Tommy Maddox on XFL, Elway and Big Ben
The long-time quarterback looks back fondly on his XFL MVP season (training camp at a casino!), how the league opened the door for one last chance in the NFL, and his time as Elway’s heir apparent and Roethlisberger’s placeholder
It’s been nearly 16 years since Tommy Maddox led the Los Angeles Xtreme to victory in the XFL’s Million Dollar Game. He still wears his championship ring every so often, rotating it with his Steelers Super Bowl XL ring and the Texas baseball state championship ring that his high school players won last year.
Maddox’s football career was loaded with twists and turns, the most colorful of which was revived by ESPN’s recent 30 for 30, This Was the XFL. Before he became a central character during the only season of the WWE-inspired league, Maddox was dubbed the successor to John Elway when Denver drafted him with a first-round pick in 1992. As it turned out, Elway had seven more years to play, and Maddox bounced around the league before Atlanta released him in 1997.
He took a hiatus from football and spent three years as an insurance agent for Allstate, before embarking on a Kurt Warner-like path back to the NFL, going through the Arena League and the XFL. The Steelers signed him after his XFL MVP season, and Maddox was named the 2002 NFL Comeback Player of the Year, leading Pittsburgh to a division title and a postseason win, before eventually losing his starting job to Ben Roethlisberger after getting injured in 2004. Maddox spoke to The MMQB about life in a casino during XFL training camp, what the NFL can learn from the XFL “failure,” and giving way to a future Hall of Famer.
KAHLER: You’ve played in the Arena League, XFL and NFL. Which was the most fun?
MADDOX: I always tell everybody that the most fun I ever had playing football was in the XFL. There are a lot of things to that. A bunch of us lived in the same apartment complex, we rode to work together, we came home, our kids would swim, we would cookout by the pool at the apartment complex. We spent a lot of time together, our families spent a lot of time together. When we would travel, the only negative was we would travel commercial, but the positive to that was that a lot of times after a game we wouldn’t fly out until the next morning, so we would go back to the hotel and we’d all hang out and it was like having an old school high school victory party after games. We spent a lot of time together and we got pretty close. Just the atmosphere of it, it was a fun time while it lasted. That was probably the most fun I had in my career.
KAHLER: Did the desperation of trying to catch the eye of the NFL every week bring you guys closer together as a team?
MADDOX: There’s no question. You felt like every week that you were going out there, that you were not only playing for your team, but trying to win, and if you win, you get paid more. There were so many incentives like that. But also, everybody that was playing wanted the chance to get to back to the NFL. You couldn’t take any plays off or time off. It was pretty intense. If you were going through that, you had a dream of having one more shot or a [first] shot. Everybody knew it and everybody was there to help each other. Everybody had the same goal and it was pretty important because we obviously weren’t getting paid what NFL guys were getting paid, so to win and double your salary that week was a pretty good incentive too.
KAHLER: Was the bonus for a win actually double your salary? Do you remember the amount?
MADDOX: I don’t think it was actually doubling, but it was close. It was either $2,500 or $3,500 if you won. I can’t remember exactly, but for what we were getting paid to play, it was a good chunk of change.
KAHLER: Do you think that win incentive could ever work in the NFL?
MADDOX: I think it worked in the XFL and the reason it couldn’t work in the NFL is the salaries are so great and guys are getting paid different amounts. For a rookie that is barely hanging on, it would be huge. For a guy that has already signed a big contract, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. The great thing about the XFL is that every quarterback made the same money, all the linemen made the same money. We were on an even scale to where if we won and we all got paid more, than it was a good deal.
KAHLER: When people ask you about the XFL, what is the go-to story that you tell?
MADDOX: There are so many. It is amazing for there to be so many stories in a six- or seven-month time period, but there really are. I will never forget when we were in Las Vegas for a month, living in a casino going through training camp. Only in the XFL would you live in a casino. We had a practice game with Las Vegas, so NBC could work on all their camera angles to make sure all the innovations that they were trying to put in worked. Somehow in that game I got two personal foul penalties, and for a quarterback that is kind of hard to do. I got two 15-yard penalties and after the game, a guy came down and said Mr. McMahon [XFL owner Vince McMahon] would like to see you. And I thought, man, I’m going to get fired from this league before we even start. So I went and met with him and he was like, Man that was awesome, we need to see more of that fire and interview you! I thought, Man I have found my league, where my competitiveness and the way I go about my business on the field is actually a good thing. It was interesting. Being mic’d straight into the stands is a great thing but I had some moms coming up to me after the game telling me I need to watch my mouth.
