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DeBerg's long, strange trip takes turn to title game; Falcons backup QB, 45, was playing flag football; SUPER BOWL XXXIII


MIAMI -- A year ago, Steve DeBerg was playing flag football in Tampa. Coed flag football.

That's right. The eight-person teams had five men and three women.

"I had joined this gym and they had a flag football team," the 45-year-old DeBerg said. "They asked me if I wanted to play. I said, 'You mean with girls? That'd be cool.' "

This is the same Steve DeBerg who decided he wanted to come back to the NFL this year. He hadn't played since 1993. He had coached under Dan Reeves with the New York Giants in 1996, but was out of football last year.

He wrote a lot of teams to ask for a tryout and got ignored. The letter to Reeves, now the Atlanta coach, even fell out of the envelope.

Reeves called him to tell him he got an empty envelope, but didn't have any openings on his coaching staff.

When he told Reeves he wanted to play, there was a long pause. The Falcons were interested in a quarterback because Mark Rypien had retired because his son had a terminal illness.

Reeves decided to give DeBerg a shot, and now he's one play away from playing in the Super Bowl.

"I absolutely thought my chance to actually suit up as a player in a Super Bowl was over. I thought the only chance I would have would come as a coach. It's just unbelieveable to have this opportunity. To be the backup quarterback and to have helped the team win a couple of games this year is amazing. I really can't believe it," he said.

He's easily the oldest player ever to suit up in a Super Bowl. George Blanda of the Raiders did it at age 40.

Up to now, the story of his career is that it was a good idea to sign him because it would mean a great quarterback was on his way. He was in San Francisco when Joe Montana arrived, in Denver when John Elway came on the scene and in Tampa Bay when Steve Young arrived.

When he retired in 1994, two teams wanted to sign him -- Miami and the New York Jets. But he thought he might wind up starting for either team. That's when Dan Marino was still recovering from an Achilles' injury and DeBerg didn't think he'd make it back.

"I figured I was pushing the envelope there," he said at the thought of starting 16 games. So he retired.

But to be a backup and play five or six games is perfect for him. He played in eight games this year, completing 30 of 59 passes. He struggled in his one start against the Jets, but was effective in relief.

Now DeBerg's goal is to play next year, even though he'll be 46 by the end of the season.

"In July, I plan to try to make a football team," he said. "I haven't talked to anyone about it, but I think I would be better next year because I didn't start talking to teams until mid-June this year. I was just talking about it and trying to get into good shape for a 44-year-old up until then."

DeBerg still enjoys the game.

"I've had so much more fun doing this than coaching," he said. "I'd like to try and do this again."

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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