Originally created 08/30/98

DeBerg refuses to act his age



ATLANTA -- Remember the first time you heard of Steve DeBerg?

"Uh, let me think. It would have to be in middle school," replied Atlanta Falcons receiver Jammi German, which sounds about right since he was just 4 years old when DeBerg began his NFL career.

Now they're together -- a rookie receiver teaming up with a 44-year-old quarterback who's on the verge of becoming the league's oldest player since George Blanda.

"It's unbelievable," German said after catching three of DeBerg's passes for 74 yards, including a touchdown, in Atlanta's 17-0 preseason victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Friday night. "He's still able to get it done."

How amazing would this be? When DeBerg entered the league in 1978, one of his teammates was O.J. Simpson.

How improbable would this be? DeBerg was the NFL comeback player of the year in 1990 when he was merely 36.

How unlikely would this be? DeBerg hasn't played a regular-season game since 1993, spending the last four seasons as an assistant coach or just enjoying retirement.

And, oh yeah, no one this elderly has played in the NFL since 1975, when Blanda's 26-season career came to an end with the Oakland Raiders at age 48.

"I'm definitely not Steve Young," DeBerg said with a chuckle, referring to both his birth certificate and the 49ers quarterback who is eight years his junior. "I'm Steve Old."

But not so old that he couldn't earn a tryout from the Falcons, who were desperate for an experienced backup quarterback after Mark Rypien decided not to play as his infant son suffered from a brain tumor that claimed the boy's life on Aug. 22.

Not surprisingly, DeBerg looked old and creaky when he first took the field at Detroit two weeks ago. He was slow to read defenses, had trouble escaping pass rushers and never managed to get the ball downfield.

He was a new man Friday night, directing two third-quarter touchdown drives while completing 10-of-14 passes for 129 yards against the Bengals.

"What really got to me was their 44-year-old quarterback," Cincinnati cornerback Corey Sawyer said in a disbelieving tone. "He's a good quarterback. Don't get me wrong. But we are young guys. You just don't go letting a guy like that push you around."

On each of the scoring possessions, DeBerg pushed the Bengals around with a signature play. The first came on second-and-8 at the Cincinnati 37, when 24-year-old linebacker Canute Curtis bore down on the quarterback, only to wind up grabbing at air when DeBerg spun away and completed a 15-yard pass to Tim Dwight.

"He pulled out the Elway spin move," marveled Chris Chandler, the Falcons starting quarterback. "He must have taught John that when he was in Denver."

Later in the period, a holding penalty left Atlanta with third-and-17 at the Bengals 35. DeBerg responded with a beautiful, 29-yard spiral down the middle to German, who had found a narrow seam between two defensive backs. That set up DeBerg's 3-yard touchdown pass to German.

After each play, DeBerg threw his arms in the air, a big smile on his face while the moment consumed him.

"I don't have anything to lose," DeBerg said. "It's a great opportunity, a great experience. I plan on enjoying it."

The Falcons, who open the regular season next Sunday at Carolina, still might scan the waiver wire for a quarterback released by another team. Chandler was injured four times a year ago, causing him to miss part or all of six games, so the backup role takes on extra importance in Atlanta.

"I know I didn't hurt myself," DeBerg said. "But I know how the NFL works. A lot of talented quarterbacks are going to be released this weekend."

The Falcons also have Tony Graziani, 20 years younger than DeBerg but lacking in experience. He has thrown only 23 passes in his brief career -- 4,942 fewer than DeBerg.

"Steve's in great shape," Chandler said. "He could probably play another 10 years."