KAHLER: What was it like living in a casino?
MADDOX: It’s pretty funny, our meal plan was the buffet, so we just had a buffet card and would just eat that whenever we wanted to. For me it was great because I was still at the part of my career where I had to try to gain weight or maintain weight. Now, it would be killer. For some of the guys, the coaches would limit the buffet because some guys started gaining a little too much weight during camp. Coach [Al] Luginbill, I always tell people if I ever did two-a-days it would be the way he did it because he tried to get us off our feet for as close to 24 hours as we could. We would start early in the morning at 6 a.m. we would practice for two hours and take a break and then go out in shorts and shoulder pads. We were done at 11 a.m. until meetings that night. A lot of us would go eat and hang out and go play blackjack. There would be five of us in the middle of a day sitting around a blackjack table, playing blackjack and hanging out. It’s funny because there are a lot of guys that at NFL camps that will play cards or dominoes and we just happened to be at a casino doing it.
KAHLER: The XFL is probably most famous today for the nicknames it allowed players to put on the back of their jerseys, like HEHATEME. Did you have a nickname on the back of your jersey?
MADDOX: No, I had my name on it. It was just one of those things that my dad had always preached: have pride in your name. I felt like he would have probably shot me if I put something other than my name on the back of my jersey. One of our defensive lineman had “DEATHBLOW” on the back of his jersey. When we played Las Vegas and we played HeHateMe, our two linebackers put “IHATEHIM” and something else on the back of their jerseys. They played along with that.
KAHLER: A big part of the XFL was allowing players to express themselves and develop real personalities. How did you embrace your own character?
MADDOX: To me it was just being myself and going out and playing and letting them capture that if they wanted to capture that. I think the problem some guys had is they either didn’t want them to capture it or they tried to be something that they weren’t. I think our coach, Al Luginbill, did a great job explaining that to us. He said, be yourself and play the game and they will capture. He said, You don’t have to try to do anything different. Enjoy it. Be yourself and play the game. I think he was that way and he embraced it and said, “Hey, there are going to be cameras in spots where there normally aren’t cameras, but be yourself and the play the game.” I think that’s why we were successful as a team. We didn’t get wrapped up in trying to be anything different and we didn’t hold back.
KAHLER: The XFL caught a lot of criticism for being lewd and cheap and putting out a bad football product. Were you ever concerned that the NFL might view your involvement in the XFL as a negative?
MADDOX: I really wasn’t. It’s funny that you say that, because watching the 30 for 30 was the first time I ever thought about that. It wasn’t something I thought about at the time. After going through the Arena League, I was so excited to be back out on a big field and playing and was at the point where I thought, if this is my lot, then I’m excited. I get a chance to play and be around a bunch of guys. I thought, if I play in the XFL for five more years or 10 more years, then that would be good too. So I didn’t worry about that too much.
* * *
* * *
KAHLER: You played one year in the Arena League with the New Jersey Red Dogs before your season with the XFL. How did you hear about the XFL? What was your first impression of the league?
MADDOX: I first heard about it towards the end of the AFL season. There started being some talks about it, nobody really know what it was going to be or if it was actually going to happen. My agent called me and said, ‘Hey, this thing is going to happen.’ It all happened so fast really. I went from hearing about it to thinking about it, to all of a sudden, because of the draft rules, the L.A. team had secured me because they could secure three players who played in that area in college. It became pretty real at that point.
KAHLER: And then L.A. used their first draft pick on … another quarterback.
MADDOX: Yep. They secured my rights, so I wasn’t in the draft, but then they drafted Scott Milanovich with their first pick. All the staff there really thought that Scott would be the quarterback and they were going to see what happened with me. It’s crazy how things work out.
KAHLER: So you went from being dubbed Elway’s successor to the second choice for an XFL team. That’s crazy!
MADDOX: Yeah, at that point, I think people just didn’t know what to think of me, I had been with Dan Reeves with three different teams and I think when he released me everybody knew that he really liked me so they were thinking, if he is going to release him, there’s got to be something there. It’s amazing how it works out and the story just gets crazier and crazier.
