Mike Singletary, who epitomized the linebacker play of his era while with the Chicago Bears, was asked in 1992 to pick his all-time team of contemporaries. When it came to quarterbacks, he named Joe Montana, Dan Fouts, Ken Stabler, Dan Marino and Steve DeBerg.
“DeBerg is a magic man with the football,” Singletary told The Times in 1992. “Now you see it, now you don’t.”
Montana, Fouts, Stabler and Marino have seen or will see their busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day. But this week, DeBerg will be enshrined a little closer to his hometown.
DeBerg will be part of the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 1998, which will be honored in ceremonies Thursday at the Irvine Marriott.
“It’s a tremendous honor because this is where I grew up and where my athletic roots started,” DeBerg said. “My family still lives here.”
DeBerg, 44, now lives in Florida. He has come a long way since those days at Savanna High, where he played center on the football team and earned his varsity letter as a junior because he was the deep snapper on punts.
Tom Meiss, head coach at Foothill, was the Rebels’ offensive coordinator then. He was also the coach for one of the school’s underclassmen basketball teams.
“We didn’t have anybody who could really dribble the ball,” Meiss recalled. “I was using Steve to break the press by throwing the ball the full length of the court.”
DeBerg’s fascination--and obsession--with the position of quarterback, coupled with the hard work it took to catch up with those who grew up playing the position, resulted in a productive NFL career.
* He ranks 11th in total passes attempted (4,965).
* He ranks 10th in total passes completed (2,844).
* He ranks 13th in total yards passing.
* His quarterback rating is 59th all-time (74.2).
* He set a record with 18 consecutive completed passes.
* He threw 233 passes without an interception, the fourth-best total.
“The perception is that because I competed with Montana, Elway, Testaverde and [Steve] Young that I must have backed those guys up and not played that much,” DeBerg said. “Actually, I was always the quarterback before those guys.
“In my situation, I was really too good to be a backup. I wasn’t a great player, but I was good enough to be a starter. When the great young quarterbacks came on, other teams traded for me so I had an opportunity to continue to play.”
DeBerg, selected by Dallas in the 10th round of the 1977 draft out of San Jose State, never played with the Cowboys, but played with San Francisco, Denver, Tampa Bay (twice), Kansas City and Miami.
He played through 1993, when he was signed to replace Dan Marino, who was injured. He was the league’s oldest player, and he still had something to give at the end.
With the Dolphins, he had his third-highest quarterback rating (81.0) of his career, and passed for 1,521 yards in only five games.
"[My success] surprises me when I think where my career started,” DeBerg said. “But as time went by, I really did believe I was one of the better quarterbacks that was playing [in the league] at the end of my career.
DeBerg was a pole vaulter in high school. His second-place vault of 14 feet 10 inches in the 1972 state meet remains a Savanna record. He went to Fullerton College with hopes of making the Olympics; he vaulted 15-2 his freshman year.
But football won out because Meiss had the foresight to recognize talent. DeBerg never knew he was a natural quarterback. Meiss sent DeBerg a letter after his junior year of high school and told him the sky was the limit if he wanted to dedicate himself to the position.
“Physically, he was capable--he had the height, big hands and good vision,” Meiss said. “Sometimes you have to go up against a great high school tackle who is 6-4, 240, and say you’re too small. Steve threw the ball really well. I felt that was something that was doable.
“And I was a young guy--maybe I was a little naive at that time too, thinking everybody could be president.”
DeBerg, who graduated from Savanna in 1972, was the starting quarterback his senior season and benefited from the cutting-edge “Stars and Stripes” offense, Meiss said, in which three receivers and no running backs lined up.
“That gave him an opportunity to throw the ball more than a lot of other high school people were throwing it,” Meiss said.
DeBerg was a backup at Fullerton in 1972, but led the 1973 team to a 10-1 record and the South Coast Conference championship. He completed 116 of 192 passes for 1,539 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He was a second-team all-conference player and honorable mention Junior College All-American. His 59.5% completion percentage was a school record.
DeBerg credited Marv Sampson, the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach at Fullerton, with teaching him the basic mechanics of the position.
“I was a natural thrower but didn’t understand the mechanics,” said DeBerg, regarded as a cerebral player during his NFL career. “Once he taught me that, I improved quite a bit.”
Also on the staff at Fullerton College was a first-year graduate assistant, Jim Fassel, whose arrival as head coach of the New York Giants for the 1997 season coincided with DeBerg’s retirement from coaching. DeBerg had been quarterback coach since 1995.
“I enjoyed the coaching,” DeBerg said, “but I didn’t like the 16- and 17-hour days.”
DeBerg, in one season as starter at San Jose State, set nine school records and was named 1976 Pacific Coast Athletic Conference MVP. He entered the university’s Hall of Fame in 1988.
He started 11 of 12 games in 1978 with the 49ers. He threw eight touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
“The thing that accelerated my career was being exposed to Bill Walsh early in my NFL career,” DeBerg said. “I was able to use those teachings throughout my career.”
Preparation was the keystone of DeBerg’s success.
“The main thing I saw during my career was a lot of athletes with tremendous talent wasted that talent,” DeBerg said. “They get into a mind-set, ‘I’m a great player and I don’t need to improve my skills because I’m already great.’ I saw it at all levels, especially the pros. You see guys come who were All-American high school and college players, they’re the No. 1 or 2 draft pick, they get all the money and they don’t make the commitment to prepare themselves and improve their skills.
“You get another player who doesn’t have as much skill and more determination--I was one of those players--and they surpass the players with more talent. It was amazing how often that happened. There were a lot of quarterbacks I competed with who had more talent, but I was the better player because I was more committed to developing my skills.”
DeBerg’s trademark was freezing the defense with fake handoffs. Unlike most quarterbacks, who use an empty hand for the fake, DeBerg used to put the ball in the running back’s stomach and pull it out.
“All you have to do is make the defense hesitate for a fraction of a second and ask, ‘Who has the ball?’ ” DeBerg said.
Today, DeBerg is enjoying the retired life and the free charity golf vacations afforded NFL players. He has friends all over the country and two daughters with whom he spends a lot of time.
“Whenever I come back here [to Orange County],” DeBerg said, “it brings back a lot of memories. Especially 1982 [while with the Broncos playing against the Rams in Anaheim Stadium].
“I threw three interceptions in the first quarter, two returned for TDs. My whole family was there. And from the end of the first quarter through the rest of the game, I completed every pass, broke the record for consecutive pass completions, and we won, 27-24.”
Actually, DeBerg threw only one interception in that game against the Rams, but he was right about one thing.
“That was the type of career I had,” he said. “I learned to persevere.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Hall of Fame
* What: Orange County Sports Hall of Fame’s 16th induction banquet
* When: Thursday, April 30
* Where: Anaheim Marriott Hotel
* Class of ’98 inductees: Bob Boone, Bob Boyd, Steve DeBerg, Debbie Green, Johnnie Johnson, Dan Quisenberry and Leon Wood. Receiving special awards: Paul Salata, Ken Purcell, Bill Cunerty, Jim Gattis and the late Duncan Clark.
* Tickets: $100
* Information: Marianne DeRose, (714) 758-9882