Starting all over again

9-6-02, 5:00 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Gabe Frerotte wasn't even born yet when Gus started that last Opening Day, and as his mother dropped him off at preschool Friday she realized it was four years to the day.

Sept. 6, 1998.

So long ago and yet it was last week.

That's the day Ann Frerotte got that sick feeling deep inside afer Gus' left shoulder exploded on Giants cornerback Phillippi Sparks' helmet in the third quarter. At one point, she turned to the wife of Redskins defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield and predicted, "If it's his shoulder, I don't think he'll get in for the rest of the year. Except in some place like Minnesota where nobody wins."

His next and last start for Washington didn't come until Oct. 18 at, yes, Minnesota, in a 41-7 loss, and the four-year carousel ride through the NFL was on. It stops Sunday when Gabe's Daddy finally gets another Opening Day start, this one in Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium against the Chargers.

"I just had a bad feeling and it turned out to be right," Ann Frerotte says. "I'm not a prophet or anything like that. I can't say how it's going to go here. But I've got a good feeling about it."

It certainly seems to be the right fit for player and team. Frerotte, it seems, is the poster child of this Bengals' season.

Like Frerotte, the Bengals are running out of chances. At 31 and working on a one-year deal with his fourth team, Frerotte, knows this might be his last shot. In the third year of a new stadium not filled on Opening Day, a veteran team is also under the gun.

"This is an important season for us for lot of reasons," says Bengals President Mike Brown. "It's important for fan support and important for many of our players. We have some guys that this is the year."

So Frerotte and the Bengals are handcuffed together in 2002 and as he jogs out for the starting lineup Sunday,

it's a triumph not only for him, but for the little family he brought cross country. Gabe, and his older brother Gunnar, and their big sister Abby.

"Ann is obviously the one that kept me going through the tough times," Frerotte says. "I really got into my family. They were there for me and you need that."

She's been with him since that day her father set them up at his fishing camp near their home in Western Pennsylvania, that football hotbed about an hour from Pittsburgh where Gus grew up no-nonsense as the son of a factory worker and a hospital receptionist.

Ann knows the difference between a hot receiver and a cold drop. While she's taking Abby to soccer, he can make the boys dinner, like eggs, or Mac-and-Cheese. But his best dish is the hot read when he grills out. She never met a word she didn't like. He walks around words like land mines.

The joke in Denver is that when Gus and Ann were with the McCaffreys, Lisa and Ann would talk a mile a minute while Ed and Gus sat silently thinking about plays and fishing.

"I don't think I know a better husband or father," says Harry Beckwith, who really ought to know as Ann's father and Gus' high school coach. "He was one of the best kids I ever coached. He always had a sense for family values. They're good for each other."

Harry Beckwith may have made his best call one summer his quarterback who led Ford City High to its first district championship game came home from the University of Tulsa. The coach always had a strict rule. None of his players could ever date his daughter, a cheerleader at neighboring Kittanning High. They would come over the house to wash his car, or scrape snow off it, but that's as far as they got.

But then they were both out of high school, and Ann was in a tough relationship and Harry invited Gus out to his camp to help him clean it for an upcoming party he was throwing. He didn't tell Ann or Gus the other was going to be there, but he made sure she got in the car when he went on his way to pick up Gus.

"I just wanted to let her know there were other people out there," Harry Beckwith says. "Here was a nice guy and I just wanted to make sure she understood there was more fish in the sea."

She had already glimpsed Frerotte at a celebrity basketball game against the Buffalo Bills a few weeks before and he wasn't the same gawky teenager with the cheesy moustache. By the time he was a rookie with the Redskins in 1994, they were engaged. By the time he went to the Pro Bowl in 1996, Abby was born.

"Washington was great for us," says Ann, who was then an oncology nurse who worked at Georgetown Hospital. "It was a place that always generated news, but I'd go into work and there would be a picture of my fiancé on the front page of "The Washington Post." It was such an uphill climb and it was so up and down and there was so much attention. I wondered if we were headed in the right direction. It was kind of too much."

Ann can spit out the stats back on Sept. 6, 1998 when Gus got hurt trying to fight through Sparks' block to get to an interception he threw.

"He was 8-for-11 with a drop and call-back on a penalty," Ann says. The media guide says 8-for-12, but who's counting?

Ann.

After a year in Detroit, Denver turned out to be a disappointment. Gus thought he had been promised a fairer chance to win the job in the 2000 training camp, but he only got a chance to lead the Broncos to a playoff berth in 4-1 stretch when Brian Griese got hurt. But like a coach's daughter, Ann could see head coach Mike Shanahan's side.

"It's hard to blame Mike because Brian came into training camp and played so well right away," said Ann of a season Griese led the NFL in passing. "Then last year, Gus had to make a decision. The career wasn't going anywhere and he just didn't want to wait around for Brian to get hurt. Some guys would sit around, but Gus would rather retire than do that."

Denver was good because they fell in with a family-oriented group of Ed and Lisa McCaffrey and Tom and Denise Nalen, proving you could be Ozzie Nelson in a league that has its share of Ozzy Osbournes.

"But he really wants to play," Ann says. "There just didn't seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel. He's got all the physical tools and then you would see other guys that got a chance and it just made you wonder."

But then came this past April's visit with Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau and the promise of fair camp with Jon Kitna. Fifty-fifty snaps. May the best win. Ann made the drive with Gus from Pennsylvania and was bowled over.

"Coach LeBeau was like our knight in shining armor," Ann says. "All we wanted was a chance and he gave it to us. You could feel it that he was telling us the truth."

Now, that Opening Day four years ago doesn't seem too long ago. Ann's mother, diagnosed with a brain tumor recently, has made remarkable strides since the kids have come home from Mile High and she's looking at the Paul Brown schedule eagerly for a trip to a game. Harry Beckwith, newly retired from the coaching ranks, is driving to Cincinnati Friday to see his quarterback play an NFL regular-season game for the first time.

"When he came home the last couple of years and worked out, I could see a difference in him," Beckwith says. "Stronger. More confident. He's been around and seen a lot of things. He doesn't get rattled. I was about the only guy who could rattle him when he played for me."

Sept. 6, 1998. Ann Frerotte says it was the low point. Getting back to the top seems to make the years melt away.

"It's going to be sweeter this way for him," she says, "because he had to wait and work."

Spoken like a coach's daughter who helped one of his players get back in the game.

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