Gray hair has infiltrated Gus Frerotte's sideburns and dots the stubble of his beard. Photos of his lanky, long-limbed sons attempting windmill dunks in the family pool adorn his locker at the Miami Dolphins' practice facility. His 10th-year college reunion at Tulsa came and went last year.
Frerotte has, in the estimation of wide receiver Marty Booker, "been in the league forever." At 34, he is the oldest offensive starter for the Dolphins, who after posting a 4-12 record last year began this season with a dominant victory Sunday over the Denver Broncos. In front of a home crowd, Frerotte threw for 275 yards and a pair of touchdowns, helping Miami claim the league lead in total offense for at least one week.
On a team seeking to rebound rather than rebuild under new coach Nick Saban, Frerotte has lifted himself into a leadership role, claiming the starting job in the last week of the preseason over the incumbent A.J. Feeley and then putting together what he described as one of his most satisfying performances in seven years. The yardage total was the sixth best on opening day in Dolphins' history.
"It really worked out nice," Frerotte said after Wednesday's practice, looking like a South Florida native in flip-flops, a T-shirt and olive cargo shorts. "It's a good feeling."
Added Frerotte, who completed 24 of 36 passes and threw one interception: "I was very confident. I have no doubt about my ability, what I can do on the football field."
Ridiculed as the league's biggest airhead during his early years with the Washington Redskins, Frerotte is now being described -- at least in a happy locker room after an impressive performance -- as a wise and wizened professor of offensive football. Dolphins tight end Randy McMichael recalled the first day he met Frerotte this spring. "He had," McMichael said, "that older, mentor thing about him. That presence."
McMichael, 24, said he can hardly believe Frerotte is the same person who distinguished himself most notably and notoriously in Washington with his stupefying head-butt of a stadium wall in 1997. That expression of exuberance, replayed endlessly on ESPN, all but officially detoured Frerotte's career, leading to his benching, then release by the Redskins -- the last team for which he was a full-time starter.
"I'm vastly different," Frerotte said. "Vastly different. . . . I think back to where I was. Things come to you so much quicker now, but you're relaxed, not hurried. You don't look like you're fluttering in the wind. You get more poised as you get older, a lot better as a player."
Since his last season in Washington in 1998, Frerotte has worn five NFL uniforms but started just 19 games, arriving this spring to Miami from the Denver Broncos to a chorus of yawns and sighs. In a town still pining for Dan Marino, who retired five years ago, and having suffered through subpar seasons under quarterbacks such as Jay Fiedler, Ray Lucas, A.J. Feeley and Brian Griese, Frerotte's addition was jeered more than celebrated.
"The thing about Miami, they don't bite their tongues down here," guard Rex Hadnot said. "If they're not satisfied with what's going on . . . they let you know it."
But despite the lack of enthusiasm over his undistinguished seasons playing behind such quarterbacks as Charlie Batch, Daunte Culpepper and Griese, Frerotte did not arrive to the Dolphins with his head hanging. Teammates said he took advantage of having played for two years in Minnesota with offensive coordinator Scott Linehart, also new to Miami this season. While Feeley was trying to digest a brand-new playbook, Frerotte looked more comfortable than he had in years.
"He came in and really took control," Hadnot said. "I'm pretty sure that's what he expects of himself. I appreciate it, and I'm sure the other guys do."
Said Booker, who caught five passes including a 60-yard touchdown from Frerotte on Sunday: "He's relaxed; he's not rah-rah. He keeps everybody calm. Nobody panics when stuff starts to go bad."
Frerotte dismissed a disappointing preseason in which he and Feeley seemed determined to under-perform each other, attributing their struggles to short stints of play and the scattershot preparation that often accompanies games that don't matter. Saban put off naming a regular season starter as long as possible and said he likely would use both quarterbacks throughout the season -- possibly in the same game. Even Wednesday, while praising Frerotte's Dolphins debut, Saban noted: "It's always been our focus to get two guys ready to play and it always will be. [Quarterback] is a critical position."
After last season's unsuccessful rotation of -- or wavering between -- Feeley and Fiedler by former coach Dave Wannstedt, Dolphins players say they would welcome a one-man show at quarterback.
"We have embraced [Frerotte] as a leader," fullback Heath Evans said. "This is an up and down game, but your leaders have to be steady."
Not surprisingly, Saban declared Frerotte the undisputed starter going into Sunday's game in New Jersey against the Jets, and that's a position he rarely has been in recently.
"It's all new to me," he said with perhaps surprising enthusiasm when asked about the game against a bitter division rival. "It's going to be exciting for me, but in the same sense I have to play at the same capacity mentally as I did with against the Broncos. . . . You can't get complacent after the first game."