The year is 2022, and Tom Brady has just claimed his sixth (…seventh? …eighth?) championship ring after winning Super Bowl LVI in Las Vegas. At this point he’s locked up his GOAT status and secured every meaningful passing record in league history.
But when he steps under center to begin the 2022 NFL season, Brady will break one more record: Becoming the oldest quarterback to ever start a game. Make room for the new old guy, Steve DeBerg.
“I think he would have to start a football game six seasons from now to break my record,” said DeBerg, 63, having already done the math well before we spoke on the phone. “And I actually think he’ll do it.”
At the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix, more than a month after the Patriots and Brady won their fifth Super Bowl, team owner Robert Kraft revealed that Brady said he felt he could play in the NFL for six or seven more years.
When it comes to the NFL’s oldest quarterbacks, many think of George Blanda, the late Hall of Fame quarterback who played 26 seasons until he was 48. But Blanda was also a kicker throughout his career, and he didn’t start a game at quarterback after the age of 41.
Warren Moon’s last start came when he was 44 years and eight days old. Vinny Testaverde started for the Panthers when he was 44 years and 26 days old. But it’s DeBerg who holds the record. On Oct. 25, 1998, DeBerg started for the Falcons against the Jets at 44 years and 279 days old.
To be honest, it was a forgettable moment in NFL history. New York crushed the eventual NFC champs 28–3 as DeBerg, filling in for an injured Chris Chandler, went 9-for-20 for 117 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and three sacks. The New York Times wrote that he “looked every day of” 44.
“When you start getting into your 40s you don’t recover as fast with injuries and things like that,” DeBerg said. “You are a little bit, your footwork is just a little bit slower and your arm strength starts diminishing a little bit. You make up for it with knowledge and decision-making.”
But DeBerg’s career is much more than being the oldest player to ever start under center in an NFL game. After being drafted by the Cowboys, DeBerg was traded to the 49ers, where he played with O.J. Simpson (late in his NFL career) as his tailback. He made stops in Denver, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Miami before retiring and un-retiring, returning for the 1998 season with Atlanta to back up Chris Chandler (and get that history-making start).
“You just never know. A guy could fall onto [Brady’s] knee. There are so many things that can happen. It is a violent game. The injury part of it is a big factor. Sometimes you’ve just got to be lucky.”
But DeBerg wasn’t always lucky in his NFL career, several times losing out to quarterbacks who would go on to greatness. DeBerg was with the 49ers when they drafted Joe Montana, with Denver when they drafted John Elway and down in Tampa Bay when they got Steve Young and Vinny Testaverde—and every one of those transactions sent him packing.
DeBerg enjoyed his greatest success in Kansas City with Marty Schottenheimer, going 10–5 and 11–5 in 1990 and ’91, respectively, and making the playoffs both season. He went back to Tampa in 1992 and split the following season with the Bucs and Dolphins before calling it quits, getting his last start at 39 years and 328 days old.
“Some parts of my career I played for some pretty bad teams. Fortunately that was at the beginning of my career and I was able to take the [physical] punishment,” DeBerg said. “I was fortunate that later in my career I was able to play for better teams so the injury risk wasn’t nearly as high as it was when I was getting hit a lot more often.”
Brady, for his part, has been relatively fortunate when it comes to injuries. Outside of tearing his ACL in the 2008 season opener he hasn’t missed a start due to injury since usurping Drew Bledsoe in 2001. Brady’s exhaustive training regimen and diet are as much a part of his legend as February’s comeback. DeBerg considers himself lucky that his only injuries were a torn MCL in his second season, a shattered pinky in 1990 and a third-degree shoulder separation in ’93.
In 1998, at age 44, DeBerg was admittedly in bad shape—the kind of shape Brady couldn’t (and wouldn’t) be in four or five years from now. DeBerg, five years removed from playing, was teaching his son footwork drills as he prepared the teen to play quarterback in high school. It was during those drills that DeBerg realized he could still throw the ball pretty well—why not try to get back in shape and make a second run at the NFL?
DeBerg got in touch with Dan Reeves, then the coach of the Falcons. The two go way back—Reeves helped draft DeBerg in Dallas and later coached him in Denver. Then in 1995, when Reeves was the head coach of the Giants, he hired DeBerg as his quarterbacks coach.
“Once he saw that I could still throw the football pretty close to as well as I ever did, he knew I would be able to take the player-coach role and help some of the young guys,” DeBerg said. “I could help the coaches do the game plan, I could help the players understand the game plan.
“Reeves thought that I could contribute to the team. The general manager [Harold Richardson], he couldn’t believe I was in his office talking about a contract.”
The training camp practices were hot and hard on DeBerg’s aging body, but he won the backup job and played mop-up duty before Chandler got injured in Week 3 and DeBerg had to start against the Jets in Week 4 where he made history. Chandler returned the following week and the Falcons went 14–2 with DeBerg throwing 27 more passes the rest of the season.
If Brady does, in fact, play for the next six or seven years, his journey will look far different than DeBerg’s—mostly, Brady won’t be retiring for the next few years only to pop up again at 44 years old—so there’s not much advice DeBerg has to give Brady.
“A lot of it is luck, you know, with the injuries. But he is doing the right things,” DeBerg said. “He does take care of his body. He’s as good as anybody in NFL history in preparation both mentally and physically. His style of play, he doesn’t put his body in harms way very often, even when he scrambles. He does protect himself and he does basically everything the way that he should do it.”
DeBerg, known for his excellent play-action fakes, privately coached quarterbacks for years after his second NFL retirement. Now he helps with some of his friends’ kids who want to be high school quarterbacks. But mostly, DeBerg just enjoys being a granddad and playing golf. He splits his time at his home in Florida, with family in California and with his son and granddaughter in Raleigh, N.C.
“I definitely have aches and pains all over my body, but you just learn to block it out mentally as much as you can,” DeBerg said. “It’s funny, I hang around people my age who weren’t even athletes whose bodies ache just as much as I do.
“That’s just part of growing old, I guess.”