It was as if Neil O'Donnell was born for this purpose, to play quarterback, to lead a football team, to strike a pose of fearlessness in the face of a pass rush.
Merril Hoge, his teammate on the Pittsburgh Steelers, recognized that the night O'Donnell got his NFL baptism on national television against the New York Giants.
"Neil grew up a Giants fan," Hoge said, "and he'd been preparing for that game since he was a little kid. I think he dreamed about playing on Monday night television against the Giants. It didn't dawn on him until after the game [what he'd done]."
Since replacing injured Bubby Brister at halftime of the Giants game, O'Donnell has turned heads in Pittsburgh with his poise, his leader ship and his arm. Five weeks later, Brister is healthy enough to return, but the job belongs to O'Donnell. He will make his fifth straight start Sunday at Three Rivers Stadium against the unbeaten Washington Redskins (1 p.m., Ch. 11).
"I have seen quarterbacks get their first start as a rookie," said Hoge, the Steelers' fullback. "And they have no poise. You can really tell when a quarterback is a rookie. [But] Neil had the greatest poise I've seen. When I was a rookie, I didn't have that kind of poise."
In fact, O'Donnell is a second-year veteran out of Maryland and a third-round draft pick. But he missed virtually all of training camp his rookie season in a contract dispute, and never took a snap in game conditions.
He spent three months of the offseason huddled with Steelers offen sive coordinator Joe Walton looking at tapes and going through the playbook. Then the Steelers let him split playing time with Brister in the preseason.
While he had moderate success -- including a 16-7 victory over the Redskins in the first preseason game -- no one would have predicted that in mid-November O'Donnell would have thrown as many touchdown passes (eight) as Denver's John Elway and Cincinnati's Boomer Esiason. Or that he would be the AFC's fourth-ranked passer with a higher rating (87.1) than either Houston's Warren Moon or Miami's Dan Marino. Or that the Steelers' delicate playoff hopes, at 4-6, would fall on his shoulders.
Through four starts and parts of three other games, O'Donnell has completed 56.8 percent of his passes for 1,164 yards and only four interceptions. Last week in Cincinnati, he threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns to bring the Steelers back from an 11-point, fourth-quarter deficit to a 33-27 overtime win.
It has not been all pomp and circumstance for O'Donnell, though. The Steelers had lost his first three starts to Seattle, Cleveland and Denver. And as scintillating as he was against the Giants in the Monday night affair (11-for-21 for 152 yards and two TDs), the Steelers still came up short there, too, at 23-20.
"He's going to make mistakes," Walton said. "He is just like a rookie, but nothing seems to bother him. He seems to bounce back. He has the innate ability to rally the team."
O'Donnell, 25, credits his Maryland background with preparing him for the NFL, and his three-times-a-week, offseason sessions with Walton for bringing him up to speed with the other Steelers quarterbacks.
"I played half of every preseason game and I felt good with the offense," he said. "I got in rhythm. This year is a new year. Sometimes you have to rise to the occasion."
O'Donnell, 6 feet 3 and a solid 223 pounds, rose dramatically after Brister went out with a torn ligament in his right knee. Playing hurt, Brister had gone 3-3 with a passer rating of 77.2. O'Donnell's appearance in the lineup seemingly gave the Steelers a new spark. What started as an injury substitution has grown into job replacement.
Brister, who threw for 20 touchdowns last season, has been ready to play the last two weeks. Although he has been gracious about his demotion, he told the Pittsburgh Press last week that he would accept a backup role this season only, but not next season.
Said O'Donnell, "Bubby is a very good friend of mine. I believe competition brings out the best in both of us. We work very well together. Whoever is in there, we're pulling for each other."
Walton, whose problems with Brister a year ago were well documented, talks gingerly around the subject. "We're taking it week by week," he said of the starting job. "We have confidence in all three of our quarterbacks [Rick Strom is the third]. Neil's been playing well. We'll stay where we are right now. But it's a long season."
Hoge, who roomed with O'Donnell a year ago and is perhaps Brister's best friend on the team, said the two quarterbacks have contrasting styles.
"Bubby is more of a spirited, fired-up, emotional type of player with a strong arm," Hoge said. "He makes things happen. Neil is business-like and calmer, more subdued. He's more apt to read the game than Bubby is. But they're both winners. We don't lose anything when either one is in there."
Still, Hoge's appreciation for O'Donnell shows through when he talks about O'Donnell's second-half performance last week in Cincinnati.
"That was as good as I've seen a quarterback play," he said. "Neil has done a remarkable job."