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."
And, yes, Testaverde is pulling for DeBerg. "In training camp I was confused, lost, a babe in the woods," says Testaverde. "I'm ready to go in and win some ball games. But right now Steve's the better quarterback. We're good friends—closer than I've been to any other quarterback. I'm happy to see him doing so well. He's a nice guy."
DeBerg answers the family phone, "DeBerg's Resort." And no wonder. The modest four-bedroom stucco house on Tampa's Lake Magdalene is a potpourri of kids, furry critters and sports paraphernalia. Out back are a swimming pool, swing, slide, jungle gym, fishing poles, inner tubes, tee-ball set, aquatic basketball hoop, pinball machine, ski boat, Sunfish and catamaran. The yellow sign on the window of DeBerg's Toyota asks: ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?
Rusty, a golden retriever, lounges under a cypress tree. Four enormous ducks float in the weeds by the dock. DeBerg's wife, Marcia, bought them when they were a day old. The DeBerg children. Amy, 7, and Drew, 4, raised the birds under a heat lamp. The family zoo also features a hamster, a newt named Rockne and two aquariums, one devoted to exotic fish, one to hermit crabs.
Dad keeps his pet, a brown rabbit, in a cage in the house. That's Touchdown, who stars in the magic acts DeBerg performs at hospitals, birthday parties and elementary schools. Dressed in a dark suit and a black satin cape, DeBerg will wave his white gloves over a top hat. Instead of abracadabra, he'll say, "Touchdown!" Magically the rabbit will appear.
"How did you do that, Dad?" Drew always asks.
DeBerg shakes his head. "A magician never divulges his secrets," he says.
DeBerg gets a kick out of kids, and he spends most Tuesday afternoons, the Bucs' day off, with a boatload of them. "Everybody come over and play!" yells DeBerg. He's standing on the dock in swim trunks, T-shirt and sunglasses. The neighborhood flock ranges in age from 4 to 10. Sooner than you can say "Touchdown!" they're riding on the catamaran. "I'm a professional children's inner-tube puller," DeBerg says.
He is also the pied piper of the Buccaneers. Parking-lot tailgate parties always seem to end up at DeBerg's Resort for pizza and a nightcap. On Thanksgiving, Marcia roasted a 22-pound turkey and a ham for 13 players and their families. Testaverde and his fiancèe, Laura Gambucci, brought cheesecake.
But DeBerg is at his best on Halloween, when he organizes team costume parties. Once he and Marcia went as buccaneers. Now Steve usually greets friends arriving at the Tampa airport with a sword strapped to his side, a red sash around his head and an empty rum bottle in hand, as he sings, "Yo! Ho! Ho! A pirate's life for me."
When practice falls on Halloween, DeBerg dresses up as the potbellied, gray-bearded Kenny (Snake) Stabler. Wearing an old-man mask, a Buccaneers jersey that says SNAKE across the back and a pillow across his gut, he rants about past glories: "I'm Snake! I'm the greatest quarterback who ever took a drink!" On Halloween, 1986, former Tampa Bay coach Leeman Bennett played along with the gag, signing Snake-DeBerg to a $1 million contract. "One dollar a year for one million years," brags Snake-DeBerg.
Perkins wasn't as impressed with the Snake this Halloween. He was still seething after having chewed out the Bucs two days earlier for not having, in his words, a businesslike attitude. So, when the Snake showed up, Perkins screamed, "Get off my field!"
"But I'm the Snake," said DeBerg.
"I don't care who you are," Perkins yelled, pretending not to recognize his quarterback. "Get off my field!"
But when practice was over, Perkins smiled at DeBerg in the locker room. The next night, on the plane ride home from a 23-17 victory over Green Bay, DeBerg put on his old-man mask and pretended to be an aging player who had sneaked onto the Bucs' charter. Perkins roared with laughter. "What can I say?" DeBerg says. "I gotta be me."
Being DeBerg also means calling off-the-wall audibles. At some point every December he steps to the line of scrimmage and barks, "Red! Merry Christmas! Red! Merry Christmas!" Against the New York Jets in 1984, he poked fun at Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau, who had been convicted of assault after a fight at Studio 54, a Manhattan disco. "Green! Studio 54!" DeBerg yelled. "Green! Studio 54!"
DeBerg also knows when to get serious. Does any other NFL quarterback have as grueling a schedule? On Monday, which is typically a light day of jogging, stretching and physical therapy for most clubs, DeBerg puts in eight hours of weightlifting, running and reviewing tapes of the upcoming opponent. While there's no physical work on Tuesday, DeBerg spends the morning in the office watching more tapes. At that time DeBerg draws up several plays for the game plan that Perkins will later devise.
On Wednesday he's at practice from 7:30 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. He begins with two hours on the weights, followed by four hours of meetings, a 3½-hour workout with the team and a three-hour quarterback session. Lunch and dinner are served on the premises.
DeBerg gets a break on Thursdays—sort of. He's home at seven. Then it's off to the bedroom to analyze Perkins's game plan. On Friday and Saturday, DeBerg memorizes each player's responsibility on every play and predicts how successful each play will be. On the way to road games, he roams the aisles of the plane, quizzing receivers on pass routes and defensive coverages. "I make up a priority list with my favorite plays," he says. "I tell the coaches the plays I don't have much confidence in and those I don't want called."
