A decade ago, Bruce Gradkowski was the toast of the Glass City.
Today, he's back home, playing the game he loves in the Steel City.
Once a beloved collegiate quarterback at the University of Toledo, Steelers backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski will enter his second season behind Ben Roethlisberger when the team begins offseason conditioning.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1983, Gradkowski grew up a Steelers fan. He starred at Seton-La Salle Catholic High School of the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, the same league that produced Pitt legends Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, and Bill Fralic. Joe Montana, Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas also were products of the WPIAL.
Despite breaking Marino's season prep record for passing yards and touchdown passes his senior season- he threw for an area record 30 touchdown passes- Gradkowski received little interest from the local Pittsburgh colleges. But Toledo, a Mid American Conference school in the neighboring state of Ohio, was interested in the 6'1, 220 pound signal caller.
Gradkowski redshirted then played exclusively on special teams during his first two seasons at Toledo. After finally got his chance to start in 2003, Gradkowski and the Rockets offense took flight. He completed over 71 percent of his passes in '03, throwing for 29 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.
The MAC had a run of producing several NFL talents during the 2000s. Ironically, the conference's three best passers during that time became Steelers. In 2003, Roethlisbergr took the torch from Marshall's Byron Leftwich as the MAC's elite passer. Big Ben led Miami of Ohio to a 13-1 record that included a win over Urban Meyer and Bowling Green in the MAC title game. In 2004, Gradkowski took the reigns from Big Ben and took off.
Gradkowski's favorite target at UT was current Saint and Super Bowl XLIV champion Lance Moore. In their first year together, Moore tore up the Rockets record books. He set the school record for receptions with 103, receiving yards (1,194) and touchdown receptions with nine.
Fittingly, Gradkowski and Moore's coming out party came at home against No. 9 Pittsburgh on September 20th. Gradkowski gave the Glass Bowl capacity crowd something to cheer about. He threw for a staggering 461 yards on 49 completions, and three touchdowns. Moore was unstoppable, recording 15 catches that included the game-winner in the corner of the end zone in the final seconds of UT's 35-31 win.
The duo of Gradkowski and Moore teamed up again in 2004, leading the Rockets to the 2004 MAC Championship. Gradkowski again completed over 70 percent of his passes while throwing for 27 touchdowns. His finest moment in '04 came during a dramatic 49-41 win over rival Bowling Green in the regular season finale. After trailing 27-7 at halftime, Gradkowski led a comeback Big Ben would be proud of. Gradkowski engineered four unanswered touchdowns in the third quarter and added two more in the second half.
A freshman at Toledo at the time, I was among the "Rocket Fanatics" to rush the field at the games conclusion, and I was there to see UT take home the conference title with a win over Miami in the MAC Championship Game in Detroit on December 2.
Gradkowski was larger than life at campus; a life-sized poster of No.7 throwing a touchdown pass was proudly on display at the local Papa Johns while he was still playing. By the time he led the Rockets to the MAC West championship in '05, he was regarded as one of the best football players in the school's history.
One of the qualities you could instantly see was Gradkowski's peerless leadership and ability to keep him and his teammates calm regardless of the situation. It's a quality that Montana and Unitas also possessed; you could say a quarterback being cool under pressure is a "Pittsburgh thing".
The feeling you had watching Gradkowski back then is similar to the one Steelers fans have watching Roethlisberger. You always felt confident that Gradkowski would find a way to make the play the team needed to make the first down, or the touchdown, to win the game.
His style was similar to Roethlisberger as well. Gradkowski could make plays with his arms while also utilizing his legs to maneuver inside and outside the pocket. You sometimes had the feeling you were watching a superior athlete run circles around lesser competition.
Gradkowski's NFL career has taken him to five cities in his nine seasons. He won three games as a starter for the Buccaneers his rookie year before suiting up for three different teams over the next three seasons. His finest performance as an NFL starter came in 2009 against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Flinging the ball through the Heinz Field air with controlled precision, Gradkowski threw three fourth quarter touchdowns in Oakland's 27-24 win.
After beating his childhood team, Gradkowski was able to join them in 2013. He has not only accepted but has embraced his position backing up Roethlisberger. Only a year apart in age, the two have been reported as being good friends. During training camp in 2013, Gradkowski told CBS news: "Ben has been awesome, and to be out here competing with him and watching him compete every day (is) pretty cool. And just the respect I've had for him through the years and just his competitiveness and how he wins and wins championships, and I'm excited to be a part of that."
While Steelers fans rightfully don't ever want to see Big Ben leave the field, they should be rest assured that they are in good hands if it ever happens. Gradkowski is a proven winner, a product of the City of Champions in pursuit of helping deliver another championship to Pittsburgh.
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