After long road, Maddox now sits in driver's seat

Steelers: Tommy Maddox played in three leagues before finding a home as Pittsburgh's starting quarterback.

October 26, 2002|By Chuck Finder | Chuck Finder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PITTSBURGH - The last time Tommy Maddox was readying for his fourth consecutive NFL start, Brian Billick was closer to an appearance on Match Game than in the Super Bowl, Bill Cowher was a rookie head coach and Bill Clinton was relatively new inside the Capital Beltway.

It was an entire Denver uniform change and new stadium ago. It was 1992.

Suffice to say, a long time has passed. For Maddox, in the decade since he last started a fourth consecutive game, he has played for four other NFL teams, one defunct league (the XFL) and the Arena League, not to mention buying and selling two insurance agencies, living with actress/model Angie Harmon and her husband, Jason Sehorn, and remolding himself into something similar to Kurt Warner.

"I don't regret anything," said Maddox, 31, the former - deep breath now - Denver, Los Angeles Rams, New York Giants, Atlanta, Arenaball New Jersey Red Dogs and XFL Los Angeles Xtreme quarterback who will start at 1 p.m. tomorrow when Cowher's Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) face Billick's Ravens (3-3) in a showdown for first place in the AFC North.

"I wouldn't do it differently," Maddox said. Then he smiled and added, "I talk to people all the time now, trying to tell them to stay in school."

Back in 1992, Maddox exited UCLA early, a third-year sophomore all of 20 years old. He was a first-round draft choice, 25th overall, by the Denver Broncos. When John Elway got hurt midway through that season, the raw rookie was shoved into the tumult. The youngest NFL quarterback to play in 46 years, Maddox lost all four starts that season. Then he lost his way.

After a year as Denver's holder, he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams. After one uneventful season there, he rejoined his former Denver coach, Dan Reeves, with the Giants. He played quarterback just two games with them before flaming out the next training camp. He tried one last time - again with Reeves in Atlanta's training camp - and was shown the door. It was 1997. He was 25 and, apparently, done.

His father being an Allstate regional vice president around Dallas, Maddox set up a couple of insurance businesses around Flower Mound, Texas. It took him 26 months to realize that home, life and auto wasn't for him. He sold the businesses in one telephone call, to another agent, and told his wife, Jennifer, that he felt there was something out there for him.

Two days later, a guy from Houston called and identified himself as a scout from the Arena League's Red Dogs.

Maddox didn't quite believe him.

By November, though, he signed a contract worth about $65,000. By December, he was in minicamp. By March, he was back in New Jersey, reunited with Sehorn, a former Giants teammate (and husband of former Law & Order star Harmon), and practicing with his new Arena League teammates inside the same Meadowlands bubble where he used to work with the Giants.

The Arena League changed Maddox. The frenetic pace of the eight-man, 50-yard, padded-wall game did much the same for him as it did for Warner, the Rams' NFL and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player: It helped to improve his accuracy, release, arm strength (when throwing 50-plus times a night), and the ability to quickly read a defense. After one Red Dogs season, Maddox signed with the Xtreme, leading the team to the league championship and becoming its MVP.

When he faxed his availability to every NFL team that spring, only the Steelers bit.

Funny how Maddox's NFL life changed. A guy who went 0-7 in games in which he threw passes in his first incarnation has known mostly success with the Steelers this time. He backed up team MVP Kordell Stewart last season, mopping up in two victories, completing seven of nine attempts for 154 yards and persuading Cowher to install him as the holder and backup in 2002 - despite the free-agent signing of former Detroit starter Charlie Batch.

Stewart faltered amid the Steelers' 0-2 start, and Maddox entered to save the Cleveland game Sept. 29. He came in with four-plus minutes left, directed the Steelers to the game-tying touchdown, then led them to the winning field goal in overtime on an 11-for-13 performance for 122 yards.

Maddox lost his first NFL start in a decade, Oct. 6 at New Orleans. But he has won his past two starts (at Cincinnati and Monday against Indianapolis) for his first NFL victories at quarterback. He has completed 64 of 99 passes for 794 yards, seven touchdowns, five interceptions and a rating of 91.9. He has energized teammates old and new.

"You're talking about the Tommy that I knew and the Tommy now," said offensive tackle Wayne Gandy, who blocked for Maddox with the Los Angeles Rams in 1994 and again the past four games. "Yes, there are a lot of differences between that Tommy and this Tommy."

"No question he's getting the ball out a lot faster," said halfback Jerome Bettis, also a teammate with the Rams.

Kevin Kaesviharn is a Cincinnati Bengals cornerback who intercepted Maddox two weeks ago, plus a year and a half ago in the XFL. He sees a difference, too.

"He looked like he believed in himself even more," Kaesviharn said. "He looked relaxed. What I saw in the XFL and what I saw watching film before we played, he's putting the ball in places where only the receiver can get it. That's what he developed in the Arena League."

Forget NFL Europe, Maddox said. Teams should send their young quarterbacks indoors, to Arenaball, to hone their abilities.

Said Maddox, "It's the best training ground I've found."

Next for Ravens

Opponent:Pittsburgh Steelers

Site:Ravens Stadium

When:Tomorrow, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio:Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line:Steelers by 2

SunSpot:For more coverage, visit sunspot.net/ravens

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