The most humbling moment for Tommy Maddox during his six-year exile from the NFL, even more humbling than playing catch with fans and dressing for practices out of the trunk of his car, was his New Jersey Red Dogs' game in Buffalo.

Parked in front of the hotel a few hours before kickoff were two school buses and Maddox joked to teammates that fans had to be really scraping the bottom to resort to such transportation. He soon realized those buses were for the team.

"I felt like I'd gone all the way back to high school," he said.

Maddox can recall those times with a laugh this week as he prepares to quarterback the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Baltimore Ravens in the battle for first place Sunday in the AFC North. His is a riches-to-rags-to-riches story, that of a former hotshot -- Touchdown Tommy Maddox -- who left college way too soon, flamed out and then pulled himself back up to a starring role.

"This is every boy's dream," said Maddox, the focal point of media attention today. "It's been mine, too. I just had to take a different path to get here."

The latest steps began late in the home game against the Cleveland Browns four weeks ago, when he relieved a slumping Kordell Stewart. With slightly more than two minutes left, his touchdown pass tied the game and the Steelers won in overtime, 16-13. They were 0-2 before his ascension and, with him triggering that comeback and as the starter, they are 3-1.

"They're probably as surprised as we and everybody else are," Ravens Coach Brian Billick said Wednesday in Baltimore. "Boy, was he effective the other night."

Against the Indianapolis Colts on Monday night, Maddox completed 15 of 23 passes for 188 yards. He threw a 17-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to wide receiver Hines Ward and a 14-yarder to Ward in the fourth quarter of a 28-10 victory.

For the season, Maddox has completed 64.6 percent of his 99 passes for seven touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 91.9. If that continues, he would break the team record for completion percentage and rating, records held respectively by Stewart and Terry Bradshaw.

"Very impressive," offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey said. "He's a good field general, has a very good feel for what's going on, the flow of the game. There's no panic in his play."

Most satisfying for Maddox is that, since he took over, the Steelers have 12 touchdowns in 16 trips either to or inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

While not discounting Maddox's influence, Billick said: "At some point, really good teams can shove it down your throat in the red zone. Certainly, Pittsburgh fits that profile."

Maddox, 31, has no regrets about leaving UCLA after his sophomore year, although he probably would stay longer if he had a do-over.

"When you regret something," he said, "you're not happy with the way things have turned out. I've got a life other than football, a wife and two kids. Everything's been great. I can't complain too much, but I would do it differently. I talk to people all the time now and try to get 'em to stay in school.

"You make a decision and go with it. I could have gone back to school, blown out a knee and never had a shot."

Maddox was chosen in the first round of the 1992 draft, by the Denver Broncos with the 25th pick. Early on, there was much promise. He replaced injured John Elway for four games and completed 66 of 121 passes for 757 yards and five touchdowns. Against the Washington Redskins, he became the youngest quarterback (21 years 2 months) to throw a pass in the NFL in 46 years.

But he threw all of 42 passes over the next four seasons and drifted from the Broncos to the St. Louis Rams to the New York Giants and then out of the league.

"When I met him," said Steelers tackle Wayne Gandy, referring to the 1994 Rams, "he still was in the I'm-the-hot-young-stuff-with-the-big-arm phase. I don't think he really saw it as serious as it actually is."

After being released by the Giants in '95, he focused on an insurance business in the Dallas area, where he grew up and met his wife, Jennifer, during their junior year at L.D. Bell High School.

"But I never really lost the feeling that I could still play," he said.

His only practice was throwing to teenaged receivers at Bell, where he helped coach. After five years of that, he sold his insurance firm and joined the Red Dogs in the Arena Football League.

"Crazy," he said, "but fun, going to practice and watching everybody's trunk pop up because we got our gear on behind the cars. The only time we had a locker room was for a game."

But quarterbacks are paid decently well in the Arena League. He made $65,000. The next year he led the Los Angeles Xtreme to the XFL championship and was the league's most valuable player. The zany stuff mostly was away from the field, he said, so the football was professional. But the league folded -- and the Steelers signed him as a backup.

In three games last season, Maddox threw just nine passes. But the Steelers saw that he fit their system and players.

"He goes through his progressions so well," wide receiver Plaxico Burress said. "He won't force a pass, but he'll make a tough throw. And when your play is called and he goes to somebody else, he'll come to you on the sideline and say why. You have a lot of respect for someone like that."

Notes: Steelers running back Jerome Bettis (knee) and center Jeff Hartings (knee) will not play Sunday. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis (shoulder) did not practice and was listed as questionable. The only Raven listed as doubtful was defensive end Michael McCrary (knee).

Tommy Maddox returned to NFL after several years with insurance firm, replaced Kordell Stewart.