For some 30 glorious seconds on the afternoon of April 24, 1989, Jay Gruden — quarterback out of the University of Louisville — was a New York Giant. Or at least he was in his mind. The voice on the other end of his telephone, strangely deep and resonant, was asking, “Would you like to be a Giant?” Alone in his apartment on the second day of the NFL draft, Gruden, not the type to throw a draft party for himself, let his mind race and blurted out the first words that came to mind: “Hell yeah!”
Only then did the exaggerated voice melt into laughter and high-pitched squeals. It wasn’t the Giants’ general manager calling. It was one of Gruden’s college teammates, playing a cruel prank, one that had scored with wicked effectiveness.
Within the belly-laughter of the middle-aged man retelling that 25-year-old story — “He got me good,” Gruden admits — are the unmistakable traces of bitterness and hurt.
“There will always be part of me that says, ‘What if?’ ” Gruden says quietly. He cocks his head as if he has more to say, then thinks better of it. “But it’s all good,” he concludes, chuckling one more time.
Gruden never did quarterback the Giants, or any other NFL team. His NFL dream died a long, slow, painful death, one that took him on a journey through pro football’s bush leagues. Only now, at age 47 — three kids and one grandchild later — has Gruden achieved the status as a coach that eluded him as a player. As the first-year coach of the Washington Redskins, he has reached the pinnacle of the only other profession, besides quarterback, he has ever pursued. On Thursday, he opens his first training camp as an NFL head coach secure in the knowledge that he made it as far as you can go in the game.
He has been handed a coaching staff full of old friends and colleagues, and a quarterback, Robert Griffin III, who presents endless opportunities. But if Gruden is to succeed in a job that has claimed the NFL careers of much more famous and accomplished men — most recently Mike Shanahan, fired after a 3-13 season in 2013 — his many lessons in humility, foisted upon him year after year in his 20s and 30s, may be the reason.
His failures as a player don’t exactly motivate him as a coach. He long ago stopped sizing up quarterbacks in terms of how much better or worse they are than he was. But all it takes is a question or two about the old days — about the opportunities that never came — to make you realize a hurt like that never completely goes away.
“I joke about it now, but at the time I was really bitter,” Gruden says. “I don’t know why [the opportunity] never happened. I guess I wasn’t good enough. I just couldn’t accept that. It just grinds at you, and it motivates you. You try your best, and you do everything you think is right. You work out. You go play in another league. You win championships in the other league, and you still get nothing. It’s like, ‘Son of a bitch!’ But oh well. There’s a reason for everything.”
It helps to think that way. Because if there is a reason for everything, his lack of an NFL playing career all makes sense now: the family life he enjoyed, the hard but valuable lessons he absorbed, the parallel track he rode to a successful coaching career.
If he had to wait 25 years to find someone to give him his shot in the NFL, Gruden can live with that.
It was August 1991, and Gruden, then 24, thought he was a pretty big deal. As a rookie quarterback in the Arena Football League, he had just led the Tampa Bay Storm to the league championship by throwing for five touchdowns and running for another in Arena Bowl V. No, it wasn’t the NFL, and it wasn’t the Super Bowl. But there were 20,000 people in the stands for the title game in Detroit, and maybe another thousand waiting for the Storm at Tampa International Airport when their plane touched down.
And surely, some NFL team was going to come calling for Gruden after that performance.
That’s where Gruden’s mind was as he entered Howard Schnellenberger’s office at the University of Louisville’s football complex a couple of days after the Arena Bowl. He was going to spend the fall as a graduate assistant for Schnellenberger, his college coach and a notoriously hard-nosed old cuss who had learned the values of hard work and discipline while serving on Bear Bryant’s Alabama staffs in the 1960s.
“We’re all really proud of you,” Schnellenberger told Gruden, who had been the first quarterback Schnellenberg recruited upon taking the Louisville job in 1985. “Now, here . . .”
He tossed Gruden his keys. “Go wash my car.”
The middle-aged Gruden is laughing again as he tells the story — but again, enough of the younger man’s hurt comes through to signal that the humiliation lingered.
“Is that awesome, or what?” Gruden says through a toothy grin. “Put me right back in my place.” He pauses, then adds, “I’ve always known where my place is.”
Schnellenberger had been one of those telling Gruden he would probably get drafted in 1989, following a senior season in which he had led the Cardinals to an 8-3 record, the program’s first winning record in 10 years, and earned berths in two national showcase all-star games.
“I was surprised he wasn’t drafted,” Schnellenberger says now. “He had the credentials. He was good enough to play in the NFL.”
What happened? Some teams were undoubtedly scared off by Gruden’s average size (6 feet, 200 pounds), and by the gruesome knee injury he suffered as a sophomore that required reconstructive surgery. (“He was wounded. Not injured — wounded,” Schnellenberger says. “They made a pretzel out of him.”) Other teams probably figured that if Gruden’s own father, Jim — a San Francisco 49ers scout at the time — wouldn’t pick him, there must be a reason. But the 49ers already had Joe Montana and Steve Young, and weren’t going to waste a pick on a quarterback.
