As Gus Frerotte's pinpoint pass settled into the hands of wideout Bernard Berrian 36 yards downfield late last Monday night – a key play in the Minnesota Vikings' fourth-quarter comeback against the New Orleans Saints – the family room in the quarterback's St. Louis home was filled with high-fives and cheers.
Then, with the switch of a camera angle, the room fell silent. Frerotte, 37, was face down on the Superdome turf, barely moving. The ESPN telecast quickly cut to a commercial. Frerotte's wife, Ann, tried to reassure her children that all was well, but 13-year-old daughter Abby became teary-eyed as younger brothers Gabe (10) and Gunnar (9) nervously paced the floor.
As Ann would say later, "It was like the quintessential 'Jerry Maguire' moment."
Well, minus the reassuring call from the hypersensitive agent on the scene.
"We don't have anybody like that," Ann added, laughing. "Those people have long since fallen off."
If ever a play were a metaphor for a man's career, this was it: With the pressure closing in and the majority of viewers counting him out, Frerotte hung tough and completed his assignment, absorbing a punishing blow from Saints defensive end Will Smith which left him woozy.
Then, as his relieved family members would learn after the commercial break, the 15th-year veteran got up and walked to the sidelines, sat out a play and returned to lead his desperate team to a 30-27 victory.
Suddenly, the Vikings' seemingly lost season has been spun into a promising present, as only Sunday's home game against the winless Detroit Lions stands between Minnesota (2-3) and a .500 record. The defending NFC North champion Green Bay Packers (2-3) have their own problems, creating a three-way race with the first-place Chicago Bears (3-2) for the division crown.
With Brett Favre now out of sight and out of conference, Frerotte has emerged as the black-and-blue division's battle-tested veteran unwilling to go softly into the night.
"It's just really cool that you play this long, to the point where you can call up your kids after the game and talk about it," Frerotte said earlier this week. "I enjoy every day, whether it's practice or watching film or just hanging with the guys. Because this is something I didn't think I'd experience again."
Last March, Frerotte, having been released by the St. Louis Rams, decided he'd had enough. A seventh-round pick out of Tulsa in 1994, Frerotte had become a surprise starter for the Washington Redskins early in his career, making the Pro Bowl following the '96 season. Later, he started playoff games for the Lions and Denver Broncos, had a brief run as the Cincinnati Bengals' No. 1 and led the '05 Miami Dolphins to a surprising 9-7 finish.
Yet more often than not, Frerotte, who'd played for seven teams, found himself jerked around or discarded, bereft of the leeway he saw so many other quarterbacks afforded.
In March, he and Ann canceled a family vacation to California and instead decided to head east and search for a permanent residence in Virginia.
"It's not the ending I would've scripted," he told me at the time, "but this is the way it's going to be."
Only, it wasn't: The Packers, trying to regroup in the wake of Favre's retirement announcement, called and asked Frerotte to visit. So, too, did the Vikings, who were looking for a veteran backup to help mentor young starter Tarvaris Jackson.
Frerotte wasn't sold on either opportunity, and his arrival in Green Bay didn't do much to soothe his afterthought complex.
"They didn't show much interest," he recalls. "They had a guy pick me up at the airport and take me right to the facility, where I underwent a physical. Then we went to a hospital, and I had like 13,000 X-rays, and finally they took me to see the quarterbacks coach (Tom Clements). He was like, 'Oh, I didn't realize you were coming in today.'
"I was supposed to have dinner with the head coach (Mike McCarthy), but I guess something came up, so I ended up back at the hotel and went down and had some walleye in the restaurant. The next morning, I met with the head coach at like 7:30, and my flight was at 8:30. It was a quick meeting."
Frerotte figured the Packers were still discombobulated by Favre's retirement and resisted the temptation to take it personally. His wife was another story.
"I thought, 'Oh, great, he's an afterthought,' " Annie recalls. "But then he went to Minnesota, and the Vikings completely made up for it."
