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DeBerg Had Few Equals in His Football Career

April 26, 1998|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Singletary, who epitomized the linebacker play of his era while with the Chicago Bears, was asked in 1992 to pick his all-time team of contemporaries. When it came to quarterbacks, he named Joe Montana, Dan Fouts, Ken Stabler, Dan Marino and Steve DeBerg.

"DeBerg is a magic man with the football," Singletary told The Times in 1992. "Now you see it, now you don't."

Montana, Fouts, Stabler and Marino have seen or will see their busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day. But this week, DeBerg will be enshrined a little closer to his hometown.

DeBerg will be part of the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame's Class of 1998, which will be honored in ceremonies Thursday at the Irvine Marriott.

"It's a tremendous honor because this is where I grew up and where my athletic roots started," DeBerg said. "My family still lives here."

DeBerg, 44, now lives in Florida. He has come a long way since those days at Savanna High, where he played center on the football team and earned his varsity letter as a junior because he was the deep snapper on punts.

Tom Meiss, head coach at Foothill, was the Rebels' offensive coordinator then. He was also the coach for one of the school's underclassmen basketball teams.

"We didn't have anybody who could really dribble the ball," Meiss recalled. "I was using Steve to break the press by throwing the ball the full length of the court."

DeBerg's fascination--and obsession--with the position of quarterback, coupled with the hard work it took to catch up with those who grew up playing the position, resulted in a productive NFL career.

* He ranks 11th in total passes attempted (4,965).

* He ranks 10th in total passes completed (2,844).

* He ranks 13th in total yards passing.

* His quarterback rating is 59th all-time (74.2).

* He set a record with 18 consecutive completed passes.

* He threw 233 passes without an interception, the fourth-best total.

"The perception is that because I competed with Montana, Elway, Testaverde and [Steve] Young that I must have backed those guys up and not played that much," DeBerg said. "Actually, I was always the quarterback before those guys.

"In my situation, I was really too good to be a backup. I wasn't a great player, but I was good enough to be a starter. When the great young quarterbacks came on, other teams traded for me so I had an opportunity to continue to play."

DeBerg, selected by Dallas in the 10th round of the 1977 draft out of San Jose State, never played with the Cowboys, but played with San Francisco, Denver, Tampa Bay (twice), Kansas City and Miami.

He played through 1993, when he was signed to replace Dan Marino, who was injured. He was the league's oldest player, and he still had something to give at the end.

With the Dolphins, he had his third-highest quarterback rating (81.0) of his career, and passed for 1,521 yards in only five games.

"[My success] surprises me when I think where my career started," DeBerg said. "But as time went by, I really did believe I was one of the better quarterbacks that was playing [in the league] at the end of my career.

DeBerg was a pole vaulter in high school. His second-place vault of 14 feet 10 inches in the 1972 state meet remains a Savanna record. He went to Fullerton College with hopes of making the Olympics; he vaulted 15-2 his freshman year.

But football won out because Meiss had the foresight to recognize talent. DeBerg never knew he was a natural quarterback. Meiss sent DeBerg a letter after his junior year of high school and told him the sky was the limit if he wanted to dedicate himself to the position.

"Physically, he was capable--he had the height, big hands and good vision," Meiss said. "Sometimes you have to go up against a great high school tackle who is 6-4, 240, and say you're too small. Steve threw the ball really well. I felt that was something that was doable.

"And I was a young guy--maybe I was a little naive at that time too, thinking everybody could be president."

*

DeBerg, who graduated from Savanna in 1972, was the starting quarterback his senior season and benefited from the cutting-edge "Stars and Stripes" offense, Meiss said, in which three receivers and no running backs lined up.

"That gave him an opportunity to throw the ball more than a lot of other high school people were throwing it," Meiss said.

DeBerg was a backup at Fullerton in 1972, but led the 1973 team to a 10-1 record and the South Coast Conference championship. He completed 116 of 192 passes for 1,539 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He was a second-team all-conference player and honorable mention Junior College All-American. His 59.5% completion percentage was a school record.

DeBerg credited Marv Sampson, the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach at Fullerton, with teaching him the basic mechanics of the position.

"I was a natural thrower but didn't understand the mechanics," said DeBerg, regarded as a cerebral player during his NFL career. "Once he taught me that, I improved quite a bit."

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