MIAMI– “When he arrived here, we’re all like, ‘We traded for him? He’s going to be our quarterback?’ ”
— Jamal Anderson, Falcons running back

Football will forgive you many things. Fragility is not one of them.

You can have a big mouth. You can oversleep. You can have a police record. But if you break too easily, they start looking elsewhere.

So you begin to understand why Chris Chandler has been the NFL’s answer to a hobo hopping on trains. He blew a knee out in his second year in the NFL, and the owners of his first team, the Colts, “gave up on me. They didn’t think I could come back.” He was damaged goods. He was traded.

That began a nomadic life in football that took him from a smirking, partying, 22-year-old kid to a balding, married, 33-year-old veteran, from a bum knee to an injured ankle to a series of blurring concussions, from Indianapolis to Tampa Bay to Phoenix to Los Angeles to Houston and finally here, to the Atlanta Falcons. Many quarterbacks can tire you out chasing them. Chandler tires you out by reading his resume.

And yet he has made it. The Super Bowl. He is the hero for every man who has ever bounced from place to place, saddled with a lousy reputation. Here is Chris Chandler at the Super Bowl, now being compared to John Elway — in some cases, more favorably — and damn if you don’t rub your eyes and wonder if you haven’t been in the business too long.

Chris Chandler? Wasn’t he the quarterback teams got when they couldn’t get the guy they really wanted? Wasn’t he the guy who lost his job to Jeff George, then to Steve Beuerlein, then to Steve McNair? Wasn’t he the Breakable Quarterback? A guy who averaged just eight starts a season, a guy who was injured so often, they nicknamed him “Crystal Chandelier”?

“He really impressed us this year,” says Terance Mathis, one of his star receivers. “In football, when you hear you’re not durable, it hurts.

“He paid a big price for that reputation. If you watch some of the shots he’s taken, it’s close where they’re trying to hurt him. But he kept getting up off the turf and throwing touchdowns passes.

“To be honest, Chris Chandler is probably the driving force for us being in this Super Bowl.”

A cheap acquisition

Chandler sits now in a large conference room at a Miami hotel, wearing a lemon-colored golf shirt, his thinning, wavy hair tucked under a cap. He’s had an incredible year, a Pro Bowl year, with a sky-high passing rating and a memorable overtime drive to win the NFC championship game over the heavily favored Vikings. Were this 10 years ago, he might be boasting how the critics were wrong, how everybody underrated him. There is no such bravado now.

If he is bitter, he is smart enough to hide it. If he is vengeful, he is smart enough to wait until Sunday. With the endless stream of reporters coming his way, he has enough chances to slam former bosses. This is all he will say:

“I got over that a long time ago. The teams that gave up on me, it’s not hard to look back and see the coaches are all gone, and the front offices aren’t around — not that keeping me was the right answer. But pointing the finger at me wasn’t the right answer, either.”

He shrugs.

“They all know that now.”

Chandler came to the Falcons last season the way he came almost everywhere else: cheaply. Cost them only fourth- and sixth-round draft picks. In previous years, Chandler had been acquired through free agency or trade no fewer than four times.

The thing is, there were flashes of how good Chandler could be all along the way. He was 9-4 as a starter in his rookie year. Then he got hurt. He once threw 125 straight passes without an interception. Then he got traded.

When he was standing up, he was effective. But too often he was hobbling off, knocked over or knocked out.

“What price have you had to pay for an injury-prone reputation?” he is asked.

“You pay a price,” he says. “But it’s no different than the GMs who had me on their teams and said, ‘He’s not very good, let’s get rid of him.’

“I’ve said it many times. There are very few guys who really know how this game is played and what it takes. I’m lucky to be with one of them now in Dan Reeves.”

It was Reeves who traded for Chandler, brought him in, and said the words the quarterback had been wanting to hear his whole career: “You’re my guy. If you have a bad game, you’re not coming out. If you get injured, you’re coming back. I’m counting on you to be my starting quarterback.”

And that has made all the difference in the world.

The born-again quarterbacks

Well, OK. There’s also his wife, Diane, and his three daughters, the latest of whom came into the world last week. “Marriage and kids have been the single biggest factor in my development,” he says. “I’m much more mature now.”

And it doesn’t hurt that his father-in-law is John Brodie, the longtime San Francisco quarterback. “He also didn’t make it right away,” Chandler says.
“Every time I talk to him, I feel smarter and better about my job.”

Still, there’s nothing like being with a winner. Maybe it just takes time to find the right cast. Vinny Testaverde, reborn with the Jets, is proof. Randall Cunningham, reborn with the Vikings, is proof.

Chris Chandler, pride of the Falcons, may be the biggest proof of all. Or maybe he’s just finally healthy. Either way, when they call his name in the tunnel Sunday, it’ll be the end to a worthy story of patience. The breakable quarterback gets his big break at last.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail albom@freepress.com

Name game

Besides Chris, our favorite Chandlers:

Chandler Park

Chandler from “Friends”

Jeff Chandler, who played Cochise in “Broken Arrow”

Mystery writer Raymond Chandler, the creator of Phillip Marlowe

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where they hand out Oscars

Kicker Don Chandler, who played for Green Bay in the first two Super Bowls

Baseball commissioner Happy Chandler

Gene Chandler, who sang “Duke of Earl”

Chandler, Ariz., former Cactus League town that hosts NHRA drag racing, an annual ostrich festival (“the other red meat”), and is the home of Shane Stant
(the guy who clubbed Nancy Kerrigan)

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