Having spent the '03 and '04 seasons in Minnesota as Daunte Culpepper's backup, Frerotte was familiar with the surroundings, and he and third-year coach Brad Childress bonded organically. The next month, when the Vikings offered him a contract, he and Annie decided to go for it – though they decided on a radical lifestyle modification: With Abby having gained admission to a desirable middle school (her ninth since kindergarten), the family would stay behind in St. Louis while Gus rented an uptown Minneapolis apartment.
For some NFL players, such an arrangement would be a license to party hardy – or at least to enjoy a respite from the minivan-shuttling madness of parenthood. But Frerotte, who met Annie when he starred for the Ford City, Pa., prep team coached by her father, is far more comfortable at Back To School Night than in the VIP lounge.
Not being there for Gunnar and Gabe's football games on Sundays, or to help when Abby broke her arm after slipping in the shower last month and Annie rushed her to the emergency room with her younger brothers in tow, ripped him up inside.
"We'll never do this again," Annie says.
The one tolerable part of the arrangement – permission from Childress to return to St. Louis immediately after Sunday games and return in time for Wednesday-morning meetings – took a major hit two weeks into the season, when the coach yanked Jackson after an 0-2 start and declared that Frerotte would start for the rest of the year.
Now Gus, who has engineered victories over the Carolina Panthers and Saints (sandwiched around a loss at undefeated Tennessee), has shortened his visits to a little more than 24 hours, some of which he spends breaking down game tape.
This week, because the team played on Monday night, he wasn't able to return home at all, but the thrills he provided in the victory over the Saints nearly made up for it.
After absorbing the hit from the 282-pound Smith with a little more than nine minutes to play, Frerotte says, "I was pretty damn hazy. I knew my name was something that started with a 'G,' but that was about it. (Referee) Ed Hochuli kept saying, 'Do you want to get up, Gus? Come on – get up, Gus.' I was like, 'Noooooooo.' It was like in those cartoons, with the birds flying over your head."
Once Frerotte got his bearings, his veteran savvy took over: Mindful that he would have to miss at least one play to avoid costing his team a timeout, he purposely drew out the proceedings to give Jackson more time to get loose.
"I've been in that situation many times, where you have to come in cold," Frerotte says. "I've learned the hard way that the more time you can get to warm up, the better."
Frerotte returned after one snap and, two plays later, threw a game-tying 33-yard touchdown pass to Berrian – albeit after a miscommunication with wideout Aundrae Allison, the intended target before Berrian zoomed into the end zone and snatched away the ball. Another deep pass to Berrian provoked a 42-yard pass interference penalty on Kevin Kaesviharn, which set up Ryan Longwell's game-winning 30-yard field goal.
As he left the stadium, Frerotte was stunned to find 35 text messages on his cell phone.
"Usually, in a given day, I get two – one from Annie and one from Abby," he says.
He returned to his home away from home early Tuesday morning as the toast of the Twin Cities. But Frerotte didn't experience much revelry on his off day. An impassioned Barack Obama supporter who often engages in political debates with numerous Vikings teammates and coaches, Frerotte heated up a frozen dinner and watched the second presidential debate before breaking out film of the Lions.
It was hardly a Jerry Maguire moment.
Sometimes, real-life plot lines pay off in a more satisfying fashion than anything Hollywood can conjure.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
OK, I was looking like a sage (bad choice of words, I know) until Houston's late-game meltdown last Sunday, but this is the game the Texans finally win, at the expense of Miami and its "Wildcat" formation. … The Bengals, who came so close to pulling off an upset in Giants Stadium three weeks ago, will get it done on Sunday against the Jets – making things awfully lonely for the still winless Rams and Lions. … Despite finally having landed a gig for which she is qualified, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin – like Santa Claus before her – will get booed in Philly.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
San Diego, where the Chargers will either save their season Sunday night or be forced to live with the certainty that they will never, ever beat the Patriots again. OK, maybe that's a little extreme, but you know what I mean. One thing that is certain: While watching games at some accommodating establishment on Sunday, I will consume inappropriately copious amounts of Mexican food.
LIES, LIES, LIES
WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL
Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars had to sweat out the Cowboys' 31-22 victory over the Bengals to advance to a third week, and he's sticking with the formula of selecting an NFC East power over a winless road team, choosing the Redskins to defeat the Rams. "Washington has been the most impressive team so far this season," he says.