KAHLER: What did you learn from playing behind Elway in Denver?
MADDOX: Learned a lot from him, on and off the field. Being able to see how he handled everything. Denver is a small big city, everybody knew everything that he did, one time people wrote an article about what candy he gave out at Halloween. He was so under the microscope, just to see how he handled all of that off the field was huge for me. And just how he approached the game, every part of it, the mental part of it. When you are as talented as he was athletically, sometimes people don’t give you credit for how hard you work and how dedicated you are to your craft. He studied hard and he was prepared. For a young guy that was instrumental in shaping me and learning how to watch film and put the effort in.
KAHLER: Long before your XFL season, you bounced around with Reeves to the Giants and the Falcons. When he released you from the Falcons in 1997, did you still believe you could make it in the NFL?
MADDOX: Every time when somebody gets released, they talk about how the coaches always say the same thing—We think you are a great player, but it’s not working—but I think Dan and I had a relationship where I knew he was sincere and I knew it was painful for him as much as it was for me. We’d been together for a long time and I knew that he wanted it for me and sometimes I think that I wanted it too much for him and he wanted it too much for me. We put pressure on each other that way. It was difficult, I knew it was hard on him. I knew he still believed in me, I just wasn't meant to be at that time. I think that when I left Atlanta, it was probably the lowest my confidence was, even when I was going through that preseason. My career had not turned out the way I thought it would. My confidence was pretty low. A lot of people said Dan treated me like his son, and sometimes that is a good thing and sometimes it is a bad thing. Dan would yell at me sometimes for things that other people did. He expected a lot out of me, and I think in the long run it made me grow up as a player.
KAHLER: After you were cut from Atlanta, you spent three years as an Allstate agent. Why did you decide to go back to football?
MADDOX: My dad was a regional VP for AllState, so when I got cut from Atlanta, I was at that point where I thought, Man I want to go do something else. I did that for a couple years and that’s when I realized I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. I really had come to the conclusion that I just wanted to get back in football someway, somehow. At that point I really didn’t know if it would be coaching or playing, I just knew I wanted to be part of the game. I sold my agency and the Arena League called me and I thought it was a great opportunity to go play, so I started the journey again that way.
KAHLER: Which league was more low-rent, the AFL or XFL?
MADDOX: The AFL, definitely. We were playing in Buffalo one time and we were all sitting down in the lobby and a yellow school bus pulled up. I made the joke, like, What are y’all doing, let’s go get on the bus. Like, Haha, we are going to ride a yellow school bus to the game. And then the coach came down and said, “What are y’all doing? Get on the bus.” So we actually rode the yellow school bus to the game. In that league, we really didn’t have a practice spot, we’d practice on the outfield of a baseball field or sometimes we would use the indoor facility of the Giants. We would drive up and get dressed in the parking lot in the trunk of our cars. It was different and that was one thing I loved about the XFL, Mr. McMahon and NBC really didn’t spare any expenses. We traveled nice and stayed in nice hotels and really didn’t lack for anything. In the Arena League, if you wanted wristbands or anything like that, you had to go to the sporting goods store and buy them.
KAHLER: What convinced you to leave the AFL and take the risk of joining a brand new league?
MADDOX: I think it was just the opportunity to play on the big field and play more of a real football game. I enjoyed my time in the Arena League, but the Arena League is a totally different game. It has ins and outs that are different than any game that you have played growing up. The XFL just gave me an opportunity to play on the big field and you knew NBC was going to be a part of it, to play on TV, those are the things that were enticing to you as a player.
* * *
* * *
KAHLER: Are you ever recognized for being an XFL quarterback today?
MADDOX: I coach high school and teach at a high school, so it is funny because everybody kind of knew I played in the XFL, but I think with the 30 for 30 coming out, everybody was like, Wow. These kids I teach were one or two years old when that happened. They knew I played, but actually seeing it, the kids were like, Oh, he really did play. When I travel I probably run into more people who were huge XFL fans or if I’m in California, it is either the XFL or playing at UCLA. It depends on what part of the country I am in.
KAHLER: Did the XFL make you a better quarterback?
