Comeback Kids Improbable quarterback Tommy Maddox led an improbable rally from the brink of defeat, giving Pittsburgh second life in its bid for the Super Bowl

January 13, 2003

STEELERS 36 BROWNS 33

The woman in the black fur hat paced back and forth along a row
of abandoned seats in section 136 with the same sickening
feeling in the pit of her stomach that virtually everyone else
in Pittsburgh had. Some of the 62,595 fans at Heinz Field had
bolted for the exits midway through the third quarter of
Sunday's AFC wild-card game between the Steelers and the
Cleveland Browns, but Jennifer Maddox had kept the faith,
telling herself again and again, This isn't supposed to be
happening.

Down on the snow-dusted field, Jennifer's husband, Tommy, was
having a miserable afternoon. In his first NFL playoff start,
Maddox, the 31-year-old Pittsburgh quarterback, had thrown two
interceptions and produced no points. With the underdog Browns
leading 24-7 and standing 27 yards from another touchdown,
Jennifer was stunned. "I have this intuition thing that's almost
never wrong," she explained later, "and I had really felt like
this was going to be a good day for us. I was up there thinking,
Wait a minute--was I off?"

Then, in a Steeltown second, the football gods seemed to flip a
switch. After an interception by safety Mike Logan, Maddox led
the Steelers to four touchdowns in the final 19 minutes for an
astonishing 36-33 win that propelled Pittsburgh into this
Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game against the Tennessee
Titans. It was yet another surprising showing by the NFL's
Comeback Player of the Year.

If Jennifer, who has been Tommy's true love since their days at
L.D. Bell High in suburban Dallas, saw her husband's heroics
coming before anyone else did, we shouldn't be surprised. "I hear
guys in the locker room talking about things their wives don't
know, and I shake my head," Tommy says. "I've been with Jennifer
since I was 15, and hell, she knows more about me than I do."

In reintroducing himself to the football world, Maddox has
revealed his most compelling quality--handling adversity. Having
endured an unfair share of professional setbacks and slights, the
guy shakes off errant passes the way John Travolta shrugs off bad
reviews. Though he missed on 10 of his first 18 throws and was
booed in the third quarter on Sunday, Maddox was still brimming
with optimism. When his teammates were down, he just stood there,
grinning. "You dream about playing in games like this, and no
matter what happened, I was determined to enjoy every moment,"
Maddox said after the game.

Even after Maddox drove his team 58 yards in five plays to set up
fullback Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala's three-yard, go-ahead touchdown
run with 54 seconds remaining, Pittsburgh had to sweat it out
until the last tick. Cleveland wideout Andre King caught a pass
from Kelly Holcomb at the Steelers' 29 but failed to get
outofbounds before time expired. Fans waved their Terrible Towels
and roared their appreciation for Maddox (30 of 48 for 367 yards
and three touchdowns), who's more popular in the Pittsburgh
locker room than velour sweats.

"When you've got it, baby, you've got it, and Tommy's got it,"
beamed Kordell Stewart, a 2001 Pro Bowl quarterback whose job
Maddox seized three weeks into this season. To underscore his
Maddoxmania, Stewart then praised the man who benched him,
Steelers coach Bill Cowher, for not making a quarterback switch
during Sunday's direst moments. "Sometimes you've got to stick
with a guy and give him an opportunity to redeem himself," said
Stewart.

When it comes to redemption, few pro athletes can compete with
Maddox, a failed 1992 first-round draft pick of the Denver
Broncos who spent three years out of football before trying again
in the Arena League and the XFL. Just four years ago he was happy
to get an award from Allstate for his impressive work as a
life-insurance salesman. "They threw me a big banquet at a hotel
in Austin," Maddox recalls. "It was nice, but it didn't quite
compare to all this."

In each of the last three postseasons a shunned quarterback has
risen to Super Bowl glory--former supermarket clerk Kurt Warner,
onetime laughingstock Trent Dilfer and overlooked fourth-stringer
Tom Brady--and Tommy Gun is trying to join the gang. Now, in
Saturday's rematch, all Maddox has to do is forget the Nashville
nightmare on Nov. 17 that threatened to end his comeback just as
it had picked up steam. Following a hit from linebacker Keith
Bulluck, Maddox lay unconscious on the Adelphia Coliseum turf.
Temporarily paralyzed by cerebral and spinal concussions, Maddox
lay in a Nashville hospital wondering if he'd ever again hold his
kids (nine-year-old daughter Kacy and three-year-old son Colby).
Once the feeling in his extremities returned, he shifted focus.

