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Tough Tampa years helped Vinny mature

Vinny Testaverde's six Bucs seasons are crucial in transforming the Jets QB into leader.

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000


Vinny Testaverde has suffered all kinds of defeats at Tampa Stadium, but one of his biggest losses actually began to transpire at a Little League field in North Tampa in April.

Testaverde was on hand to see his daughter, Alicia, play in a game when he saw Bucs coach Tony Dungy talking on his cellular phone. He knew it wasn't good for the Jets when he heard Dungy say, "I'm right here, 25 feet away from your quarterback."

Dungy, at the park to see his son play, was negotiating with Keyshawn Johnson, and Testaverde knew the chances of the All-Pro receiver leaving his Jets were on the rise.

"I know exactly what was going on," Testaverde said. "It's just ironic that he was working on the trade to take one of my receivers at the ballfield where both of our kids were playing."

Johnson's departure was difficult for Testaverde, but after weathering 48 losses as the Bucs starting quarterback from 1987 to 1992, he knew it was one he could handle. Weeks later, Testaverde proclaimed the Jets were ready to contend without Johnson, even proclaiming that running back Curtis Martin, not Johnson, was the team's best player.

The declaration wasn't a slap at Johnson, but a rallying cry for his teammates. It was just another sign of the quiet leadership the Jets have come to expect from Testaverde.

"I look forward to being on the field this year with these guys," Testaverde said. "The camaraderie that we have, the relationships that we've built over the past few years, I think it pays off for us on the field.

"I try and lead by example. I try to stay poised under difficult situations and guys look up to that. They need guys to respond well to tough situations."

On Sunday, the resilient 14-year veteran plays in a regular-season game in Tampa for the first time since he departed unceremoniously after the 1992 season. His career is a simple yet successful response to the tough times he endured in Tampa.

In the eight years since he left as an unrestricted free agent, so much has changed for Testaverde. He has been a starter in three different cities, significantly improved his statistics, played in Pro Bowls, and took the Jets to the AFC Championship Game in 1998. The biggest difference, however, may be the ability to galvanize his teammates.

Testaverde was never known as a leader during his six-year stint in Tampa, but he is the unquestioned guide of the Jets. Backup quarterback Ray Lucas was 6-3 as a starter after Testaverde went down with a ruptured left Achilles' tendon in the 1999 season opener. Lucas also played more in the preseason because Testaverde sprained his toe.

But a quarterback controversy never surfaced. The Jets would not allow it.

"This is Vinny's team. That's the way it is, no two ways about it," Lucas said. "I think we're a better team with Vinny in there, to tell you the truth. He's got experience, and I'm still learning the game. Every time I came to the sideline, the first person I see is Vinny. That says a lot about his character and about the person he is."

Said Martin: "I think Vinny knows the game better than anyone on the field."

The comments pale in comparison to the criticism Testaverde received during his Bucs career. Tampa Bay never finished better than 6-10 and Testaverde, the overall No. 1 pick of coach Ray Perkins in 1987, often took the blame. The accusations, say some, were never completely fair.

"Vinny was not given a chance to succeed in Tampa," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "There's no issue about that. He was put in a franchise that wasn't in a "let's win' mode. He was truly like the guy playing against the dealer who's dealing from the bottom of the deck.

"He might win a hand or two, but basically you're going to lose. The cards are stacked against you and you're going to lose. When you're a high No. 1 ... and you're a quarterback and you go to a franchise that hasn't won and isn't set up to win, the percentage of success at that point has to be under 10 percent."

It didn't help that Testaverde threw 102 interceptions in going 24-48 as a starter, but it's telling that the Bucs were winless in the 12 games he didn't start.

"I'd hate to give you answers and make it sound like excuses are being built in," Testaverde, 36, said. "As a young player, you have a lot to learn before you can be as good and reach your potential. We were a very young team with a new head coach. He came from college. It was a tough place to win at that time. If things had been a little bit different, if we had more experience in different spots or had I been more experienced, we may have had a better team. But that wasn't the case.

"I do think the six years I've spent in Tampa have helped me get through a lot of tough times that I went through in my career."

Those times were never tougher than 1999. The injury derailed what many saw as a Super Bowl season for the Jets. And for Testaverde, it just added to what was already a difficult year after the unexpected death of his father on Valentine's Day. Testaverde said not a day goes by that he doesn't think of his father, who reveled over his 1998 success.

The Jets would lose six of their next seven after the injury, but that was nothing compared to the funk Testaverde went into as he began rehabilitation. Publicly, he said all the right things. But privately, he wondered if he could ever get back.

In the early spring, he went through grueling workouts at the gym next to his Lutz home. Some days he wanted to scream, other days he felt like crying. In the end, Testaverde came away with a different outlook on his career and on life.

"I think missing a season makes you appreciate what you have, and you don't take it for granted any longer," said Testaverde, who cried tears of joy after engineering a fourth-quarter comeback in the season opener against Green Bay. "You appreciate your teammates and do the best that you can."

Testaverde's best this year has been below standard. In three games, he's completed only 48.7 percent of his passes, with five touchdowns and three interceptions. His quarterback rating is just 73.2. The numbers, however, don't reveal how Testaverde has rescued the 3-0 team in each victory.

A 61-yard bomb to Dedric Ward, followed by a 3-yard touchdown pass to Martin late in the fourth quarter, saved the Jets against Green Bay. And two touchdown passes in the last 6:25 propelled the Jets past New England in Week 2.

Testaverde's first-half desperation pass to Marcus Coleman, a 6-foot-2 cornerback the quarterback asked coaches to put in the game, helped the Jets beat Buffalo 27-14 on Sunday.

Teammates have come to expect such magic moments from Testaverde, who is 15-2 as a Jets starter.

Said Coach Al Groh about Testaverde's comeback exploits: "(Quarterbacks) create an attitude with all the players on their team that consciously or subconsciously, the other players think, "If I just really bust my butt to get prepared and I really bust it in the game, old Joe is going to give us a real good chance to be happy afterwards.'

"That's a great confidence a quarterback (like Vinny) brings to a team."

Testaverde conceded the comeback has been difficult. The defenses are different and the players seem to be moving a little faster.

But his confidence has not waned. He's heard all the Bucs players and fans talk about how nice it would be to reach Super Bowl XXXV at Raymond James Stadium, but Testaverde said there may be a Tampa resident playing in the game who isn't wearing red and pewter.

"Hey, I'd love to play in it too," Testaverde said. "That's where I started my career, that's where I live and it would be a great place to play my first Super Bowl as well."

-- Researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

Bucs vs. Jets:

4:15 p.m. Sunday, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa. TV/RADIO: Ch. 10; WQYK-AM 1010; FM-99.5

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