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NYT: Time for Testaverde, Up Off the Mat Again


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Time for Testaverde, Up Off the Mat Again



ill Piner was the first person to have the talk with Vinny Testaverde, the one that would be repeated in terms less promising and more painful during so many future seasons, the conversation in which Testaverde is told that it is not his time, not his team, not his chance.

And it was Piner who first got a glimpse, in the reaction of a teenager, of the resiliency that would come to define a career.

Testaverde was a junior at Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, N.Y., Piner his head coach. The school's starting quarterback was a senior who had had the job since he was a sophomore. But Testaverde, already tall and strong-armed, had the superior physical talent. The senior got the job.

"In his heart, Vinny knew he was better," Piner said. "But there was never, ever a hint of any kind of dissension."

With that same mixture of confidence and graciousness, Testaverde has wended his way through 4 teams and 17 often tumultuous years in the National Football League. He won the Heisman Trophy in college, then suffered through the worst years of his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

He has been called colorblind after throwing more interceptions than touchdowns in each of his first six pro seasons and, later, a field general after leading the Jets to within 30 minutes of a Super Bowl.

In this riches-to-rags-to-riches story, the obstacles have been as continual as blitzes, and Testaverde has gone down repeatedly. But he has gotten up over and over again.

So it is no surprise that in the e-mail messages Testaverde and Piner have exchanged in the last 11 months, since the Jets benched Testaverde in favor of Chad Pennington, Piner has reminded him of something he made clear that day at Sewanhaka: a backup quarterback is always one play away from playing again.

Tomorrow night, at age 39, with gray in his hair and a legion of doubters gaping in amazement, Testaverde will have his moment and his team one more time. He will start at quarterback for the Jets against the Washington Redskins in the N.F.L.'s season-opening game.

He is starting instead of holding a clipboard because Pennington fractured and dislocated bones in his left wrist in a preseason game on Aug. 23. Pennington, who was the N.F.L.'s top passer last year in his first season and led the Jets to the playoffs, will be out for 9 to 12 weeks.

For Testaverde, who is 13 years older than Pennington, this season will probably be his final opportunity to whittle the sharp edges of his legacy into smooth finishes, and craft his exit from the game on his own terms.

But his career, as much as anything else, is a lesson in perseverance.

"However I go out, I go out," Testaverde said. "If it was as a backup, it would be that way. It might be again. I don't know what the ending will be. But I know this: I'll try to do everything in my power to make sure it's successful."

So much of Testaverde's career has seemed a dream: illusory and hard to figure, with the happy ending just out of reach. At each stop - high school, the University of Miami, Tampa Bay, Cleveland/Baltimore, the Jets - he has had to wait his turn. At each stop, the pattern was nearly identical. He found success (a Heisman Trophy, the first overall draft pick, Pro Bowl appearances, a trip to the American Football Conference championship game) followed by disappointment.

With the Jets, the hometown team he grew up adoring, the story line has been writ large: he took the Jets to the A.F.C. championship game in the 1998 season, his best year, then sustained a season-ending Achilles' injury in the 1999 opener.

He came back a year later, but his play never reached the 1998 altitude, and last year he lost his starting job, benched for what seemed to be the final time. That was until Pennington's injury.

One day soon afterward, Testaverde offered a smile and a bemused shake of the head over a newspaper headline that caught his eye: "Pray Ball," it said, a reference to the fact that many think only divine intervention can help Testaverde and the Jets this season.

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