MADDOX: My year in the Arena League helped me to get back in it and the XFL gave me an opportunity to play 14 games and I felt like, more than anything, it gave me the confidence to go out there and play again, after all I had been through in the NFL. After that season, I had more confidence in myself and I was able to continue that with the Steelers. That was such a big deal because I’d had success playing my whole life until I got to the NFL and it was such a shock to my system. Being able to go through that season and win the championship and just put yourself back in those situations was huge. It was more mental than it was physical for me. I had worked hard the three years prior to that to really stay in shape and I hoped that I would get another opportunity. That confidence and mental piece was the part that the XFL gave me, that I could play and I do the things I thought I could do.
MADDOX: I don’t have my jersey, which I wish I had. Those were hard to get. I do have my helmet and one of the game balls from the Million Dollar Game. Those are displayed proudly. I think it was fun for me because my son is 17 now and he was pretty little when I was going through all that, so it was fun to sit there and watch that with him. My daughter is 23 and remembers it a little bit more.
KAHLER: A lot of the different things the XFL did are now seen in the NFL (the sky camera, mic’ing up players, etc.) What do you see in today’s NFL that reminds you of the XFL? Should the league allow players to express themselves more?
MADDOX: It is funny because when I was playing with the Steelers, I would see things and I would tell people all the time, for as much crap as they gave us, that’s from the XFL, that’s from the XFL. I would point out things and say that started in the XFL. For all the things that people say—Oh it failed here, it failed here—it had some really good ideas. I think the NFL was smart in going, you know what, let’s look at this and see what they did right and see if it could maybe help our game. And I think it has. The NFL is such a different mindset. They have to worry about the brand and the image so I think they are scared if they give a little bit, players will take a lot. So they try not to give anything and it’s an interesting thing. I think from a fan standpoint, the fans would like to see the players be able to express themselves a little bit more. The NFL is a different breed.
KAHLER: After you won the Million Dollar Game, in April 2001, and were named MVP, did you have a feeling the league might fold?
MADDOX: No, It caught me off guard and I think it caught a lot of people off guard, including Mr. McMahon, because I was actually in talks with him to be a spokesman during the offseason. I was about to sign a contract with him where my offseason would be promoting the XFL. I was negotiating that deal when all of a sudden I got the news that they were canceling the league, so it was a shocker. But it worked out great because three days after that deal fell through, the Steelers called me and I am so thankful I got to go play with a team like that and win a Super Bowl.
KAHLER: How did you connect with the Steelers? Had they been watching you in the XFL?
MADDOX: It sounds funny now, but 16 years ago faxing was the easiest way. I faxed a letter to every NFL team and said, ‘I just want a chance to go to camp, sign me for the minimum. I just want to go to camp. I believe I can make your team. All I need is a shot.’ Pittsburgh called me and they flew me up to workout and get a physical and all that. As you go through your career and the ups and downs, I got on a plane thinking I will be back tomorrow night and we will see what’s next but I actually signed with Pittsburgh and didn’t tell my wife. So when I got off the plane I had all this Steelers stuff and she was like, Are you kidding me?
KAHLER: Was there an adjustment transitioning back to the NFL after such a different experience in the XFL?
MADDOX: Not really, I didn’t think much about it. One of the good things about the XFL is I just realized I have to play the way I’ve got to play. To be successful I have to be me and not be something else. For a lot of athletes that is a hard thing to understand. You try to fit into molds that people put on you, and you quit being yourself. Looking back on it, that was one thing that hurt me early in my NFL career. I was changing from who I was and trying to be who Dan Reeves wanted me or trying to play like John Elway played, instead of just going and playing and being who you are.
KAHLER: When you arrived in Pittsburgh, did any coaches or teammates ask you about your time in the XFL?
MADDOX: Yeah, when I first got to Pittsburgh a lot of people wanted to know if I got a championship ring and wanted to see it. For a lot of players the talk was, Man, it would be so cool to express yourself that way and not get in trouble for it. Like, Could y’all do this and not get trouble? Could y’all do that?
KAHLER: When you got your first start with the Steelers in 2002, did you realize that an entire decade went by between your NFL starts? Did it feel like it took that long?
MADDOX: In some ways it didn’t and in some ways it did. I really didn’t realize it until that week and some of the media in Pittsburgh had brought it up. I started thinking about that and thought, wow, it’s been 10 years. Once I started thinking about it, it was like man, there’s been a lot that has happened in the last 10 years. I started 14 games in the Arena League and started 14 games in the XFL, so being able to go and start games and play full seasons, that’s why it didn’t seem that long to me.
