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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

25 years later, Testaverde looks on bright side

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 03:55 AM
TAMPA -

Launching golf balls in the Bay area now instead of footballs, Vinny Testaverde has never been happier, 25 years after arriving as a Tampa Bay Buccaneers savior.

As he approaches the silver anniversary of his selection as the first overall pick in the 1987 NFL draft, the 48-year-old Testaverde harbors no bitterness toward the organization or any Bucs fan who booed him lustily through six tumultuous seasons in Tampa.

"It was tough, but even when I was going through it, I was telling myself this is a good learning experience,'' said Testaverde, a scratch golfer who enjoys playing the most challenging courses in Florida. "You can either walk away, or you can button up your chin strap and your laces and get back out there.

"A lot of guys seem to walk away, while others find a way to get through it and the adversity makes them better. I felt like it made me a better quarterback when I went to some different teams and had success.''

After winning the Heisman Trophy at the University of Miami, Testaverde was the obvious pick in 1987 for the Bucs, who were coming off consecutive 2-14 seasons under Leeman Bennett.

New coach Ray Perkins was eager to work with Testaverde, who signed a six-year deal a few weeks before the draft and sat behind veteran quarterback Steve Deberg until late in his rookie season. Testaverde's first pro start came on Dec. 6, 1987 at New Orleans, where he threw for 369 yards and two touchdowns, running for another score in a 44-34 loss to the Saints.

"It was the most incredible day of football in my life,'' said former Bucs defensive tackle Dan Sileo, also Testaverde's teammate on the 1986 Hurricanes. "He looked spectacular. Vinny Testaverde is still the best quarterback talent I've ever seen coming out of college.''

Despite Testaverde's size, strength and strapping right arm, he went 24-48 as a starting quarterback for the Buccaneers before leaving as a free agent after the 1992 season.

With little talent around him, Testaverde became the focal point for disgruntled Tampa Bay fans who wouldn't see a winning team until five years after Testaverde's departure to Cleveland.

"As you look back, you realize it was the wrong time and the wrong team for Vinny in Tampa,'' said long-time NFL personnel executive Tim Ruskell, who joined the Bucs as a regional scout in Testaverde's rookie season. "He was brought in to fix something that wasn't fixable. But as the teams around him improved, he got better.''

Testaverde played for six other NFL clubs and when his 21-year career ended with the 2007 Panthers, he found himself near the top of the league's career passing charts in several major categories.

"My career started out a little rough in Tampa,'' said Testaverde, who is raising two girls and a boy with Mitzi, his wife of 21 years. "But in the end, my time here probably allowed me to play longer and focus more because I became mentally tough.''

Testaverde's challenging stint in Tampa included a brief failed marriage and growing friction with Perkins.

An admission to Terry Bradshaw that he was color-blind touched off a Bay area furor and fellow Bucs quarterback Chris Chandler openly questioned Testaverde's toughness in 1991, saying, "I feel bad for the linemen because I know I'll play harder for them than he will.''

Through it all, Testaverde tried to remain above the fray.

Until he couldn't.

After Perkins was fired, Testaverde told the Florida-Times Union the Bucs had the most conservative offense in NFL history.

Perkins returned the salvo.

"I just wish that No. 14 had a little more class than he does,'' Perkins said. "He has a big problem accepting the blame.''

Testaverde's most enjoyable NFL season came in 1998, when the workout warrior who grew up in Elmont, N.Y., helped the Jets to a 12-4 record and a berth in the AFC title game at Denver, where New York held a 10-0 halftime lead before losing 23-10.

Interceptions plagued Testaverde throughout his pro career, but he persevered while winning 90 of 214 career starts.

"Overall, I give Vinny a solid ,'' Ruskell said. "He wasn't the most cerebral quarterback, but he could win for you.''

After his six-year crucible in Tampa, Testaverde earned two Pro Bowl berths and ended up with 275 touchdown passes, two more than Joe Montana.

"Looking back at my career, I'd say, man, it was a lot of fun,'' said Testaverde. "If somebody would take me back today, I'd go out there again. I've got no regrets being drafted by the Bucs and I understand the frustration of Buc fans back then. They wanted a winner and when you don't win, the quarterback and the head coach bear the brunt of it.''

On most days, Testaverde can be found on the driving range at Old Memorial, honing his golf skills with the same dedication that sustained him through 21NFL seasons.

"Vinny's a big asset to this community,'' said Tampa golf pro and broadcaster Gary Koch. "I don't know another golfer that works at the game any harder. And at his age, he looks like he could still suit up at quarterback.''

Testaverde still works out every day to stay in shape, but for Sileo, he'll always be that remarkable 6-foot-5 physical specimen who astonished Miami teammates by running a 4.7 and squatting 500 pounds.

"He may not be a Hall of Famer, but when you play 21 years, you're in the longevity Hall of Fame,'' Sileo said. "Vinny acquired a lot of mental toughness by being beat up in his years in Tampa and he was a better quarterback in his mid-30s. At Miami, we were all brash and loud, but Vinny was humble. He was the odd man out. All he wants to do now is hit golf balls … the man's a hermit.''


ikaufman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7833

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