Starting on a whim


Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Gus Frerotte was tired. The St. Louis Rams had just released him, putting a soon-to-be 37-year-old backup quarterback on the open market. Playing in 2008 would mean his seventh team change in the past 10 years. His family would have to move for the ninth time since he began his career with Washington in 1994. Enough was enough.

If the Minnesota Vikings hadn't called in mid-March, Frerotte probably would have retired. He was mostly unwanted, which was just fine. He was ready to begin year-round family life with his wife and three children, anyway. Yet in a wholly unforeseen turn of events, Frerotte is now entrusted -- indefinitely -- with a team that harbors urgent postseason aspirations.

Frerotte followed the most narrow road possible in ascending to the Vikings' starting job. Minnesota was the only option for continuing his career, and his familiarity with the area -- he backed up Daunte Culpepper in 2003 and 2004 -- made it one of the few places he was interested in playing. The Vikings, meanwhile, were down to their last option after failing in several earlier attempts to sign a veteran backup.

So coach Brad Childress made the call and started an all-out recruiting pitch.

"The No. 1 thing that I said to him is that he didn't necessarily leave on his terms from St. Louis," Childress said. "We talked about providing him an exit strategy from the game for a year, for a couple of years. We talked about that. You would like to leave when you say you want to leave, not when somebody says you have to go, if possible."

That exit strategy called for Frerotte to back up starter Tarvaris Jackson, whom Childress considered a long-term fixture. If anything, Frerotte would provide winning relief should Jackson encounter a round of injuries like those that limited him to 12 starts in 2007. While Frerotte had started 82 games in his career, no one in the Vikings organization considered him competition for Jackson.

Frerotte pondered the offer. He and his wife already had decided to leave their three children in their St. Louis schools and athletic leagues. Was another year as an NFL backup worth leaving his family for a half-year?

Calls started pouring in. So many of Frerotte's former teammates -- and after 14 seasons, he had plenty of them -- encouraged him to play for as long as someone wanted him.

"It was a very hard decision," Frerotte said. "[But] it was just the right team and the right situation."

So Frerotte signed a two-year contract with the Vikings. He rented a Twin Cities apartment and set up his laptop for frequent online chats with the family.

At best, Frerotte figured he would mentor Jackson this season and re-evaluate his career during the winter. And yet, when Jackson faltered during the Vikings' 0-2 start, Childress made the surprising decision to abandon his development plan and look elsewhere. Sometimes backups push their way onto the field. Frerotte is the Vikings' starter for the rest of the season because he happened to be next in line.

"I can't say that it was a shock because I've been playing for a long time," Frerotte said. "And I've been through a lot of shocking moments in my time."

The Vikings have long seemed a competent quarterback away from playoff contention, and so it was no surprise that Frerotte's first start Sunday coincided with their first win of the season. He threw for 204 yards in a 20-10 victory over Carolina, taking three sacks and throwing one interception but otherwise providing decisive leadership from the game's most important position.

Things ran so smoothly, in fact, that Childress joked Frerotte must have taken a Valium before the game. In reality, Frerotte simply turned in the kind of professional performance the Vikings hadn't seen since Jackson took over for Brad Johnson in 2006.

Now, the only question is whether he can make it through the season. Frerotte has been a team's full-time starter only once since leaving the Redskins in 1998; in 2005, he started 15 games for Miami. Frerotte, in fact, has started as many as 14 games only twice in his career
and is working on a number of techniques for self-preservation.

One is unusual. Blessed with a strong arm, Frerotte has always been cursed with slow feet. That deficiency has been exacerbated over time, so Frerotte has learned to throw from different sidearm angles to help him unload the ball with a pass rush in his face.

"I don't lose any power on that," Frerotte said. "I think it's just part of my mechanics now, and helps being able to make all kinds of throws from the pocket. It isn't always intentional, but it works."

Funny, you could say the same about his path to the Vikings' starting job.