The woman in the black fur hat paced back and forth along a row of abandoned seats in section 136 with the same sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach that virtually everyone else in Pittsburgh had. Some of the 62,595 fans at Heinz Field had bolted for the exits midway through the third quarter of Sunday's AFC wild-card game between the Steelers and the Cleveland Browns, but Jennifer Maddox had kept the faith, telling herself again and again, This isn't supposed to be happening.
Down on the snow-dusted field, Jennifer's husband, Tommy, was having a miserable afternoon. In his first NFL playoff start, Maddox, the 31-year-old Pittsburgh quarterback, had thrown two interceptions and produced no points. With the underdog Browns leading 24-7 and standing 27 yards from another touchdown, Jennifer was stunned. "I have this intuition thing that's almost never wrong," she explained later, "and I had really felt like this was going to be a good day for us. I was up there thinking, Wait a minute—was I off?"
Then, in a Steeltown second, the football gods seemed to flip a switch. After an interception by safety Mike Logan, Maddox led the Steelers to four touchdowns in the final 19 minutes for an astonishing 36-33 win that propelled Pittsburgh into this Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game against the Tennessee Titans. It was yet another surprising showing by the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year.
If Jennifer, who has been Tommy's true love since their days at L.D. Bell High in suburban Dallas, saw her husband's heroics coming before anyone else did, we shouldn't be surprised. "I hear guys in the locker room talking about things their wives don't know, and I shake my head," Tommy says. "I've been with Jennifer since I was 15, and hell, she knows more about me than I do."
In reintroducing himself to the football world, Maddox has revealed his most compelling quality—handling adversity. Having endured an unfair share of professional setbacks and slights, the guy shakes off errant passes the way John Travolta shrugs off bad reviews. Though he missed on 10 of his first 18 throws and was booed in the third quarter on Sunday, Maddox was still brimming with optimism. When his teammates were down, he just stood there, grinning. "You dream about playing in games like this, and no matter what happened, I was determined to enjoy every moment," Maddox said after the game.
Even after Maddox drove his team 58 yards in five plays to set up fullback Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala's three-yard, go-ahead touchdown run with 54 seconds remaining, Pittsburgh had to sweat it out until the last tick. Cleveland wideout Andre King caught a pass from Kelly Holcomb at the Steelers' 29 but failed to get out-of-bounds before time expired. Fans waved their Terrible Towels and roared their appreciation for Maddox (30 of 48 for 367 yards and three touchdowns), who's more popular in the Pittsburgh locker room than velour sweats.
"When you've got it, baby, you've got it, and Tommy's got it," beamed Kordell Stewart, a 2001 Pro Bowl quarterback whose job Maddox seized three weeks into this season. To underscore his Maddoxmania, Stewart then praised the man who benched him, Steelers coach Bill Cowher, for not making a quarterback switch during Sunday's direst moments. "Sometimes you've got to stick with a guy and give him an opportunity to redeem himself," said Stewart.
When it comes to redemption, few pro athletes can compete with Maddox, a failed 1992 first-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos who spent three years out of football before trying again in the Arena League and the XFL. Just four years ago he was happy to get an award from Allstate for his impressive work as a life-insurance salesman. "They threw me a big banquet at a hotel in Austin," Maddox recalls. "It was nice, but it didn't quite compare to all this."
In each of the last three postseasons a shunned quarterback has risen to Super Bowl glory—former supermarket clerk Kurt Warner, onetime laughingstock Trent Dilfer and overlooked fourth-stringer Tom Brady—and Tommy Gun is trying to join the gang. Now, in Saturday's rematch, all Maddox has to do is forget the Nashville nightmare on Nov. 17 that threatened to end his comeback just as it had picked up steam. Following a hit from linebacker Keith Bulluck, Maddox lay unconscious on the Adelphia Coliseum turf. Temporarily paralyzed by cerebral and spinal concussions, Maddox lay in a Nashville hospital wondering if he'd ever again hold his kids (nine-year-old daughter Kacy and three-year-old son Colby). Once the feeling in his extremities returned, he shifted focus.
"The doctors asked if I had any questions, and I said, 'How long until I can get back on the field?' " he recalled last Friday. "They looked at me like I was nuts." Later that night Maddox tried repeatedly to sit up and roll over while, he remembers, reproachful nurses snapped, "Quit trying to do things!"