For hours at a time, a Gruff codger named Archie Mitchell told sports tales in the backyard of his home in Anaheim, Calif. He held court from a lawn chair, a beer cradled in his enormous hands. Every victory made his eyes dance; each defeat seemed to add another wrinkle to his worn, stubbled cheeks.
His grandson, Steve DeBerg, spent most Sunday afternoons in that backyard when he was a kid. "Gramps was the only idol I ever had," says DeBerg, now the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "He was my favorite, and I was his favorite. I wanted to be just like him when I grew up."
Gramps was a master storyteller. There were yarns about the ragtag group of teenagers he coached to a city baseball championship in Long Beach. "Gramps was so proud of that," recalls DeBerg. It was because he loved the stories that DeBerg made up his mind as a tyke to be a coach like Gramps, and he prepared for that career by majoring in human performance at San Jose State in the mid-1970s.
Gramps was a combative man who turned over chessboards and ripped up decks of cards when games didn't turn out the way he liked them. "So when he was in his 20's, his friends suggested he try boxing, because he liked to fight so much," says DeBerg. Gramps had several professional bouts, and in all of them his goal was the same: Fight to the finish. Never give up.
DeBerg learned that lesson well. At 33, he is the NFL's premier never-say-die quarterback. The Dallas Cowboys selected him in the 10th round of the 1977 draft and then cut him in training camp. The San Francisco 49ers picked him up on waivers, and he started 35 games for them before Joe Montana took his job in 1980. San Francisco traded DeBerg to the Denver Broncos, for whom he started off and on until John Elway arrived in 1983. Then it was on to Tampa Bay, where DeBerg started until Steve Young joined the club in 1985. Last spring the Bucs drafted Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde and traded Young to the 49ers. The stage was set for DeBerg to lose his job to yet another young hotshot.
"It amazes me how history repeated itself," says DeBerg. "Each time a 'franchise' quarterback would come in, I'd ask myself, Is it possible this could happen again? Lightning isn't supposed to strike twice in the same place."
DeBerg fought to keep his job with a vengeance. The 6'3", 210-pounder drove himself through rigorous off-season workouts three hours a day, five days a week. He ran long distances, did sprints and lifted weights. He canceled golf games, tennis matches and his family's annual June vacation so that he could run the Buccaneer offense during "optional" workouts and throw thousands of passes to receivers. Result: until Testaverde relieved DeBerg in the fourth quarter of a 35-3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams last week, he had taken exactly seven snaps in his rookie season.
"I have average talent," DeBerg says. "But I've made myself better than 10,000 quarterbacks who had more talent, because they weren't as committed as I was. I figured this would be my last shot at being a starter in the NFL. For your last hurrah, you go for it."
Indeed, DeBerg, who is in the final year of a contract that pays him $475,000 annually, one of the lowest of any starting quarterback in the league, is having a fine season despite the recent woes of the 4-7 Buccaneers. He has completed 159 of 275 passes for 1,891 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has been intercepted only seven times.
Tampa Bay coach Ray Perkins isn't concerned that DeBerg has relegated Testaverde to clipboard duty. "Vinny's not starting has everything to do with Steve DeBerg," says Perkins. "Steve's playing on such a high level. He has a better understanding of the game than Vinny. A lot of people expected Vinny to come right in, play on a high level and win. I knew that wasn't going to happen. I feel he'll have some success in his first or second year, but I want to allow Vinny to learn from the bench, not by going through losses."