There is no sugar-coating the football career of Stan Gelbaugh. Whenever the 28-year-old quarterback has gotten a break, there has been a gritty side to it.
Take his career at the University of Maryland. He stood quietly in line behind Boomer Esiason and Frank Reich in the early '80s, waiting his chance to play. When it finally came in 1985, Maryland was ranked Sport magazine's preseason No. 1, and even a 9-3 season didn't live up to expectations.
Take his one season of stardom, spring 1991 in the World League of American Football. He threw for 2,655 yards and 17 touchdowns, led the London Monarchs to victory in the first World Bowl and was named the WLAF's Most Valuable Offensive Player. Then, because of an odd rule that required the NFL to double Gelbaugh's WLAF earnings if he were signed, his phone was silent.
Take his first three starts in the NFL, with the Phoenix Cardinals. They have come against the San Francisco 49ers, the Philadelphia Eagles and, today at 4 p.m. at Tempe's Sun Devil Stadium, the Washington Redskins. They represent three of the league's elite defenses.
"Kind of a welcome to the NFL, isn't it?" Gelbaugh said, chuckling at his gallows humor.
Make no mistake, Gelbaugh knows how to take a punch. Five years after he launched his NFL career as a sixth-round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys, he still is trying to make the quantum leap from Saturday afternoon hero to Sunday afternoon star.
His resume covers eight teams, three leagues and two continents. He has been released seven times in the NFL. He quit two Canadian Football League teams. After the WLAF waived its earnings rule, Gelbaugh got an invitation to the Kansas City Chiefs camp last summer. He stayed four days. When he was cut, he had not run a Kansas City play. Next, he went to Canada to play for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Two weeks (( later, the two sides still hadn't agreed to terms, so Gelbaugh left.
He quit a job selling copiers and fax machines last spring to join the Monarchs. He passed up an offer to be wholesale representative of a concrete manufacturing company last September to join the Cardinals.
He became a four-year, vested NFL veteran before he ever threw a pass that counted.
Nobody knows the trouble Gelbaugh has seen, unless it's his wife of nearly four years. And even she isn't sure how to characterize his nomadic, whirlwind career.
"It has been too wild," Carole Gelbaugh said last week. "You just go with the flow. He gets what seems to be a break and nothing happens. He spent four years with the [Buffalo] Bills and until his last year there he never had a shot at the second-string position. The [Cincinnati] Bengals cut him and Sam Wyche told him he thought Stan was good enough to play in the NFL. He had that shot in London, and nothing happened [after that]."
The Gelbaughs had pretty much given up on football when Stan was cut by the Bengals in their 1990 training camp. That's when Gelbaugh starting hawking fax machines. It was, he says, perhaps the most miserable time of his life. The worst part was getting past the secretaries and into the CEO's office. When London called, Carole urged him to return to football.
"He wasn't happy [selling]," Carole said. "He'd come home not in a good mood. He said he'd rather get hit 100 times than deal with those secretaries."
Gelbaugh picked up $25,000 as offensive MVP and almost $90,000 all told for his European adventure.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals were going through some trauma of their own. They lost starting quarterback Timm Rosenbach for the year in August, and Tom Tupa was shaky as his replacement. The team signed Gelbaugh to a contract worth $150,000 after a 34-0 loss to the Redskins. He saw his first action four weeks later, made his first start Nov. 17 in a 14-10 loss to the 49ers. He played well at San Francisco, throwing for 156 yards and one touchdown.
A week later in a 34-14 loss to the Eagles, four of his passes were intercepted and he fumbled in the end zone. Cardinals coach Joe Bugel decided it wasn't all Gelbaugh's fault.
"The kid did make some [bad] plays, but he was harassed quite a bit," Bugel said. "Philadelphia can do that to a quarterback. We certainly felt he deserved another chance to start."
If Gelbaugh has a similar experience today, Bugel will go to Chris Chandler. Claimed off waivers last month, Chandler split practice time with Gelbaugh last week.
So that is where Gelbaugh's tenuous career stands. If he can hold the starting job for three more weeks -- and maybe win a game or two -- he likely would stay with the Cardinals. If not, he could wind up back in London in the spring.
His wife, expecting their first child the day after the season ends, just moved into their new home in Poolesville. She says they can accept life with or without football.
"Football doesn't have that strong a hold on him," Carole Gelbaugh said. "If they told him he can't play anymore, he'd say OK.
XL "Now, at least, he's had a chance. If it ends after this . . . it ends."
Stan Gelbaugh's football travels
1986: Drafted by Dallas Cowboys in 6th round; waived Aug. 18.
.. .. Signed by CFL Saskatchewan Roughriders Aug. 27 as
.. .. punter; waived Oct. 7. Signed by Buffalo Bills Nov. 16;
.. .. on active roster 5 games.
1987: Placed on injured reserve list Sept. 8 through remainder
.. .. of season.
1988: Waived by Bills Sept. 16. Re-signed Sept 20; on active
.. .. roster 3 games.
1989: Waived by Bills Sept. 5. Re-signed Oct. 11; waived Oct. 24.
.. .. Re-signed Oct. 25; waived Nov. 6; active 1 game.
1990: Signed by Cincinnati Bengals March 5; waived Aug. 12.
1991: Drafted by WLAF London Monarchs. Led Monarchs to
.. .. league title and was offensive MVP.
.. Signed by CFL Hamilton Tiger-Cats July 29; left team in
.. .. August.
.. .. Signed by Kansas City Chiefs Aug. 12; waived Aug. 20.
.. .. Signed by Phoenix Cardinals Sept. 18. Made first NFL start
.. .. Nov. 17.