Quarterback Brian Griese walked slowly toward a podium in the press room last Wednesday, looking very much like a young man who just had survived a three-hour demolition derby. The back of his right hand was one large scabby scrape, and when someone asked him how he felt two days after starting his first professional football game, he offered a wan smile and a very honest answer. "I'm pretty sore all over," he said. "I'm kind of young, so I think I'll get my body back. But I took a lot of hits. If I hadn't been sore, something would have been wrong."
Griese, 24, did plenty right in his debut with the Denver Broncos, 13 days after Coach Mike Shanahan stunned the town and team by announcing he had decided to bench Bubby Brister and instead start the younger, less experienced Griese in the season opener against the Miami Dolphins. The move seems to signal the former Michigan star will be the heir apparent to retired John Elway.
Griese passed for three touchdowns and 270 yards against Miami, which handed the two-time defending Super Bowl champions a stunning 38-21 thrashing, blitzing Griese from every corner of the field. And this past weekend, there was more of the same as Kansas City took a 26-10 victory and sent the Broncos to 0-2, their worst start under Shanahan.
The day after the Miami game, Brian's father, Bob, a Hall of Fame quarterback for the Dolphins from 1967 to 1980, took his son to dinner and tried to soothe his aches and pains with some simple advice.
"He told me that was as hard as it gets," Brian Griese said. "He said that was probably the toughest defense I'll ever face."
Brian and his father have faced difficult times before. When Brian was 7 years old, his mother, Judith, had breast cancer diagnosed; she died a month before his 12th birthday. As a teenager growing up in Coral Gables, Fla., where his father was still a hero, Brian was a decent enough high school quarterback, as well as an outstanding student. And always came the comparisons.
"In high school, people expected a lot more of me because of who my father was," Brian said. "Then I became a human interest story."
In the years after his mother's death, Brian and his father grew even closer. His older brothers, Scott and Steve, were in college, and Bob worked as the lead analyst for ABC's college football package, but there were many nights when Brian chose to stay home with his father rather than going out with his friends.
"I remember Friday nights making plans to go out, then deciding at the last minute to stay home with dad," he said. "I really felt for him."
Bob Griese since has remarried, but he and Brian still are in constant communication about each other's lives, and often about football. Many old Dolphins from the glory days of the early '70s have said they find it almost uncanny how much Brian reminds them of his father, both in mannerisms and style of play.
"It's his personality; he's confident, borderline-cocky, aloof and bright as hell," said Jim Mandich, who played tight end on Bob Griese's offense. "He's all of the things his dad was, on and off the field. He plays the game from the shoulders up and really seems to know how to use the chess pieces. Bob may have looked a little frail, but there was no quit in the guy. Then you look at the beating Brian took [against Miami] and that was just as gutsy. Seeing him out there, it's almost spooky."
Brian, who is said to have a photographic memory, clearly has inherited many of his father's traits. Shanahan, his coach, said he has no plans to bench his quarterback of the future against Tampa Bay Sunday or any time soon.
"He handles himself more like a five-, six- or seven-year veteran," Shanahan said after the Miami game. "He has a great knowledge of the game, he's got great composure, and he's extremely bright. We gave him a very tough game plan [against Miami], and he played extremely well. It doesn't get much tougher than that."
Griese was a National Honor Society student in high school and had a 3.6 grade-point average at Michigan, where he created his own major in environmental policy. After his junior year, when he finally got a chance to start late in the season, Griese thought seriously about not returning the next season.
Fluent in Spanish, he had been accepted at George Washington University for a two-year masters program in international affairs. He had applied while still a second-teamer, a position he did not want to be in for his final year.
"He said we should all take a trip down to South America," Mark Bracci, a high school friend of Griese's, told the Denver Post. "We would go to all of these little out of the way places to see how the people really lived. I think he wanted to learn how he could help those people. I think he wanted to work with governments to teach them how to help their own people. He was very serious about that."
Instead, Griese eventually decided he still had some things to prove to himself, and perhaps many others. After one of his brothers told him he would be crazy to leave Michigan, he went back to Ann Arbor and led the Wolverines to the school's first national title in almost 50 years.
He was the most valuable player of the Rose Bowl, rallying Michigan to a 21-16 victory over a Washington State team quarterbacked by Ryan Leaf. That April, the San Diego Chargers took Leaf with the second overall choice in the NFL draft. Griese stayed on the board until the third round, when the Broncos finally decided he had too much potential--and all the proper genes and training--to pass up.
Griese came to camp as a rookie, studied Elway last season and said he was just as surprised as anyone when Shanahan decided to make a switch just 13 days before the start of the regular season.
Brister's demotion did not sit well with many Broncos, and Brister stayed out of camp several days pondering his various options. A year ago, when Elway was nursing various wounds early in the regular season, he came to the Broncos' rescue and was 4-0 as a starter. Brister since has reconciled himself to the demotion.
"I'll continue to study and prepare," Brister said. "I won't get as many reps as I did, but the main thing is to help Brian out. I'm 37, and I know he's the future. I'm not stupid. [Shanahan] is the boss, so I have to go with his decision and keep on going."
There has been much speculation in Denver that Brister almost certainly would have been traded after his demotion. But third quarterback Chris Miller, a veteran signed in the offseason despite a long history of concussions, also suffered tendinitis in his right elbow all during the preseason. Shanahan was not willing to risk going into the season with a sore-armed quarterback backing up a 24-year-old who had never started before.
The Broncos, meanwhile, have no qualms at all about Griese's ability to lead them back to the Super Bowl, even if the fans and the media already have come down hard on the team following two straight losses.
"The guy is the real deal," former Redskins offensive lineman Mark Schlereth said. "He hangs in there, he's smart, and he competes. He's got the whole package. He's going to be a great one, there's no question about that, and I think we're going to surprise a lot of people."
CAPTION: Brian Griese looks to pass vs. Dolphins, who beat second-year quarterback, two-time defending Super Bowl champion Broncos in season opener Sept. 13.