For the great athletes, the ones we hear about and read about for years and years, the ones that have the media scrambling for new superlatives and coaches describing from new plateaus, there must be a beginning.
For Tommy Maddox, a sleepy-eyed, slender 19-year-old from a Texas town somewhere between Dallas and Ft. Worth, the beginning very likely was Saturday, Sept. 15, 1990.
It was a hot and smoggy day in the Rose Bowl, UCLA was playing Stanford in another Division I college football game, and the eyes of the city's sporting public were mostly elsewhere: at the Coliseum, where USC was beating Penn State, or in Cincinnati, where the Dodgers were beating the Reds.
But for those in the crowd of 45,855, and those tuned into the Prime Ticket telecast, something special was happening. Could it be that a star was born?
Maddox entered the game against Stanford to start the second half. His predecessor at quarterback, Jim Bonds, had been awful. The Bruin faithful, after a decade of witnessing winning seasons and All-Americans and bowl victories, was edgy. A loss here would set a school record with a winless streak of eight games that would break a mark set in 1943. With each ill-aimed pass thrown in the first half by Bonds, the chorus of boos got louder. The UCLA natives were restless, and that meant trouble for everybody from the school's chancellor to Athletic Director Peter Dalis and Coach Terry Donahue.
The decision to go to Maddox in the second half was easy.
"Coach Smith (offensive coordinator Homer Smith) came to me right away at halftime and told me to warm up, that I was going in, " Maddox said.
But as it turned out, that decision may stand as a turning point in a UCLA football program that was starting to test the patience of its highly impatient partisan.
"This was real big for us," Dalis said. "It allowed us to put 1989 behind us, and it also allowed us to find a quarterback."
Ah, the end of a quarterback controversy; this one almost before it had begun.
In the second half, Maddox passed for 244 yards and two touchdowns. One of his touchdowns was on fourth-and-four from Stanford's 34; the other for 36 yards midway through the final quarter that was his third pass of a 79-yard drive that took him four plays and 1 minute 13 seconds. At this stage, he was moving his team down the field like a Johnny Unitas with a four-day's growth of beard. Yet Maddox was playing in his second college game, had turned 19 only 13 days ago, and still has three years and nine or more games of eligibility left.
Then, after his second scoring pass, the 36-yarder to freshman Bryan Adams, he did the one thing that all the great ones do: he got lucky.
He had sprinted downfield like the freshman he is to jump on Adams and celebrate the moment. Then, when it came time to line up for the extra point that would tie the score at 28-28, he was so winded he could hardly breathe. So when the snap came, Maddox, in a temporarily weakened condition, bobbled it and never got it set well for kicker Brad Daluiso. The kick was slightly blocked, but the ball came right back to Maddox, who looked up, saw tight end Rick Daly alone heading into the end zone, and passed it to him.
Instead of the deflating disaster of muffing a chance to tie on an easy extra-point play, the Bruins had an unexpected, unplanned and inconceivable 29-28 lead.
And then, after a tough, game Stanford team had struck back for a field goal that made it 31-29, Maddox took the Bruins to the Stanford three, and he did so in 1:13, to set up Daluiso's winning field goal. With one second left.
After that, there was only one more element that needed to fall into place to make the day a total success for the youngster from Hurst, Tex.: a successful postgame show.
Successful it was.
Looking as if he had done this all his life, he impressed the media with such quotables as:
--"I thought about it and felt this was a great chance to break into college football in a big way."
--"If you've never been in a situation where you come from behind in a game like this, then there's just no way to describe the feeling."
--"I think it's important for the quarterback to show enthusiasm. I like to be happy, show the other guys I'm happy. That's how the Miamis and the Notre Dames do it."
--"What happened to Stanford was that, in the second half, we got them out of their comfort zone, and got ourselves into ours."
--"If all the rest of our games are going to be like this, I'm not sure if I can hack it, not sure my heart can take it."
Through it all, Maddox carried a friendly smile and a confident manner that left the impression he was not only ready for this, but born for it.
And so, it might be worthwhile to mark down Sept. 15, 1990, just in case Tommy Maddox's day wasn't a fluke, or a one-time wonder. For UCLA fans, as the song goes, this could be the start of something big.