This one flew way under my radar until I saw the Sports Illustrated story, but Tom Brady is set to become the oldest quarterback ever to start a game in the NFL. He’ll be knocking a former Falcon out of the record books when he suits up in Week 1.
That Falcon is Steve DeBerg, and the story of how he wound up starting one single game in 1998 a full five years after retiring from the NFL is a fascinating one. The longtime backup threw for over 34,000 yards in the NFL over a long career spent primarily as a backup, and when he retired after the 1993 season neither DeBerg nor any NFL teams expected him to get back into the league.
Unlike Brady, who has been playing continuously since the 2000 season aside from an absolute joke of a “retirement” that didn’t last two months, DeBerg stayed away for a while. It was only when his son entered high school and wanted to try out for quarterback that DeBerg found himself itching to get back, feeling he still had a good enough arm to get the job done. He mailed a letter to Dan Reeves, among others, and got a call back from the Falcons coach that ended with DeBerg signing with Atlanta at age 44, taking over for Mark Rypien behind Chris Chandler. During the famously great 1998 season, no less.
The comeback was met with some skepticism. This whole passage is hilarious:
From the moment his veteran-minimum deal was announced, plenty of others weren’t shy about treating DeBerg’s age as a laughing matter, too. Teammates reportedly called him Grandpa, or David Hasselhoff. Sports Illustrated ran a chart comparing DeBerg with Otzi the Iceman, an ancient corpse whose remains were on display at an Italian museum. (Examples: “preserved by: ice packs/glacier” and “Older than: Bill Cowher/Moses.”) A wire service quoted his life insurance agent confirming that his policy remained active. “Shouldn’t Steve DeBerg be scheduling a golf game?” the TampaTribune wrote. “Why isn’t he at his Tampa home looking over his investment portfolio instead of standing in the hot sun at the Atlanta Falcons’ preseason camp looking over a defense?” (To his credit, DeBerg rolled with the punches, telling reporters, “This is not a normal thing for someone to do. But I’m not normal, so I don’t really care.”)
Obviously, the intention was for DeBerg to hold a clipboard, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Chris Chandler was infamous for missing games due to injuries, and in ‘98 DeBerg wound up getting game action in seven separate games, throwing for 369 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. The most famous one, the one that’s the subject of this article, came in a spot start for Chandler against the Jets.
DeBerg took a beating that day, getting sacked three times, fumbling and throwing an interception as New York steamrolled Atlanta, handing them one of just two regular season losses. Incredibly, impossibly, the score of that game was 28-3 Jets, but the bruised and battered DeBerg had set a new NFL record. He was the oldest quarterback to start a game in the NFL, and that record held for nearly 25 years.
Go read the full Sports Illustrated story for more on DeBerg, whose comeback is still the stuff of legends and should remain so after Brady breaks his record. If nothing else, Falcons history is full of oddities and fun footnotes like this.