SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Josh McCown was keeping busy coaching high school football back in North Carolina while he waited for the phone to ring, knowing another opportunity might never come.
One call from the San Francisco 49ers changed everything.
McCown signed a one-year deal for the league minimum of $810,000 on Wednesday to be a backup for the 49ers, giving his NFL career new life and adding a veteran to the quarterback competition.
McCown is expected to compete with rookie Colin Kaepernick for the No. 2 spot behind presumed starter Alex Smith. After throwing passes on a high school field for most of the summer, the opportunity to join new coach Jim Harbaugh's team was more than McCown could ever hope for.
"When you're sitting there waiting for the phone to ring, you work out every day, you want something else to do," McCown said. "I'm excited."
McCown's career has gone through a rapid turnaround.
He took an early morning flight from Charlotte to the Bay Area via Chicago, passed a physical, signed his contract and was on the practice field by the afternoon wearing No. 9. McCown clearly has some catching up to do if he wants to make the final roster. He was intercepted twice in limited action in practice, both by Dashon Goldson, although one was on a last-second heave to the end zone
The 32-year-old was with the United Football League's Hartford Colonials last year and had no plans to return to professional football for anything less than a NFL job. McCown spent eight seasons in the NFL, including the first four with the Arizona Cardinals.
He also played for Detroit, Oakland and Carolina. McCown's best season came in 2004 when he started 13 games for the Cardinals, throwing for 2,511 yards with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
"I'm a competitior. I love to compete," McCown said. "I think the older you get, the more you want to compete. So I'll say that. Whether it's in practice or in a game, I'm looking to compete. And then past that, just looking to get better. As far as the future, tomorrow's not promised."
The 49ers have been searching for another backup since Harbaugh took over in January.
With Smith and Kaepernick taking the majority of snaps, San Francisco still needed a third-string quarterback -- and possibly another player to push the competition. The 49ers worked out Daunte Culpepper earlier this week, and they failed to land a splashier name previously through free agency.
McCown's name always had resonated with Harbaugh's staff.
McCown played for 49ers quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst, who was an assistant in Arizona and Carolina. McCown is also familiar with the West Coast offense, so the two have been in touch about a possible reunion since January.
Harbaugh and Chryst were in team meetings and not made available for comment.
"I don't care what stage of your career you're in, you always want to get better," McCown said. "So for me to be around coach Harbaugh, to see the way he coaches quarterbacks, a guy who has played that position and played it at a high level, it's exciting. It's neat just to see him coach the other guys and I'm appreciative just to be out here."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press