Carolina Panthers

Age just not an issue for Vinny

CHARLOTTE -- The talent has always been there, but there are lots of guys with talent. His work ethic's lauded by everyone he's met, but lots of guys work hard.

The trick with Vinny Testaverde's been combining the two, understanding his immense physical gifts, channeling them in the right direction. Then you have to take the countless small steps, every day, to be able to continue playing quarterback in the NFL.

That he's done it for 21 seasons has kept him in the headlines for the last week, since his remarkable rescue of the Carolina Panthers on short notice. As amazing as it was, it didn't hit him until later just what he had done, becoming the oldest quarterback to start and win a game in league history.

"Shortly after the game, I felt like I was just another player going in there trying to help the team win," Testaverde said last week. "I guess afterward, watching some of the sports shows, with everyone making a big deal about it, it kind of made me feel good. It definitely ranks right up there with some big games I've had throughout my career.

"I'm sure when I retire down the road, hopefully when I'm a grandfather, I'll look back and be very proud of what took place last week."

But as much as the act, it's the way he's done it over the years that leaves everyone in awe.

There was a general sense of wonder about that game in Arizona last week, the way he rolled in the Wednesday morning before, was getting taped and being issued equipment at the same time, and practicing 90 minutes after landing in Charlotte. It was the way he managed the game like he's been here for years, even though he didn't know half the names of his teammates.

But as the world smiled, or laughed at all the tired old jokes about his age, all the folks who coached or played with him before just nodded.

"There's nothing surprising about Vinny," said Dan Henning, who coached him in his heyday with the New York Jets. "His preparation is meticulous, in every way. The way he prepares physically, mentally, emotionally, you can't match.

"He's as good as it gets."

The Panthers were the fortunate recipients last week, even if they couldn't have realized it at the time. All they knew was they were a mess. Their starting quarterback was gone for the year, the backup in such pain he couldn't move for a few days. There was a rookie here, and then came Testaverde riding in like a movie cowboy on a white horse.

"When he came in, everybody outside was questioning whether he could still do it," wide receiver Drew Carter said. "But the first day, the first time he started throwing the ball you could see it. There was no doubt in anybody's mind he could still play."

Panthers wide receivers coach Richard Williamson tried to tell them.

"When you throw it the way he does, everybody's eyes light up," he said.

Williamson was the first one here to get a look at Testaverde, as a member of the Tampa Bay staff which chose him with the first overall pick in the 1987 draft. Williamson recalled the expectations placed on the University of Miami star who was going to come in and resurrect the Bucs.

"We were in a deal, where it was not a mature team," Williamson recalled. "It was a little bit of a hully gully trying to find the right combinations and finding the right guys to do it. When he was coming out of Miami, he was so good there, there was a lot of hype about him in the state.

"It was just a learning factor for him, to step in and learn what to do and how to do it at this level. You just don't do that overnight."

He never did win there, amassing a 24-48 record in six years with the Buccaneers. Williamson's quick to point out it was far from his fault, and he saw a glimpse of something from Testaverde in those troubled years that made him sure the quarterback was eventually going to stick.

Vinny on their minds

Each year, the Bucs strength coach would organize an Olympics-style competition during the offseason. Guys had to lift, run, throw, kick, everything you could imagine.

Each year, Testaverde won. While it might surprise some that the 6-foot-5, 235-pound quarterback would be the best all-around athlete on the team, it didn't surprise the ones who watched him work.

"He's always been that way," Williamson said. "That's why he's in the condition he's in now."

Panthers strength coach Jerry Simmons guided Testaverde's workouts a decade ago in Cleveland and Baltimore. Those days, Testaverde was in his prime, lifting ridiculous amounts of weights for a quarterback, getting to the point you couldn't put qualifiers on what he was doing. He was the strongest guy at his position by far, and one of the strongest in the room, period. That was in the mid-1990s.

So imagine the amazement on Simmons' face when he looked up Thursday, and saw the 43-year-old Testaverde doing squats with a new crowd of linemen, side-by-side with workout freaks like 304-pound guard Mike Wahle, and not taking plates off the bar when it was his turn.

Simmons went back to his files, pulled a folder from 1995 that detailed Testaverde's workout regimen. Then he looked at what Testaverde was lifting last week. The numbers were the same.

"Doing the same weights, the same exercises," Simmons said. "And that's just a tribute to him, his consistency and his work ethic through the years. I still get amazed by some of the things he does. Bringing out that old file and looking at the numbers, that's pretty remarkable.

"To be able to do that, and not saying anything about his age, I'm not doing that. He's shown his age really doesn't count for him. But the amount of weight he does and being able to consistently do it over the years is very good. He's another guy. Looks like a guy in his early 30s -- or 20s.

