SAN DIEGO — Steve DeBerg, the Edward Scissorhands of the National Football League, took off his sheath Sunday and displayed what had been the great Kansas City cover-up last week.
It was a stiff little finger, purple and gnarled, with a white plastic peg driven through the top of it. It gave DeBerg's left hand an eerie, mechanical, robotic appearance--an android joystick to a real-life video game.
Push button, make playoffs.
DeBerg is a master of the play-action fake, but he offered no deception as to the state of his fractured finger. "I definitely know it's broken," said DeBerg, who played at Savanna High School and at Fullerton College. "I could feel it every play. When you hold the football in your hand, you don't realize the pain. But in the huddle, at the line of scrimmage, on the sidelines, it throbs pretty bad."
There was no other way for DeBerg, if he was going to play Sunday afternoon. And after 14 seasons of trying to get off the bench, he wasn't about to volunteer for a return.
Painkillers were useless. You inject the pinky with cortisone, the entire hand goes numb. DeBerg's only option was to strap on a polypropylene-filled, two-fingered cast that made him look more ready for jai alai than the San Diego Charger defense.
That, and grit his teeth for four quarters.
When he finally unclenched, DeBerg had an AFC postseason berth clinched for the Kansas City Chiefs. He is the third Kansas City quarterback to do this--the first since Bill Kenney in 1986 and the second since Len Dawson in 1971--and the only one to do it with one free hand.
To get the Chiefs past the Chargers, 24-21, at Jack Murphy Stadium, DeBerg:
--Completed his first eight passes of the game, good for 99 yards and a 14-7 Kansas City lead.
--Withstood assaults from abroad and within. The San Diego front line pounded DeBerg, leaving him with a bloodied elbow, and Kansas City running back Barry Word accidentally spiked DeBerg in the foot, leaving him with two good extremities.
--Absolved another teammate's misstep when Todd McNair failed to pick up a safety blitz, saving the situation by ad-libbing in the nick of time and finding an open McNair for a 40-yard touchdown completion.
--Began three consecutive second-half possessions on the Kansas City three-, nine- and one-yard lines.
--Turned that third possession into the game-winning drive by turning McNair loose on a 65-yard screen pass-and-run, setting up Nick Lowery's tie-breaking field goal with 2:46 to play.
When it was over, DeBerg thrust both hands into the air, attempting to signal "No. 1." But with that little finger immobilized, the best he could do was "Hook 'Em 'Horns."
"Incredible," was Kansas City safety Deron Cherry's word for it. "In this game, everybody's got aches and bruises. But when you see a guy with a broken finger go out there, with all the pain he was in, you're seeing a guy who wants to win.
"Steve DeBerg's an inspiration to this entire team. He's our MVP, as far as I'm concerned."
He has a chance to be the AFC's as well and wouldn't that be a sight? The longest-running trivia question in the NFL has his team in the running for the Super Bowl and, one month shy of his 37th birthday, is presently whipping all the whippersnappers who have previously knocked him out of jobs.
For 14 years, DeBerg was the perennial quarterback-in-waiting--the quarterback who played while his team waited for someone better to come along.
In San Francisco, he gave way to Joe Montana.
In Denver, he gave way to John Elway.
In Tampa Bay, he gave way to Vinny Testaverde.
In Kansas City, they couldn't wait to see who was next. "I'm always the incumbent until they bring in the next Joe Namath," has become DeBerg's standard explanation for this operating procedure.
Guess who currently has a better quarterback rating than Montana, Elway and Testaverde?
Guess who has passed for more career yards than Joe Namath?
Guess who Bill Walsh called "one of the all-time greats" a few broadcasts ago, who "reminds" longtime Kansas City announcer Bill Grigsby of the chief of all Chiefs, Super Bowl MVP Len Dawson?
"I've done a lot of work to get where I am," DeBerg said, not boastfully. "It's good to see it's starting to pay off."
A year ago, DeBerg had to wonder. A year ago, DeBerg didn't lose his job once, he lost it twice--first to an over-the-hill Ron Jaworski, then to an under-the-hill Steve Pelluer. The problem? Interceptions. DeBerg threw 16 of them in 1989--eight in his first three games, five in one game against San Diego.
But in late November, after Pelluer's trial erred, Marty Schottenheimer gave DeBerg a last chance. DeBerg started Kansas City's final five games of 1989. The Chiefs went 4-1.
That was nice, but no guarantee for anything come 1990. DeBerg had to beat out Pelluer for the starting assignment this summer, but once he did, he never let Pelluer anywhere near it.
With or without a broken finger.