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Steve Bartkowski : Veteran Seeks a Hot Hand in Ram Pocket

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Times Staff Writer

Life is funny sometimes. One minute you’re Steve Bartkowski, a washed-up quarterback, a real nobody. Your right knee is a science project. If it were the front brake on your car, they’d be talking about metal on metal.

You’re so bad that even the Atlanta Falcons can’t use you anymore. Once they called you Peachtree Bart, but these days you’re compared to a tree only when trying to escape a pass rush.

Then, just like that, everything changes. Suddenly, birds sing again, the sun shines.

You sign with the Rams, who don’t bother to check to see if your warranty has expired. You arrive in town to join a team that’s a Bear’s hair away from the Super Bowl. People are comparing you with the dueling Dans, Marino and Fouts. All because of a simple twist of fate and another tug to Dieter Brock’s knee, you’re the main man again, the star.

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It all happened so fast.

But hasn’t it always been that way for Bartkowski, whose fizz-and-glitter life and career might make for a good mini-series someday.

He is the one-time golden boy of the National Football League, a fading star in Los Angeles searching for a last chance to shine again, as so many golden boys have done before him.

“I know I don’t have many years left,” the 33-year-old Bartkowski said Tuesday. “The time for my shot is now.”

With Brock out for at least a month with a knee injury, Bartkowski will likely become the Rams’ sixth opening-day quarterback of the 1980s, a distinction hardly worth bragging about.

But Bartkowski is vowing not to use the Rams as merely a diving platform to Hollywood, as one Broadway Joe did.

Bartkowski’s arthritic right knee, five times the object of surgery, is scraping along nicely, cartilage or no cartilage between the bone.

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And he figures that if he can somehow drag his leg back into the pocket to throw, the Rams may find themselves in the Super Bowl.

“That’s the only way I can improve them,” he said of the team that made it to the NFC title game a season ago. “I want to get this team over the hump.”

It sounds like mighty big talk for a man who was released last season by the Falcons, who figured they could finish a 4-12 season without him.

But Bartkowski needed only to look at the Rams’ offensive line for reassurance. A standing target for many years in Atlanta, he can step to the line of scrimmage here and count four Pro Bowl performers in front of him.

“In the right situation, my talents haven’t degenerated that much at all,” Bartkowski said.

And to hear the Rams talk about him, picking up Bartkowski in the off-season for pocket change was the steal of the century.

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Ask Dick Coury, the Rams’ quarterback coach.

“If you talked to the top coaches in the league, the Landrys and Shulas, and asked them to name the top five or six pure passers they ever saw, Bart would be one of them,” Coury said.

Sure, 10 years ago, maybe.

“No,” Coury said. “Right now. Come watch our practices. He’s just like Dan Fouts.”

If all this is true, why then couldn’t the Falcons use him? They kicked him out the door and stamped his back “Damaged Goods.”

Bartkowski spent 11 seasons in Atlanta, some of them brilliant ones, but was dumped last year and finished the season charting passes for the Washington Redskins.

Hmmm. Do the Rams know something the others don’t?

What happened in Atlanta even Bartkowski can’t explain.

“I still don’t know why I was released,” Bartkowski said. “They asked me to retire and I was leading the league in passing efficiency. I got called into a meeting in the coach’s office (and Coach Dan Henning) told me he didn’t have any plans to play me.”

The Falcons were 0-5 at the time, but it seemed no fault of Bartkowski’s

Perhaps the Falcons were merely trying to save his life. Bartkowski had two Pro Bowl seasons in the south, leading Atlanta to the NFC West title in 1980.

But there were down times, too. No one knew the Georgia skyline better than Steve Bartkowski, who was being whip-cracked to the turf at the rate of 50 times a season.

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The Falcons, perhaps tired of being liable, decided to go with the younger Dave Archer, who couldn’t pass much but could run like heck--the perfect complement for the Falcons’ offensive line.

For Bartkowski, it was just another bump in the road to side-step. Another time for another comeback.

The problem with his life was that it was all too perfect. Everything was too right, too good, too fast.

From an early age, Bartkowski had this idea about how he wanted his life to turn out. He decided it was Joe Namath’s life he wanted.

He desired only to be an NFL quarterback so he could race cars and chase girls. He wanted a house and a boat and a Porsche.

And wasn’t he shocked when it all came true!

Bartkowski rose out of Santa Clara to the campus of UC Berkeley, where he met best friend and future agent, Leigh Steinberg.

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“Bart was high-spirited,” Steinberg said. “He enjoyed a good time. Because of his size (6-4) and good looks, he would just walk into a disco and cause a big stir.”

He was the NFL’s No. 1 draft pick in 1975, signing a $625,000-a-year deal with the Falcons.

When he stepped off the plane in Atlanta, fans were held in check behind a police line. They interrupted “The Tonight Show” in Atlanta for his press conference.

He was the golden-haired boy Atlanta had begged for.

In the next three years, he would do all the things a dashing, swaggering NFL quarterback was supposed to do. He danced on tables in discos, left room keys for women.

On a team flight from Atlanta to San Francisco, he met a stewardess and later married her. But, as sometimes happens with dashing quarterback-types, the marriage ended in divorce shortly afterward.

Bartkowski was also arrested for drunken driving, but wasn’t that just all part of the game?

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It wasn’t until his 28th birthday that Bartkowski realized he was living a lie.

“My hero was Joe Namath, on the field and off,” Bartkowski said. “Those were the things I emulated. But I was trying to live someone else’s life, not mine. I was miserable and empty.”

Bartkowski hit bottom in August of 1978, when he lost his starting job to June Jones in an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Eagles. “I remember sitting in the locker room,” Bartkowski said. “I didn’t want to deal with anyone.”

Bartkowski vowed to change his life that night, turning to religion. There haven’t been any wild stories about him since. He married again in 1980 and lives quietly with his wife, Suzanne, and their two sons.

Bartkowski now says he just wants to be one of the boys. Peachtree Bart? Well, that was another time and place. To him, another life even. “I have a great deal of respect for these guys and I hope they know that,” he said.

The Rams, caretakers of aging quarterbacks over the years, are all too willing to clear the table and try setting a place for Bartkowski.

Who knows, maybe this time they’ll be right.

Ram Notes Quarterback Doug Flutie has received permission from Donald Trump, owner of the United States Football League’s New Jersey Generals, to talk to teams in the National Football League. The Rams, of course, own Flutie’s rights, but they have expressed little interest in the former Boston College star. Flutie’s agent, Bob Woolf, said he expects to receive a written release letter from Trump within two days, after which he will call the Rams. . . . As expected, the Rams signed former USC quarterback Scott Tinsley to replace the injured Dieter Brock. Tinsley was working in sales for a title company in Santa Ana. . . . Also signing Tuesday was former Los Angeles Express defensive back Mike Fox. . . . More USFL news: The Rams are interested in two former members of the USFL champion Baltimore Stars. The agent for Star defensive lineman William Fuller is in town and talking with Ram management. Jonathan Sutton, a cornerback for the Stars, was in camp Tuesday with his agent. . . . According to team doctors, Dieter Brock’s arthroscopic knee surgery was a success and early indications are that he’ll probably be back in a month.

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