MY BUDDY'S ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE
After UCSB women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb got only a single collective point out of her twin Tony Gonzalezes (the All-Pro Chiefs tight end and the Colts wideout who goes by Anthony), she knew she needed a Monday Night Miracle to defeat USA. Trailing by 58 points, she got a combined 44 from the Vikings triumvirate of Frerotte, Berrian and Longwell to fall to 2-3 on the season. "I actually was really gratified that the moves we made worked," Gottlieb reasoned afterward. "And I was happy for the Vikings' success. But the bottom line is I cannot tolerate losing. At this rate my team's gonna have to go 35-0 this year for me to be happy." For this week's matchup against dgame, Gottlieb picked up free agent wideout Donte' Stallworth (set to make his debut for the Browns against the Giants Monday night) and decided to stick with Frerotte (at home against the Lions) over Aaron Rodgers (at Seahawks).
As for my buddy Malibu, his gloom over the Chargers' defeat to Miami extended to Hand of Doom, as subpar performances by LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, Chris Chambers and Nate Kaeding – and a stellar effort by ex-San Diego halfback Michael Turner for opponent Locals Only – doomed him to a 24-point defeat. Hand of Doom is making some adjustments for this week's matchup with Varmint 'Tang (I'll spare you the actual name), adding Cardinals rookie halfback Tim Hightower on my recommendation and considering Broncos No. 3 wideout Brandon Stokley if Marques Colston and Joey Galloway remain sidelined. For once he's not blaming me for his struggles. "It's all because LT hasn't gotten going," he says. "I had the No. 1 pick, and he's producing like the No. 50 pick. It's the same thing that happened before to people who had Shaun Alexander and Larry Johnson. And it blows."
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
If you're an NFL owner, and a player is such an off-the-field liability that you believe he requires 24/7 supervision, how good does he have to be to justify such an arrangement? Emmitt Smith good? Probably. Terrell Owens good? Maybe. Adam Jones good? Sorry, not feeling it.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Y! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel, whose book, "Resilience: Faith Focus Triumph," with former NBA star Alonzo Mourning, is set to debut at No. 20 on the New York Times non-fiction list this week. If you don't already know that the tireless Wetzel is one of the very best sports columnists in the business, you haven't been paying attention.
THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
Shafted out of a Sweet 16 appearance by an officiating atrocity that made Ed Hochuli's performance in last month's Broncos-Chargers game look stellar, Cal women's basketball coach Joanne Boyle reacted by kicking ass and taking names. She recently received verbal commitments from juniors Eliza Pierre and Layshia Clarendon, completing a tremendous 2009-2010 class that also features Tierra Rogers, DeNesha Stallworth, Talia Caldwell, Brenna Heater and Gennifer Brandon. With virtually everybody coming back in '08-09, Cal should be a top-10 team with legitimate national title aspirations. Then the Scary Seven take over.
And while we're talking Cal hoops, former Golden Bears great Kevin Johnson is in full campaign mode as the runoff election for mayor of Sacramento nears. On Thursday night, KJ held a fundraising event at downtown hot spot Mason's, a gathering headlined by former Phoenix Suns teammate Charles Barkley. In addition to extolling the virtues of Johnson and Sen. Barack Obama as progressive agents of change, Barkley confirmed his plans to run for governor of Alabama in 2014, when he'll become eligible after having owned a residence there for seven years. "I will run in 2014, and I'm gonna win," he said. Once elected, Sir Charles expects to be successful: "You can’t screw up Alabama. We're No. 48. And Arkansas and Mississippi ain't goin' nowhere, trust me."
