris Weinke is only 11 months younger, and he's a rookie, for goodness sakes.

The new Steelers backup is younger than San Francisco's Rick Mirer, Arizona's Dave Brown and Buffalo's Alex Van Pelt, all 31, Detroit's Ty Detmer, 32, the Giants' Jason Garrett, 36, and Indianapolis' Mark Rypien, who is, what, 67? And I'd take Maddox over any of those dudes. I'd take him over any Detmer (Koy's the backup in Philadelphia). I'd take him over any of Cincinnati's three pretenders (Jon Kitna, Akili Smith and Scott Mitchell, who, believe it or not, Steelers officials considered signing in April).

The salary cap has trashed the backup position the same way it has exiled aging linemen. Such veterans become too expensive, too expendable. So Cleveland goes with Kelly Holcomb and ex-Penn Stater Kevin Thompson as reserve quarterbacks. Green Bay goes with a woebegone Doug Pederson. New England goes with Damon Huard, St. Louis with Central Catholic alumnus Marc Bulger and Dallas with ex-Steelers reserve Anthony Wright. Come on, Minnesota traded for Spergon Wynn?

Sure, the rest of the league may giggle over Maddox -- one of the few XFL survivors to make an NFL roster.

Maddox can hear it.

"Even though I was away from the NFL, I was never far away from football," said Maddox who, between his inactive 1997-99, three or four days a week, worked out and coached and tossed passes with teen-agers at his alma mater, L.D. Bell High in Hurst, Texas. "I've seen strides in myself, the development over the last two years, being able to play as much as I've played [in Arenaball and the XFL].

"It's been fun. It's been a long road, but one I don't regret at all. I think I became a better person, probably a better player. I think sometimes going through the difficult times is a good thing in your life. It takes that to help you focus on the things that matter and the things that you need to work on. So it's been a good journey. I look forward to it continuing."

He already proved his value here. This quarterback signed for $477,000 in June, after he faxed every NFL team and got tryouts such as his one on the South Side. He completed 17 of 27 passes for 222 yards in leading the Steelers to that come-from-behind victory in Atlanta and that triumph-securing touchdown against Detroit.

True, he was simply awful in Minnesota. His fumbleception -- or whatever you'd call that -- and 2 for 8 performance looked nothing like the results of a quarterback who learned quickness and accuracy in his 2000 spring with the New Jersey Red Dogs, when he completed 284 of 490 Arenaball attempts for 3,378 yards, 62 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. ("I don't know if it's exactly football," but, he said, the league helped him to improve.) His lack of poise that night looked nothing like the product of a fellow who sold the Flower Mound insurance agency and threw everything into his pro-football return, winning the Most Valuable Player for himself and the championship for the Los Angeles Xtreme in Vince McMahon's league that soon after became the ex-FL. ("It was just an opportunity to play so-called real football again. If fate had it that I played in that league for 10 years, I probably would have been happy doing that, too.")

But the Steelers liked what they saw from Maddox in Atlanta and against Detroit and in practice, even after his horrible start at camp in Latrobe. I liked what I saw from Maddox, but, then again, I still believe the Steelers are mishandling Tee Martin. He may yet provide a better running and throwing threat than the pocket-passing Maddox, he may yet perform a better Kordell Stewart impersonation at quarterback than Kordell Stewart. Martin should be given the confidence and the leash of being the Steelers' No. 2 quarterback, and Maddox should be their designated passer.

If nothing else, Maddox is a feel-good story.

Left UCLA with two years eligibility remaining to turn pro -- only he and Virginia Tech's Michael Vick have done that in NFL draft history. Got trampled by inexperience and immaturity and the tag of being "a Reeves guy" in Denver. Got traded to St. Louis for a fourth-round choice in 1994. Got bounced around the Giants, with whom he last played an NFL game in the 1995 season finale, completing just 6 of 23 attempts for 49 yards and three interceptions in a home loss against Philadelphia. Got released by Atlanta. Got a start in the insurance business, as he put it, much earlier than anticipated ("I thought I could let the agency run intself and go play golf all the time, but it turned into a little bit more work.")

Then from Arenaball to the XFL to this.

He isn't Randall Cunningham (Baltimore), Neil O'Donnell (Tennessee), Trent Dilfer (Seattle), or either Ford City's Gus Frerotte or Steve Beurlein (Denver). But he just might be better than 30-some other reserve quarterbacks in the league right now, after six years away.

"I said all along, I was playing because I love the game. I wasn't playing to get back or do anything.

"Oh, yeah, I'm much better prepared now. You have experiences to fall back on. When you're 20, 21, 22 years old, you don't have a whole lot. Especially coming out of college early. So I have not only game-time experience to fall back on , but being around the guys I've been around, the other quarterbacks. You just learn a lot through your journey."

His improbable journey continues.

In addition to The Big Picture, Chuck Finder writes a general-sports column exclusive to the http://www.post-gazette.com/ every Tuesday. He can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com

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