In his one season as starting quarterback at the University of Maryland, Scott Zolak performed a curious ritual before every game.
He rubbed a football that bore the signature of Joe Montana for luck.
Not a football with a rubber-stamped autograph, this was the real McCoy.
Since Zolak passed for 2,589 yards in 1990, second most in school history, one might assume something good rubbed off that Montana football. Then again, you could easily say Zolak had it in him all along.
"Joe signed a football for me two springs ago when he went home after the Super Bowl," Zolak said yesterday. "He told me then, 'I'll see you in the NFL.' "
Zolak, 23, arrived last spring, a fourth-round draft choice of the New England Patriots. Out on the West Coast, Montana, 35 and winner of four Super Bowls, certainly noticed.
These two quarterbacks go way back. All the way to Monongahela, Pa., and Ringgold High School. All the way back to 1973, when Montana was a senior quarterback at Ringgold, and Zolak, then 6, was the water boy.
"Joe was also the kicker and I used to run out on the field to get the tee after kicks," Zolak remembered. "I still have his chin strap from his last game."
Zolak followed in Montana's shoes in the 1980s. He quarterbacked Ringgold four years, and in 1985 was the top quarterback prospect in Pennsylvania. When Zolak finally got his chance to play last season at Maryland, Montana sent him notes of congratulations.
"It's nice to know people who are in demand like that can take the time to do that," said Zolak, whose strong right arm took the Terps to the Independence Bowl.
Two weeks into his first pro training camp, Zolak is trying to make a name for himself with the NFL's lowliest team. The Patriots went 1-15 a year ago and set new standards for poor manners and bad football. Zolak did not see his glass as half empty when the Patriots drafted him last spring, though.
"I heard a lot of bad remarks after the draft," he said, "but I think this is the best opportunity out of 28 teams where I could have gone . . . I hope I have longevity in the NFL. It's up to me, how hard I work. I plan to be ready if they call on me, the way I was ready at Maryland. I know I can play at this level."
Zolak, 6 feet 5 and 222 pounds, may be the most secure fourth-round draft choice in the NFL. In the wake of last year's disastrous season, the Patriots retired Marc Wilson, waived Steve Grogan and signed Plan B free agent Hugh Millen to battle second-year man Tommy Hodson for the starting quarterback job. Then they drafted Zolak, ostensibly to sit, wait and learn.
The only other quarterback on the roster is Shawn McCarthy, who hasn't taken any snaps at quarterback but is trying to win a job as the punter. With a new league rule that allows each team to dress a third, or emergency, quarterback from the inactive list in event of injury to the first two, Zolak seems virtually certain of a job.
"Nothing's engraved in stone," Zolak said. "I'll work just as hard as if they brought in a Plan B guy to compete for the third spot. I think it's my job to lose. It's pretty much the same situation Tommy was in last year."
Hodson, a third-round pick in 1990, started the team's final six games last year after injuries and ineffectiveness plagued Wilson and Grogan.
Zolak hopes to play in Saturday's preseason game against the Washington Redskins at Foxboro Stadium. He staged a one-week holdout and missed rookie camp this summer. For that reason he didn't participate in a July 20 scrimmage against the Redskins. Neither did he play in last week's 28-7 loss to Green Bay, when Hodson and Millen launched their competition.
For now, Zolak is content with learning the Patriots' offense under new coach Dick MacPherson, who once unsuccessfully recruited him at Syracuse. And he works to fulfill the dream that was born two decades ago in western Pennsylvania's cradle of quarterbacks.
"No one knows how good anyone from there will be until they get to this level," he said. "Everyone knew Joe would be good, but no one knew he would be that good."