"The doctors asked if I had any questions, and I said, 'How long
until I can get back on the field?'" he recalled last Friday.
"They looked at me like I was nuts." Later that night Maddox
tried repeatedly to sit up and roll over while, he remembers,
reproachful nurses snapped, "Quit trying to do things!"

Three weeks later, after Stewart had filled in impressively,
Maddox threw 57 passes in an ugly 24-6 home loss to the Houston
Texans. The expansion team's three touchdowns came on a pair of
interception runbacks and a return of a Maddox fumble. Maddox
knew he was pushing himself, but he says, "After all the ups and
downs I'd gone through, when you finally get your shot, you're
holding on with both hands."

Midway through the third quarter on Sunday, with the season
slipping away, Cowher called for the no-huddle offense, and
Maddox responded like a steely veteran with far more than 15
career NFL starts. "He's kind of unflappable for a guy who hasn't
played a lot of football," Cowher says.

First Maddox threaded a pair of touchdown tosses to the back of
the end zone--a six-yarder to wideout Plaxico Burress and a
three-yarder to tight end Jerame Tuman--cutting Cleveland's lead
to 27-21 with 12:28 left. Then, after Holcomb (26 of 43 for 429
yards) seemed to secure victory for the Browns with his third
scoring toss, Maddox fired a five-yard touchdown pass to Hines
Ward, who was surrounded by four defenders, to make it 33--28
with 3:06 left.

Even as Cleveland began a potentially clock-killing possession,
Maddox was all smiles. "Look," he says, "anybody who says this
isn't fun is lying. Earlier in my career I lost sight of that.
I'd make a mistake in practice and stress out about it all night.
I wanted to prove my detractors wrong, and that's playing for the
wrong reason."

With 2:39 remaining and the ball on the Pittsburgh 39, Maddox
started to make it all right. He found Burress, his third read,
for a 24-yard gain, then followed an incompletion with three
consecutive strikes that moved the ball to the Cleveland three.
After Fuamatu-Ma'afala scored on the next play, Maddox scanned
the stands for Jennifer and his parents, Wayne and Glynda. Styx's
Renegade blared over the stadium sound system, but Blue Collar
Man might have been a more appropriate choice.

Ninety minutes later Maddox had reverted to his low-key Everyman
persona, albeit in maroon leather cowboy boots. After meeting his
wife and parents in a stadium lobby, he pulled an old dollar bill
out of his wallet. He straightened the crinkled currency and
finessed it through the slot of a vending machine. One hand
clutching a Sprite, the other draped around Jennifer's shoulder,
Maddox began the slow walk to the parking lot, savoring every
step.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS EL TRAIN Pittsburgh's lone first-half highlight was Antwaan Randle El's 66-yard punt return for a score. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS TOMMY GUN Despite a poor start, Maddox kept smiling until he'd passed for a franchise-postseason-record 367 yards. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER EDDIE'S READY George restores balance to the Titan's offense

DR. Z's FORECAST

Steelers at Titans

When the teams met in November, Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy
Maddox had an afternoon he'd rather forget. He was intercepted
three times before being carted off late in the third quarter
with a scary spinal injury. The Steelers discovered early on that
they couldn't run the ball on Tennessee, and they won't this time
either. But Pittsburgh is more of a passing team now anyway, and
its best chance will be to turn the game into a shootout.

Pittsburgh left cornerback Chad Scott missed Sunday's game
against Cleveland, so the Browns attacked with four wideouts,
forcing the Steelers to go deep into their DB rotation. The
Titans offense isn't built that way, though. The receiving corps
isn't deep. With running back Eddie George newly energized,
Tennessee's best chance is to attack Pittsburgh with the same
balance that produced a few long drives in the November victory,
play tough defense and hope for some turnovers.

The Pick: Titans 27, Steelers 20

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)