"He's a quarterback, and you don't even look at him age-wise. When he drops back and throws, he looks like everybody else, except the ball's going there faster."

Naturally competitive

The strength and the preparation are one thing, but Testaverde has managed to keep the edge keen because it matters so deeply to him. He's not a yeller or a screamer, but he's got that air about him that let's you know the winning is the thing.

That competitive drive's obvious, regardless the setting.

Henning laughed and recalled a round of golf he shared with his former quarterback last June, when Testaverde told him he planned to play again this year. Both guys are excellent golfers; but while Testaverde's the natural talent, the kind of guy whose wrists roll so easily,

Henning's the shark.

The former Panthers offensive coordinator might not have been the best golfer in the building when he worked here, but he was always the one counting money as he walked off the 18th green, the guy who hit the right shots at the right time.

That afternoon, Henning knew Testaverde was ready for another run, could see the fire still burning.

"Everything's square, we go to 18, and he birdies," Henning said with a laugh. "He took my money that day. Go ask him, he'll tell you exactly how much it was, too."

'I just enjoy being around the game'

Sports came naturally to Testaverde, and he was always center stage. He's got the Heisman Trophy on his mantel, the high-profile pedigree that made him a household name 25 years ago.

But somewhere along the way, he learned to temper the ego, the curb the pride that makes other quarterbacks retire once they're no longer the guy.

"You'd almost bet my paycheck on it, that most of them today, they'd say they'd do it differently," Testaverde said of those who leave rather than subjugate themselves. "Hey, maybe not. My attitude is what it is. I just enjoy being around the game. Some guys come back and coach because they miss it, some guys try and go the media route, stay involved that way.

"But I've been fortunate enough to be a player for 21 years now. I have no complaints, no regrets, just enjoy doing what I do."

He said the first realization that he was making a shift in his career came when the Jets drafted Chad Pennington in the first round of the 2000 draft. That's when he knew he was eventually going to be replaced, and he could either move on or become something else.

"My mindset was, I can be bitter and angry because I'm not the starter anymore, or I can continue to enjoy the game that I love so much in a different way," Testaverde said. "I chose the route that I did, and it's worked out for me, pretty good for me.

"For a long time, I was the number one guy. I mean, how long can you stay on top?"

New York's a crucible, though. Controversies bubble, and boil over on the back pages of the tabloids. Never did he feed it, though. And the way he handled it showed the kind of professional he was, not that it surprised anyone who knew him.

"He wasn't trying to be the star," said former wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who was on the receiving end of his passes in New York and Dallas. "Vinny just wanted to play football. He didn't care about being the big-time quarterback, being in New York, being a big celebrity.

"That's not what he's about."

That's why he's able to handle all this with such an easy grace, a grateful acceptance that there's a little bit of humor in every anecdote. He knows he's the old guy, smiles and accepts the good-natured kidding in the locker room. He's "Uncle Vinny" around here now, and even the guy whose job he might take is coming up searching for an autograph.

"He's awesome. I've always been a Vinny fan," Carr said last week after the Cardinals game. "It was kind of weird, telling him that in the beginning of the week. Now that we're playing together, I didn't know if he'd take that as an insult or whatever. But I always enjoyed watching him play. His work ethic and the way he works was something I always looked up to.

"I've got his rookie card, he's going to have to sign it for me. He's got something pretty sweet that I was able to see tonight."

It's impossible not to be impressed, for all those reasons, for all the stories that build a bigger mountain than the sheer stats. All those intangible attributes have earned him the acclaim of everyone he's crossed paths with.

New England coach Bill Belichick heaped praise on his former backup last week, telling reporters there he wasn't the least bit shocked that Testaverde was able to do what he did.

"It's unprecedented, really," Belichick said. "I'm not surprised. I'm not surprised at all. He's a remarkable athlete and a remarkable player and person. It's pretty impressive to go down there and do what he did, but if anybody is going to do it, it would be Vinny. He's timeless. He'll probably do it again next year."

He probably could, but even in the glow of last week's win, he admitted his time might finally be drawing nigh.

"You're joking, right?" he replied with a smile when asked about his future here. "I think this is probably my last year. I'm pretty confident that it will be my last year."

But then again, too many people have written him off before and been wrong, and he himself keeps coming back even when he's not sure he wanted to.

When you're Vinny Testaverde, it's what you do. And when you take such pride in doing things the right way, that's hard to walk away from, especially when you're so good at it.

"I kind of have always taken pride in trying to contribute," he said. "That's one of the things I've always said, if I'm healthy and having fun, as long as I'm contributing to the team, in some capacity, I'll continue to do it."

Related stories from Rock Hill Herald