Maddox Finds End of Maze

Times Staff Writer

Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, ranks Sunday's comeback playoff victory over Cleveland just behind the "Immaculate Reception" as the most thrilling moment in franchise history.

As comebacks go, however, the 17-point turnaround was merely the third-best of the season for quarterback Tommy Maddox.

It doesn't top Maddox's comeback from utter obscurity -- an odyssey that reads like a Frank Capra movie script -- nor does it beat out his comeback last month from an injury to his head and spine that nearly left him paralyzed.

Considering those experiences, beating the Browns by directing three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter and bringing a franchise one step closer to its first Super Bowl title in 23 years seems, well, like another day at the office.

"This is what I do," Maddox said Monday. "When I step out on the field, I expect to play well, and I expect to win. I think there will come a time after it's all said and done that I'll look back and say, 'What a great ride.' But now's not the time to do that."

Maddox threw for 427 yards Sunday, more than any other Steeler quarterback in playoff history, and orchestrated two touchdown drives in the final 3 minutes 6 seconds. His performance was reminiscent of John Elway, his teammate in Denver, who directed 47 fourth-quarter or overtime game-winning or game-saving drives.

The headline Monday stripped across the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette read: "The Comeback." And Maddox, who was barking instructions and pumping up his teammates, will be remembered as the man in the middle of it all.

"It's one thing to talk, and then to go out there and not do the job," running back Amos Zereoue said. "When you talk and then go out there and do what you need to do, it's easy for guys to follow. He went out there and he let us know he was going to do his job and he expects everyone to go out and do their jobs."

There was a time Maddox's job entailed little more than holding a clipboard. After leaving UCLA early, he was a first-round pick by Denver in 1992. He bounced around to three other NFL teams before washing out of the league in 1997, reluctantly gave up football to sell insurance for three years, broke back in as an Arena Football League quarterback, then caught the attention of the Steelers when he was named most valuable player of the one-year-wonder XFL.

"A lot of it seems like a lifetime ago," said Maddox, not surprisingly the NFL's comeback player of the year.

His next comeback is already on the calendar. He and the Steelers will return to Nashville on Saturday, a city Maddox last toured in the back of an ambulance. In the third quarter of that game Nov. 17, he was knocked off his feet by Titan linebacker Keith Bullock, and suffered brain and spinal-cord concussions when his head hit the Coliseum sod. He lost consciousness at first, then couldn't move his arms and legs when he woke up. He spent the night at Baptist Hospital in Nashville -- only vaguely aware that the Steelers had lost, 31-23 -- and was transferred to a Pittsburgh hospital the next day. By the time he left Nashville, he had regained all feeling in his extremities, but he sat out the next two games and was replaced by Kordell Stewart, the quarterback he'd supplanted earlier.

In the hours after his injury, Maddox was visited at the hospital by Titan Coach Jeff Fisher and running back Eddie George, but not by Bullock, who left a phone message with a hospital employee. Maddox has no recollection of Fisher stopping by, and only a foggy memory of George wishing him well. He said he doesn't have any bad feelings about the hit, which appeared unremarkable, and said he has no trepidation about facing the Titans again.

"I've really given no thought to it whatsoever, unless I'm asked about it," he said.

Maddox said he received all sorts of get-well notes and about 1,000 e-mails after the injury -- his wife, Jennifer, has packed those away -- and, he said, "I got more food. I think we're probably still eating some of that."

Folksy and easygoing as his Texas drawl, Maddox is afforded rock-star treatment in Pittsburgh. He stopped by the McDonald's near his home for breakfast last week, and the woman at the first drive-through window sort of recognized him but couldn't quite place the face. He smiled and pulled forward in his Ford Expedition. By the time he got to the second window, the woman reappeared with tears streaming down her cheeks.

"She was bawling," he said. "She wanted me to sign everything -- napkins, cups, hats -- it was pretty funny."

Not so long ago, Maddox could blend unnoticed into a crowd. He was a has-been who'd left school too early, bolting UCLA after his sophomore season, and wound up stuck behind Elway. He did start four games as a rookie when Elway was injured, but threw only one pass the following season, then pin-balled from the Rams to the Giants to the Falcons, who let him go in training camp in 1997.

"I tell anybody I can talk to to enjoy that college experience because it's something that you'll never get back," he said. "The NFL is a great lure and it has a lot of great things to it, but your college days, your college experiences, your buddies from college, those are things that kind of last you a lifetime.

"There's a lot of examples of why guys come out. You look at the national championship game the other day. There's a guy [Heisman finalist Willis McGahee] that's going to go in the first couple of picks, probably, in the NFL draft and he blows his knee out. Sean LaChappelle was my receiver in college who was going to come out with me, decided to come back for his senior year, stayed hurt the whole year and his career was never the same. So it's easy to sit there and make that decision and say, 'Stay in school. Go back.' But everybody's situation is different."

Maddox's situation is becoming more stable by the game. He looks like the Steelers' quarterback of the present and future. He's signed through the 2006 season, and his salary-cap number this season is $627,160, less than 10% of Stewart's $6,922,880. All indications are that Stewart will be gone after this season, although Rooney said he has had no specific conversations with anyone to that effect.

Regardless, Maddox is taking it all in stride. He was asked Monday if he considered his story a football fairy tale.

"I guess to some people it is," he said with a shrug. "It's just a story. Everybody's got a story."

Few are as compelling as his. While Maddox was bringing the Steelers back Sunday, the decisive three minutes were being shown live on the scoreboard of Denver's Pepsi Center, where the Arena Football League's Colorado Crush -- owned in part by Elway -- was conducting its first public scrimmage before a crowd of 8,000. The spectators were transfixed by what was happening about 2,000 miles away.

"John and I were sitting there, just shaking our heads," said Crush executive Michael Young, a former UCLA and Denver receiver who played one NFL season with Maddox in 1992. "We just couldn't believe the way this thing has unfolded for Tommy. We always knew he had the ability, that was never a question, but just the journey. It's like a movie."

If all goes well, it will have a Hollywood ending.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 08, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 11 inches; 420 words Type of Material: Correction Football -- A Sports article Tuesday on Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Tommy Maddox misspelled the surname of a Tennessee Titan linebacker. He is Keith Bulluck, not Bullock.
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