Just nine months ago, Matt D'Orazio was a man without a team, hobbled by an aching back and facing iffy prospects of finding a new Arena Football League home.
On Sunday, the 32-year-old Philadelphia Soul quarterback will start his second ArenaBowl game in three years, leading the league's winningest team (14-3) against defending champ San Jose at the New Orleans Arena (ABC, 3 p.m. ET).
"I didn't know that I was going to play that big a role," said D'Orazio, who was signed as insurance policy for veteran Soul quarterback Tony Graziani if injuries were to hit him as they did in 2007. "I was ready and willing to take the backup role behind Tony, get healthy and try to learn as much as I could."
But plans and expectations shifted abruptly before the season was a month old.
Graziani went down with a knee sprain in the third quarter of the team's Week 3 game against the New York Dragons. D'Orazio stepped in and started 12 of Philadelphia's next 14 games and went on to claim honors as the league's top quarterback last week. Graziani has been healthy and could have played in the playoffs, but the Soul are sticking with D'Orazio.
"I felt blessed, speechless, humbled, especially because of how this past year has gone," D'Orazio said. He topped the league in passing rating (131.3) and completion percentage (72.4 percent) during the regular season. "It's quite an honor, but it's a team honor."
D'Orazio's improbable trek from castoff to championship game quarterback began late last fall with his release by the Chicago Rush, the team he quarterbacked to a 2006 league crown.
Chicago had appeared on track for a repeat in 2007, but such hopes took a hit when D'Orazio suffered a severe back injury late in the season. He continued to start, but his mobility was seriously limited, and he clearly played in pain. Several weeks after being eliminated by eventual champion San Jose, the Rush said they were uncertain about D'Orazio's health and signed veteran Sherdrick Bonner.
"I had [back] surgery about a year ago, and I thought for sure I was going back to Chicago," D'Orazio said. "I was working on my rehab when I got the news that I wasn't going to be going back.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit hurt and I didn't know where I might end up," he said. "I didn't have much interest or very many offers."
But D'Orazio did have a connection with Soul offensive coordinator and former New Jersey Gladiators teammate Connell Maynor. The Soul offered D'Orazio a spot as backup quarterback.
After Graziani sprained his knee, D'Orazio stepped in and made six of 10 attempts for 68 yards and rushed for a touchdown in a 63-42 victory.
D'Orazio started the next week and went 28-of-42 for 338 yards and eight touchdown passes in a 71-34 rout at Los Angeles and Philadelphia's fourth straight victory.
The Soul eventually won nine straight to open the season, including victories over Chicago, San Jose and Dallas.
"Matt won a championship a few years back with Chicago and he just has an air of confidence about him," Soul coach Bret Munsey said. "We were fortunate to have him step in at a high level. He's been a huge addition to this football team and the main reasons we are in this [championship] game."
With D'Orazio at the helm, the Soul won a division championship and earned the overall top seed for the playoffs. In the regular season, D'Orazio completed 301 of 416 passes for 3,331 yards and 72 touchdowns and earned a spot on the All-Arena League first team.
That honor, he maintained, should be shared.
"I think the main reason we're here is because of [offensive linemen] Wes Ours, Mike Mabry, Martin Bibla and Phil Bogle," D'Orazio said.
"They've been unbelievable all year and, to me, have been the unsung heroes," he said. "And three receivers that we have are top-notch. Chris Jackson [140 receptions for 1,719 yards and 31 TDs] might go down as the best to ever play wide receiver."
An Elyria, Ohio, native and an Otterbein College 1999 graduate, D'Orazio began his pro career in 2000 at Milwaukee. He didn't play regularly until 2005 at Columbus, when he completed 205 passes for 2,268 yards and 40 touchdowns.
Chicago signed him for 2006, and D'Orazio had a breakout season as he hit 305 of 443 attempts for 3,552 yards and 63 touchdowns. The Rush captured the Arena Bowl XX title as D'Orazio earned player of the game honors in the 69-61 victory over Orlando.
Though previous Arena Bowl experience will help, this Sunday's game bears little resemblance to D'Orazio's previous triumph.
"I don't know if it helps too much," he said. "Well, maybe a little.
"We're just trying to figure out a way to knock off the champs, and as a team we know it's going to be tough."