Passion paves Gradkowski's path
By Eleanor Bailey Almanac Sports Editor email@example.com
Forget fancy facilities. Never mind flashy finery and high-powered programs. Bruce Gradkowski forged his footpath to the NFL because of his fondness for football.
"Love of the game," said Gradkowski. "That's what it all comes down to."
Whether or not he ever played at a state-of-the-art stadium, complete with a synthetic turf surface, now being installed at his alma mater, Seton-La Salle, Gradkowski determined early that he belonged in professional football. On July 23, he begins his third season in the NFL with his second club, the St. Louis Rams.
"I'd heard about the new field, but I have not been up there yet," said the 25-year-old of Debbie and Bruce Gradkowski. "It's great for Seton-La Salle. Now they will have a nice field of their own. They won't have to worry about the weather conditions and they can practice on the same field they play on.
"Sure," Gradkowski continued, "I do wish I did get the chance to play on something like that, but on the other hand it is what I appreciate most when you get to the next level and you realize where you started and where you came from.
"But no matter what the field, you make do with what you have wherever you are. You do reps in the parking lot if you have to. You drive around looking for a place to practice; whether that's a cow pasture or a well-manicured field. You do whatever needs to be done because of your love of the game."
A passion for passing has taking Gradkowski from those muddy fields in high school to comfy confines of St. Louis, with nice, tidy side trips to Toledo and Tampa Bay thrown in for added zest.
From the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic League, the league that produced football legends such as Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas, Gradkowski emerged from their shadows to set at the time district and state records. As a junior, he threw for 1,630 yard and 10 touchdowns then surpassed those numbers with a stellar senior season. He set the standard with 2,978 yards and 30 TDs.
Gradkowski, who also led the Rebels to the WPIAL finals in basketball, moved on to quarterback at the University of Toledo. There he set Mid-American Conference season records by completing 71.2 percent of his passes and school marks by tossing a season-high 29 TDs. Gradkowski threw for 3,210 yards his junior year and 3,518 yards his senior season, where he duplicated a feat accomplished by Pittsburgh Steelers' QB Ben Roethlisberger. He earned MVP honors at the GMAC Bowl.
Selected in the sixth round of the 2006 NFL Draft by Tampa Bay, Gradkowski immediately moved into the starting spot when Chris Simms ruptured his spleen. In his rookie year, he completed 177 passes for 1,661 yards but his record as a starter for the Buccaneers was 3-8.
After playing in only four games and passing for just 130 yards during the 2007 season, the Buccaneers waived Gradkowski, who then was picked up by the Rams.
"I'm excited," said the 6-1, 220-pound signal caller. "I think (St. Louis) is going to be a good place for me."
The Rams certainly have been a good club for former WPIAL veteran Marc Bulger. The Rams' starter, he excelled at Central Catholic and West Virginia. Bulger passed for 2,392 yards and 11 TDs last season. He has passed for 18,625 yards in his NFL career with the Rams.
"(Bulger) is a good, solid quarterback," Gradkowski said. "I don't know him personally, but I like (his style). He seems to be an even-keel kind of guy. Doesn't get stressed. Doesn't have a lot of emotional ups and downs. He takes care of business. As a quarterback, he's accurate and he's a great passer."
So is Trent Green. The former Kansas City Chiefs' signal caller is also on the St. Louis roster. Green, like Bulger, has played in the Pro Bowl. Green has played for five NFL clubs including the Rams, Miami Dolphins, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers. He has 27,950 career passing yards, including 987 last season with the Dolphins.
"I'm going to get the chance to learn a lot from them," Gradkowski said of Green and Bulger. "St Louis is a fresh start for me. A chance to complete and helps all that I can.
"That's my main goal. To go in there and compete," he said. "Be on the roster. Do whatever I can to become part of this team. Do whatever I'm called upon to do. I can only worry about what I can control."
Gradkowski's current concerns are physical and mental. He stays in shape by training with Mike Semplice at AmeriFit in Greentree and he says that he is keeping his arm loose and ready. With a new club, Gradkowski is learning a new offense, one that is quite different, than the strategies employed at Tampa Bay
"They tell me (Jon) Gruden's offense is complicated," Gradkowski said with a chuckle, "and I learned that.
"I like this offense. There's a lot of leeway with it. I want to learn it and make the best of my reps. I want us to be the best show on turf."
In his NFL debut, Gradkowski was the best show on turf, indeed. He completed 20 out of 31 attempts for 225 yards and two scores and no interceptions. In fact, he set the record for throwing more passes in NFL history before suffering his second interception.
"Tampa Bay was a great experience," said Gradkowski of his time in Florida. "I've been fortunate at Tampa Bay. I've been on both sides. I've experienced the good and the bad, the praise as well as the blame.
"The bad part was going 4-12. The quarterback takes the blame. And he should because he's the guy who also gets the fame when things go well.
"I'm the type who's been able to take the good with the bad. It just makes you work harder. You just hope some day your opportunity comes along."
Throughout his career, Gradkowski never doubted that he would reach the goals he set for himself.
"I look at it two different ways," he said. "I feel what should be happening to me is exactly what is happening. Of course, I'm not where I want to be yet. Everybody wants to be holding that Lombardi Trophy. You don't ever want to be complacent."