KAHLER: The Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, but you thought you’d have that season to remain the starter while he learned the offense. But in Week 2 you injured your elbow, Roethlisberger replaced you and he went on to win 13 straight games as a starter. At the time, did you have a feeling that this would be your Drew Bledsoe/Tom Brady moment?
MADDOX: It was hard. Obviously with them drafting Ben in the first round, I knew they were going to want to see him on the field and playing at some point. That’s why they paid him the money they paid him. I had that feeling like, I am going to make the best of this year and play and hopefully have success. Then getting hurt and starting that whole deal, in the back of your mind you’re like, O.K., this is the beginning of the end. I went from being the young guy to the old guy. In Denver they called me Junior and in Pittsburgh they called me Grandpa. You go from the young guy to the old guy in a hurry in the NFL. I knew it is what it is and I was going to try to make the best of it and try to help Ben as much as I could. I think it made it a little easier because I knew how hard I had worked to get back and the things that I went through. Winning the XFL Championship, starting for Pittsburgh for two years and being the NFL Comeback Player of the Year. In my mind it made it easier to say, You know what, at least you were able to make it back to this point.
KAHLER: A Sports Illustrated story in January reported that early in his career, Roethlisberger wasn’t the greatest teammate or leader. What was your experience with a young Roethlisberger?
MADDOX: Ben and I always got along great and had a great relationship. Anytime you are young and had the success that he had, it makes it hard. It’s kind of a rough thing to say, but when he had the motorcycle accident and things happen in his life like that, in the long term, it probably helped him. It made him see that this thing, as great as it is right now, it could be short lived. I think that every player has to go through that. Early in his career, I could see where people would say, Man, what the heck is he doing? Because he was enjoying it. A lot of things people might have looked at and gone, Golly, that is pretty cocky for as young as he is. Well, that is what made him successful. When you deal with athletes, you have to have a little bit of that in you to be successful. Sometimes you are going to rub people the wrong way, but for him to take over the reins and not lose a game until the AFC championship that year, that goes a long way to explain why he was successful. He was a little cocky and little brash and very confident in himself. In the end that personality is what made him successful.
KAHLER: Do you still follow the Steelers today?
MADDOX: Oh yeah, my son is a big Steelers fan, so living in Texas we always make the joke that root for two teams every Sunday, the Steelers and whoever the Cowboys are playing.
KAHLER: You even named your youth baseball club after your former team.
MADDOX: Yep, Steelers baseball club. My son, who is a senior in high school, his sport is baseball. He is 6' 6" and a pitcher, he is doing great, he really got into baseball so I had a baseball club and did that and now I coach baseball and football in high school. It goes back to being so proud of being able to play for an organization like the Steelers, and being in North Texas, we didn’t have a lot of fans rooting for us.
KAHLER: When I was looking through news clips, I saw a headline from your time with the Steelers that referred to you as the “Ex XFL-er.” Do you think that is what you are most known for today? What do you want to be most known for?
MADDOX: If I got to choose what I was known for, it would be that I am somebody that perseveres. That I would go through some of the things that I needed to go through to be successful, that I was a great teammate and wanted to help the team in any way that I could. Those are some of the things that you wanted to be remembered as. As far as what people remember you for, who knows. There are always going to be people who look at my story and want to point out that I am a one-hit wonder, the negative part of it, and there are going to be people who want to point out the positive part of it. I know that there are a lot of people that would love to have the opportunity to have my story, so I am pretty O.K. with that.
KAHLER: What did your up-and-down career teach you about timing and opportunity?
MADDOX: Timing is a crazy thing. People ask me all the time, even going back to UCLA, would you have stayed in school longer? Knowing what I know now, absolutely I would. I remember even getting drafted, Tampa Bay was probably going to draft me with the first pick in the second round but coming out early you want to go in the first round so bad, so when Denver drafted me I was so excited to go to Denver and be able to learn and play with John Elway and Dan Reeves. But Looking back on it, that opportunity wasn’t going to present itself for a long time and it probably would have been better to go to Tampa Bay. I probably would have started playing earlier in my career. Timing is such a crazy thing. I felt like with the XFL it was the first time that that timing was right for me. Going to Pittsburgh, that timing was right for me. Sometimes all we need in life is an opportunity and when they do present themselves, we have to be ready to take advantage of it.
Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.