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
Birthday Joe Cocker
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
A sweet header by striker Noel Hunt off a Jimmy Kebe cross in the fourth minute sparked Reading to its sixth consecutive victory at Madejski Stadium last Saturday. Yet after the Royals had closed out Burnley by a 3-1 score, Hunt was the last to know. After suffering a concussion on the goal and leaving the game about 20 minutes later, he walked around in the type of fog to which many of his American football counterparts could undoubtedly relate. "I don't remember any of Saturday at all – getting up in the morning, playing the game or going to bed, nothing at all," Hunt told the team's website later in the week. "I saw the game for the first time on Monday on DVD, and it was such a strange feeling – seeing myself playing in a game and scoring a good goal without having any recollection of it whatsoever." Now third in the Football League Championship table and only three points behind first-place Birmingham City, Reading has a week off before visiting 12th-place Preston on Saturday Oct. 18. It's not known whether Hunt will be back in action by then – and, if he does play, whether he'll recall having done so.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Bravo, I really enjoyed your article about Kurt Warner. I may be showing my age (28) but I really enjoy watching the 'old men' play this game of football. I am not sure why it is but the 'old men' play with a passion and dignity that is lacking in some of the players today. Favre, Warner, Brees, Collins and Griese don't talk trash during games, on the sideline, across the field to the other team (i.e. Rivers to Cutler last year), showboat, or just about any of the immature things you see as a weekly routine. Keep up the good works."
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
On behalf of the people who wrestled with that whole turning-28 thing back in the '90s, thanks for bringing smiles to our weathered, wrinkled faces.
"When Watters said give me the ball, it was funny and everybody laughed. When TO runs his mouth, who laughs? The other teams. TO is a whiny little baby. Why take up for the guy? You know he's always going to run his mouth and look like a 'tard. PS. Your song lyrics suck. I bet nobody even reads them. Your articles are a complete waste of time."
When Watters' then-girlfriend confronted Jon Gruden as the Eagles' offensive coordinator came out of the coaches' box to demand that her man get the ball more, I was definitely laughing – though I don't think many of his teammates or coaches were.
"Silver, I love you, man, and I worship at the Live Trippin' altar every Tuesday. But combining a song about self-pleasure with Al Davis is cruel and unusual nightmare fuel. Please Silver, think of the children …"
Quick, pass out the miniature eye patches.
"Hey Mike, Can I have the ball too?"
If you get open … perhaps.
"You say you're a soccer dad, but can't even get the terminology right?! Goalies play hockey and rec league ball. At any competitive level, the person between the posts is a keeper."
Alex Van Nevel
Like, whoa – I'd never heard this "keeper" term before, and I'm so grateful that you set me straight. Or not … Seriously, dude, are you proud of having sent this email? We now return to our regularly scheduled questioning of my professional credentials. Thank you.
"As a rabid Eagles fan, I can't help but notice you bash Philly any chance you get, now are your just bias towards the other teams in the east or just born an eagles hater?"
I'm not sure exactly what you just wrote, but I'll do my best to answer the question: I believe the teams in the NFC East with records of 4-0, 4-1 and 4-1, respectively, are better than the team with the 2-3 record.
"Our excuse this week is that we suck. Obviously, we're not as good as we thought."
Joe Della Penna
Say it ain’t so, Joe. Hang in, and I’m sending you nothing but brotherly love as the Iggles head to San Francisco.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
That sound of shattered glass you heard emanating from the lobby bathroom at the Joule Hotel in Dallas would've been even more riotous with some early '80s ska blaring in the background. Here's the (Pac)man responsible for the madness, Adam Jones, doing injustice to the English Beat's "Mirror in the Bathroom" – or are we hearing things?
Mirror in the bathroom
The door is locked
Can I throw you in a urinal
With sensor flushing
You can wash your wounds
While you are bleeding
Mirror in the bathroom
I just can't stop it,
Every Sunday they come see me
The other days
You put me on the shelf
Got round-the-clock bodyguards
For my reckless self, self, self …
Mirror in the bathroom
You're my mirror in the bathroom
Got some beer in the bathroom
You're my mirror in the bathroom …
Mirror in the bathroom
That all my crimes
Rules you whisper
make no sense
Drift gently into
My house arrest
Just because your name is Jones,
It does not mean
You're my daddy
The same goes for the commissioner
Yeah that's you, Goodell
You can watch me pee
While it goes to hell
Mirror in the bathroom
Mirror in the bathroom …