Perkins listens. "Steve is so smart, he's a coach on the field," says Perkins. "He's a football guy. Football is a very, very big part of his life. He's obsessed with the game."
An entire bookshelf in DeBerg's den is taken up by playbooks and game plans he has accumulated in his career. He has scores of notebooks filled with pointers from a succession of coaches. Game films are piled in a cupboard. During one off-season DeBerg changed his footwork by studying reels of Cincinnati Bengal quarterback Ken Anderson. Another year he speeded up his release after scrutinizing that of Miami Dolphin Dan Marino. Next to his bed, DeBerg keeps a pad of paper and a pen, just in case he has a brainstorm. "I've thought of ways to beat pass coverages in the middle of the night," he says.
He has invented plays in the shower and while driving. In a practice session for striking players during the recent work stoppage, DeBerg whipped up Razzle Dazzle, a double reverse. He sketched the play on a grocery bag he found on the field. In the Bucs' first post-strike game, against the Chicago Bears, Perkins called Razzle Dazzle. Result: a 28-yard touchdown pass from DeBerg to running back Jeff Smith.
"I've never wished that my career would've gone differently," DeBerg says. "I've never said I got a raw deal. I've played a lot more than most. I haven't accomplished what I could have. But, hey, I wasn't supposed to make it one year, let alone 11. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to get the opportunity to play in the NFL. And I am lucky to have learned from every coach I played for and every quarterback I competed against." Here is what he has to say about some of them:
•Former Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach: "The most influential person in my career. He opened up to me, explained everything. Then I watched him do it. He taught me that defenses were reading me as much as I was reading them. He shared little tricks. He didn't have to do that. He taught me to help anybody I competed with."
•San Francisco coach Bill Walsh: "The most creative coach of my career and the best teacher. He actually experiences a play when he draws it on a chalkboard. He makes something complicated seem simple."
•Montana: "Quickest feet in football. I called him Broadway Joe. He called me Ice. We were roommates in training camp and on the road. He, Dwight Clark and I were the Three Musketeers. We always had quarters in our pockets, ready to compete in video games."
•Denver coach Dan Reeves: "A players' coach. Doesn't put himself on a pedestal and out of reach. He has a personal relationship with everybody."
•Elway: "In practice, I'd study his biomechanics to find out how he could throw the ball so hard. He has the quickest shoulder and hip rotation of any quarterback. I practiced it. As a rookie, John was supposed to be the best in the NFL. He had so much pressure on him. I wish we could have been together under different circumstances. We would've been better friends."
•Young: "Loves football with a passion. Could play running back, receiver, defensive back or return kicks. The two of us in the backfield with [Bucs running back] James Wilder would've revolutionized football."
•Testaverde: "I've never seen a quarterback so committed to weight training. He's the strongest quarterback in football, maybe in NFL history. On the field he's similar to Elway. But I'm not sure yet who's going to be better."
•Perkins: "He asks a lot from his players, but he makes 45 times as much of a commitment. I don't know how successful we'll be as a team this season, but we already have a different attitude. Perkins has made football fun again."
Drew DeBerg attends Bucs games with his mother and sister. Never mind his seat location. The boy stands all afternoon. Later in the evening, when his father tucks him in, Drew begs for a sports story. He usually wants to hear one about the Bucs' offensive linemen. "You're bigger than Ron Heller, aren't you, Dad," says Drew, referring to Tampa Bay's 6'6", 280-pound tackle. DeBerg laughs. "Drew's at the stage where he thinks I'm larger than life," he says. "He'll probably grow out of it."
Bedtime with Drew reminds DeBerg of those backyard talks with Gramps, the invincible man with a seemingly infinite supply of inspiring tales. When DeBerg became a quarterback in the NFL, Gramps religiously wore the cap of his grandson's team. After each game, DeBerg phoned Gramps with the play by play. Often he would send Gramps a videotape of the game.
"Don't worry," Gramps would say. "You'll get 'em next time, Steve."
Gramps kept an autographed picture of DeBerg next to the front door of his home in Anaheim, where every visitor would see it. In the photo, DeBerg is in a Bronco uniform, his arm cocked, ready to throw. The inscription reads: "To the greatest grandfather who ever lived. I just hope I have a grandson who thinks as much of me as I think of you. Love, Steve."
Until this year, Gramps made it to two Tampa Bay games a season. In 1984, at age 81, he entered a beer-chugging contest with 10 to 15 Bucs. He won. "Grandma was mad at me," DeBerg says. "Gramps was hung over for two weeks. I was so proud of him that night."
Last summer Gramps became ill. "Every part of his body just seemed to give out at once," says Marcia. In September he checked into a hospital. DeBerg phoned a couple of times each week, but he couldn't bring himself to visit. "I was scared to see Gramps in that condition," he says. Archie Mitchell—Gramps—died on Oct. 10. He was 84.
"He had a hard time keeping his train of thought, except when he talked to me," says DeBerg. "We always had perfectly normal conversations. We'd talk about the good old days. I'd tell him about this season—how it was my best ever. He understood every word."