Vinny Testaverde's trip to the Pro Bowl next month will represent the highest individual accomplishment of his pro career.
It also will represent a personal and emotional homecoming, even though the game will be played in Hawaii, thousands of miles from home.
For the first time in almost a decade, Testaverde's father, Al, will return to a football stadium and watch Vinny play.
"It was my idea," said Al, a retired stonemason from Elmont, N.Y. "It just seemed like the right time and right place."
The elder Testaverde reluctantly stopped watching Vinny's games live after he suffered a heart attack in 1988. His doctors advised him not to watch -- either in person or on television. Since then, he has watched his son play only on tape.
"I'm kind of an excitable guy," Al said. "I really wanted to watch, but my doctors said my heart might not be able to take it, and I didn't want to wind up dying."
Al had often sat in the stands and watched Vinny, his only son among five children, play at Sewanhaka High School, the Fork Union Military Academy and the University of Miami. When Vinny won the Heisman Trophy in December 1986, Al wept at the
ceremony at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York.
Vinny was two years into his career with the Tampa Bay Bucs when Al stopped watching the games. For the last eight years, a friend who lives nearby in Long Island has taped Vinny's games off a satellite dish and brought the tapes over after the game.
"He sits me down and tells me what happened, so there won't be any surprises," Al said. "Then I put the tape in and watch it. It's a lot easier to take when you know what's going to happen."
His wife and Vinny's four sisters have gone to several games a year as Vinny has moved from Tampa to Cleveland to Baltimore, but Al has stayed away.
"It's very frustrating," Al said. "I can watch the Giants play live. I can watch the Monday night game live. Those games are no problem. But I can't watch Vinny."
When Vinny made the playoffs for the first time with the Browns two years ago, Al took the family to Cleveland for the game. While everyone else sat in the stands and Vinny played brilliantly in a victory over the Patriots, Al walked around a mall.
"I saw [former Brown] Jim Brown in the lobby of our hotel a half-hour after the game, and he gave me the blow-by-blow," Al said.
When Al met up with Vinny later at a restaurant, Vinny took the game ball that his teammates had given him and tossed it to Al.
The toughness that Vinny exhibited this season with the Ravens is traceable to his father, who worked as a stonemason for 40 years and helped build skyscrapers.
When Vinny was in high school and even in his early days in college, he worked at Al's construction sites during the summer.
"Wherever he felt like going, I talked to the supervisors, and they squeezed him in," Al said. "He worked with the electricians, the steamfitters, the crane operators. He ran the bulldozers and the heavy equipment. He worked hard. He earned his keep. And I didn't go easy on him."
When Vinny and several other Ravens recently made a promotional appearance at the site of the new stadium at Camden Yards, Vinny pointed out all the construction equipment he knew how to operate.
"He's still handy with electrical work and other stuff," Al said. "But I think he learned from those summers that he didn't want to do that kind of work for the rest of his life. He busted his butt. I think he learned that it was better to use your brains than your back."
As a high-profile pro quarterback, Vinny has made enough money to support his parents. Al spends the winter at Vinny's house in Tampa. They also have a getaway house in the Poconos.
"Vinny has taken care of us," Al said. "He was the one who made me retire. I had a bad back, and he just put the kibosh to it."
Naturally, Al agonized as his son was criticized in Tampa and Cleveland for failing to live up to expectations as a No. 1 draft pick.
"You have no idea how rough that was," Al said. "When it comes to your children, you get protective. Tampa in particular was rough. He deserved some of [the criticism], but it was a no-win situation. They thought they were going to be winners once they got Vinny, but they didn't have a good team and it didn't work out. Even if Vinny was Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas combined, he had no team. And the fans took it out on him."
In Cleveland, Vinny replaced the enormously popular Bernie Kosar, who was released during the 1993 season in a controversial move.
"That, I understood," Al said. "But the fans were pretty good about it. Now, he's got it all going his way in Baltimore. I'm happy he's playing well, but I'm really proud that the fans have taken to him. He deserves it. He's gone through a lot, and he's a good person. He doesn't know how to be vicious. He doesn't know how to knock people. He's just a stand-up boy. Football is going to be over in a few years, but I'm proud that he turned out the way he did."
Al and his wife, who have eight grandchildren, will travel to Hawaii to celebrate Vinny's first trip to the Pro Bowl at age 33.
"It's a nice feat that the kid made it," Al said. "And it's not that important who wins or loses that game. It's just a fun game. I don't think I'll get too excited. I think I can take it."
Pub Date: 12/24/96