Public image limited Quarterback: Vinny Testaverde has aired his private life in the past, and gotten burned. He's learned his lessons, on and off the field.

July 18, 1996|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. -- During the off-season, Vinny Testaverde doesn't get out much. After all, his seven-acre estate in Lutz, a Tampa suburb, has pretty much everything he needs.

There's the private pond, the gym packed with 2,500 pounds of weights, the recreation room loaded with video games, the tennis court and plenty of space to relax in his 8,500-square-foot home. (Looking for his Heisman Trophy? That's against a back wall by a powder room.)

But everyone needs to break away once in a while. So, on this day, Testaverde is zooming over Tampa Bay, co-piloting his helicopter at 130 mph. Bruce Springsteen is blaring through the headphones with another chorus of "Born in the U.S.A." Testaverde takes in all the sights. Busch Gardens. Adventure Island. The aquarium. He makes a run over to Fred McGriff's place, with its nine-car garage and pool in the front yard.

After about an hour flight, Testaverde and his agent, Mike Azzarelli, land the helicopter in Testaverde's front yard.

"There are really few things I get a kick out of, but I really enjoy this," said Testaverde. "It gives me a chance to relax. It's also one of the few times I actually leave home."

Other than to play football, of course.

That road has taken him to Miami, Tampa, Cleveland and now Baltimore. Along the way, he's been scrutinized perhaps as much as any current NFL quarterback.

He was the 1986 Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick in the 1987 draft, coming out with the label of franchise player. But then his career almost was buried under a succession of coaches, losses and fan abuse in Tampa Bay and Cleveland.

Still, Testaverde has four years left on a contract that pays him an average of $3.3 million per season. His off-field life is hidden on his estate in Lutz, where Lake Charles runs into his private pond, where a concrete wall and iron gate shield a 2-year-old, two-story brick house.

Testaverde designed the house himself, a mixture of the past and present, with a traditional colonial front, Roman-style columns, rooms with 14-foot ceilings and eggshell white carpet and a kitchen in pickled oak, furnishings and all.

Very few are allowed to enter.

"Vinny has always been a very private person," said Sam Wyche, Testaverde's former head coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "He tried to open up in Tampa Bay, but once he did, everything the media learned about him became part of public ridicule. Now, when you ask a question, you get a bottom-line answer."

Testaverde seems an unassuming, dedicated family man who chooses his words carefully. He has a dry wit and is extremely humble, which explains the location of his Heisman.

"Vinny doesn't put up any fronts," Wyche said. "There's no flash."

The lake and pond allow Testaverde to water ski, bass fish and go tubing. Most of the time, Testaverde takes along his daughter, Alicia Marie, 4. His wife, Mitzi, a former Buccaneers cheerleader, is expecting a second child any day now.

If not on the water, Testaverde is usually in his large recreation room playing pool, air hockey or computer darts, or using his Pac-Man, Nintendo or pinball machines.

"We pretty much have everything we need right here," said Testaverde. "Maybe we'll go out to dinner once in a while or to the movies, but we're pretty private people. It's not like we have to be that way, we just prefer this style."

A rocky beginning

Testaverde's public image has taken a beating. Though he began to resurrect his reputation with the Browns, there have been no Super Bowl rings. No more trophies.

"I know certain things will come up this year," said Testaverde, a nine-year veteran. "It surfaced the first season I was in Cleveland. You know, that I'm colorblind, or not being smart enough to play the game. That I can't win a Super Bowl. The ghost of the Fiesta Bowl loss will always haunt me. I understand."

Since that 1987 bowl game -- in which his University of Miami team lost to Penn State, 14-10 -- Testaverde has been followed by a reputation as an underachiever, a quarterback who throws lots of interceptions because he can't read defenses.

"I had so many opportunities in that game; we could have went down as the greatest team ever," said Testaverde, who missed substantial practice because of a motor scooter accident a month before the game. "The pressure made me do some things that I don't usually do. I was devastated after the game. I think the ghost of that game will always haunt me, even if I win five Super Bowls."

What followed were six frustrating seasons with the Buccaneers. The Bucs had consecutive 2-14 seasons before Testaverde arrived, and were 28-67 while he was there.

Testaverde went through three coaches -- Ray Perkins, Richard Williamson and Wyche -- from 1990 through 1992 and still holds Bucs records for interceptions (112) and times sacked (197), but also has team highs in completions (1,126) and touchdown passes (77).

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