The strange saga of Tommy Maddox took an unexpected twist Wednesday when the Pittsburgh Steelers named him their starting quarterback for Sunday's game against New Orleans and sent Pro Bowl quarterback Kordell Stewart to the bench.
Maddox, a former first-round pick from UCLA, has not started an NFL game since 1992 and left the sport to sell insurance for three years.
He returned to the sport the hard way, playing for the New Jersey Red Dogs of the Arena Football League in 2000, then winning a championship in spring 2001 with the Los Angeles Xtreme of the XFL, which folded after one season.
It wasn't until Sunday, when he came off the bench to lead the Steelers to a come-from-behind, overtime victory over Cleveland, that Maddox got a chance to show he belongs in the NFL.
"I gave it a lot of thought and just feel it's the right thing to do at this time," Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher said. "It's in the best interest of the football team. I explained that to our players and we are moving on."
With Stewart as the starter, the Steelers were 1-2 and had scored only 36 points. Maddox entered late in the fourth quarter against the Browns, completing 11 of 13 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown that tied the score. His team won, 16-13, when Todd Peterson kicked a 31-yard field goal in overtime.
Facing his third benching in six years, Stewart made no attempt to mask his disappointment Wednesday when speaking to reporters.
"Do I agree with the decision? No," he said. "But I've never said it was the Kordell Stewart show. I've always said it was the Pittsburgh Steelers show. I'll get a chance to start sometime."
Stewart is coming off his best season as a pro. He was the team's most valuable player in 2001 and finished third in NFL MVP voting, the best finish by an AFC player.
"I talked to Kordell a long time this morning," Maddox said Wednesday. "I just wanted to make sure we were still on great terms, and we had a great talk. I understand where he's coming from because I've been there."
Actually, Maddox has been just about everywhere in his odyssey of a career. He left UCLA after his sophomore season at age 20 and was a first-round pick by Denver in 1992. Because of an injury to John Elway, the 6-foot-4 Maddox started four games for the Broncos late in his rookie season. He has not started an NFL game since.
After two seasons in Denver, Maddox was traded to the L.A. Rams, where he lasted one season and appeared in five games, primarily as a holder. He spent a season with the New York Giants in 1995, was cut in training camp the following summer, then failed to make it through Atlanta's camp.
His options rapidly dwindling, Maddox walked away from football and opened an insurance business in the Dallas area. He kept the job for three years, but football gnawed at him. When the Red Dogs called late in 1999, he leaped at the chance to play. He threw for 3,800 yards and 64 touchdowns in 2000.
"When I showed up in the arena league, you just had to laugh," Maddox told the Denver Post last year. "I was used to huge locker rooms with guys getting all your stuff. All of a sudden, you don't have a locker room and you're lucky if they give you a jock. You're dressing out of your car. You're riding school buses to games. But I was so excited to be back and be part of playing football again, I didn't care if I had to buy my uniform."
A year later, Maddox led the L.A. Xtreme to a 9-3 record and a 38-6 victory over the San Francisco Demons in the title game. There, he played for Xtreme coach Al Luginbill, who also coached future NFL MVP Kurt Warner when he played for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe.
"Tommy and Kurt are very similar," said Luginbill, now coach and general manager of arena football's Detroit Fury. "Kurt has a little bit stronger arm to the edge of the field, but they both have great releases and are tough mentally and physically. Tommy is taller and has a little bit better feet in the pocket. Neither one of them is going to threaten you with the run, but they can both move around and buy time.
"It's really hard to win a championship, at any level. In order to do it, you have to have a quarterback that makes plays at times in a game when he absolutely has to do it. That's the thing that impressed me most about Tommy. If a play had to be made, he'd make it."
The Steelers were sufficiently impressed, and last season signed him as Stewart's backup. They sweetened the deal in August, signing Maddox to a five-year, $4.5-million deal, including a $500,000 signing bonus.
"Tommy has made a sensational comeback," said San Francisco General Manager Terry Donahue, Maddox's coach at UCLA. "All of us like to see people that overcome obstacles and overcome the odds. It's a phenomenal success story."