Originally created 01/27/99

DeBerg to be oldest man in uniform Sunday



MIAMI -- Steve DeBerg's story bears repeating, especially now that he could possibly become the NFL's oldest player to participate in a Super Bowl.

This year he's already become the Falcons' oldest player in history and the NFL's oldest starting quarterback in a loss at the Jets. How old is DeBerg? Older than five current head coaches, old enough that when he came into the league with Dallas in 1977, tackle Ephraim Salaam, the youngest Falcon, was 10 months old. George Blanda, at age 41 in Super Bowl II, was the oldest previous Super Bowl participant.

"Man, DeBerg is old enough to be my father," ranted Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe, his mouth moving at warp speed. "How old is DeBerg? 105?"

He turned 45 on Jan. 19, Shannon.

"Forty-five? Doesn't he know he's supposed to be retired?"

A year ago Super Bowl time, the Falcons backup quarterback served as the NFL's resident Jimmy Buffett, sipping pina coladas in Tampa Bay, golfing, sailing, scuba-diving, enjoying the life wealthy retired NFL veterans should.

He was restless, a little chunky around the waist, and bored.

"When football is your life for 40 years, giving it up is not that easy," DeBerg said amid the masses of Super Bowl Media Day inquiries.

So he took up exercise the only way he knew how: by lifting, running and throwing the football into nets. For not playing a down since 1993, DeBerg found his arm fresh, his body mobile, his desire rekindled.

Last summer, DeBerg sent out 20 letters to NFL teams offering his services as a potential backup quarterback. The envelope to Dan Reeves' office was mistakenly empty, prompting a life-changing phone call from the coach.

"He called and said, `Steve, why do I have an empty envelope from you?"' said DeBerg, who played and coached for Reeves during 18 years of NFL service.

"I said it was supposed to be a letter explaining that I was interested in returning to football. Dan asked, `As a coach?' I said, `Not really. I want to play again.' And then there was a long silence."

In the year of the veteran quarterback, DeBerg is the Falcons' Jurassic Park, an ageless dinosaur whose off-the-field value has helped Chris Chandler's performance immensely. Having played with John Elway, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Vinny Testaverde and Chandler before, DeBerg's credentials of tutoring are highly thought of.

Chandler credits DeBerg for helping him with ball-fakes, with fine-tuning his audible checks, with understanding more about defenses as he approaches the line.

"He understands the game's sophistication," Chandler said. "That's one area where his age helps him."

"I felt I could contribute more than any backup quarterback in the NFL without ever stepping on the field," said DeBerg, a quarterback coach for two seasons with the Giants.

"I really thought about getting out of football. Coaching in the NFL is as tough on a person's life as anything you could imagine. It's very transient, and I wondered whether it was the thing for me."

Instead, after five years on the sidelines, DeBerg beat out Tony Graziani for the backup job. And when Chandler dislocated his shoulder against the New Orleans Saints, DeBerg led the Falcons to their first win in three seasons in which Chandler did not complete the game. DeBerg played in eight games this season, mostly in mop up.

He enters the Super Bowl not only as the backup, but as the Falcons' play-caller, wearing his headset more than his helmet.

But what a script to write. DeBerg, the oldest man in uniform Sunday, coming off the bench to direct a Falcons' Super Bowl title.

"If that was a story someone would have told me a year ago, I would have thought they were drinking too much tequila," DeBerg said.

Sports columnist Rick Dorsey can be reached at (706) 823-3219 or rdorsey@augustachronicle.com.