Jim Gruden has one other theory as to why his son — the youngest of three boys — didn’t get drafted. In February 1989, Louisville’s football banquet, at which Jay would be honored as team captain and MVP, was scheduled for the same day as the quarterback workouts at the NFL scouting combine.
“He called me and said, ‘What do you think? Should I go to the combine or the banquet?’” his father recalls. “I said, ‘Go to the banquet. It’s your last one. And [NFL teams] have all seen you throw.’ But I think some of the scouts thought he didn’t throw because there was some question about his arm strength. It was all just a matter of bad timing. Wrong place, wrong time.”
A week before their 1989 opener, the Miami Dolphins cut backup quarterback Cliff Stoudt and signed Gruden to a developmental squad contract. But on Gruden’s second day there — before he even received a playbook — starting quarterback Dan Marino grabbed his elbow in pain during warmups. The Dolphins quickly re-signed the more established Stoudt, a close friend of Marino’s, and cut Gruden.
“To this day,” Gruden says, “I think [Marino] faked that injury to get his golfing buddy back.”
The only thing Gruden could do was look for a back entrance to the NFL, so he signed with the Barcelona Dragons of the World League of American Football in 1991, only to leave after three weeks when it became clear he would never play. All that was left after that was the Arena League.
“I wouldn’t want to play Arena ball for five years,” he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1991. “But it could be fun for now.”
Ultimately, he didn’t play for five years. He played for eight. He would win a second Arena Bowl title in 1993. He would retire as a player in 1997 to start coaching in the league, then unretire in 2002 at age 32 to play two more seasons. He would come to believe with a large degree of certainty that he was better than dozens of quarterbacks who came in and out of the NFL, including some who stuck around for years.
But after all that, those two days in Miami, where he made it to the doorstep but wasn’t allowed to come in, remained the closest Gruden ever got to the NFL as a quarterback.
“I have no regrets. I’m just a little upset about it,” he says. “You look back and see all these guys who’ve made it as backups in the [NFL], guys you’ve competed against in the Arena League. You’re like, ‘This guy played five years in the NFL? Really?’ You just start to wonder.
“Who knows? Maybe I wasn’t good enough. We’ll never know.”
This is what Jay Gruden did instead of playing in the NFL:
●He became an Arena League legend, eventually being named the fourth-best player in league history and earning election into its Hall of Fame.
●He launched a coaching career, figuring that it would be an easier path to the NFL than as a quarterback, and talking his way onto Schnellenberger’s Louisville staff as a graduate assistant/errand boy at the age of 24.
●He started a family with his wife, Sherry, whom he had met at Louisville when both were freshmen and married in 1990, with the first of their three boys, J.J., born later that year.
Gruden came to a crossroads of sorts in 1997. The Nashville Kats, an AFL expansion team, wanted him as their offensive coordinator, but at the time Gruden was only 30, still quarterbacking the Storm, and still holding on — if just barely — to his hope of making it to the NFL. But the Kats were offering better money to coach than he could earn playing — and unlike players’ salaries, the money was guaranteed. That was no small matter to Gruden, who by this point had three young sons.
“After six years [as an Arena League quarterback], I was capped out,” he says. “My NFL career was pretty much kaput. I said, ‘I’ve got to make a move.’ ”
He took the Nashville job. By the end of the year, the Kats had gone 10-4 and won the East Division title, and Gruden was on his way back to Florida, as the head coach of the AFL’s Orlando Predators.
In 2002, Gruden’s brother, Jon, who had been head coach of the Oakland Raiders for four years after serving as a longtime NFL assistant, was hired to lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and asked Jay to join his staff as an offensive assistant, a part-time job that allowed Jay to keep his AFL gig while still getting his first taste of the NFL. And so began a whirlwind stretch of seven years in which Gruden spent half the year apprenticing with the Buccaneers — spending games in the press box, connected to Jon by headset — and the other half of the year running the Predators as their head coach-general manager, or, in 2002 and 2003, as their quarterback, after an injury to their starter prompted Gruden to bring himself out of retirement.
He settled into a comfortable, stable existence, coaching his sons’ youth basketball teams and, at least a couple of times, turning away NFL teams that wanted him to interview for full-time coaching jobs.
“I wasn’t going to be rich and famous, obviously. But we were making good money,” Gruden says. “Sherry was doing well in [her job in] real estate. The kids were in a good private school. I was able to go to all their events and games. I had some talks [with NFL teams], yes. But my biggest fear was, I’d go take a quarterbacks coach job in Green Bay or something, and one year later you have a bad year and everyone gets fired. Now what do you do? We felt secure in Florida. That doesn’t happen everywhere in this business.”
That first season in Tampa, the Bucs won the Super Bowl, and 36 hours after the last piece of confetti fell at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, Gruden was back at the Orlando Arena, getting ready for another Predators season.
Somewhere in the Grudens’ new home in Aldie, Va., locked inside a safe, is a Super Bowl ring that Jay Gruden has never worn because he feels he didn’t do enough to earn the right to wear it.
The Grudens moved into their new home in June, after their youngest son, Jack, finished his sophomore year of high school in Ohio, where Gruden had spent the previous three seasons as the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive coordinator.
One night soon after their move-in, the Grudens needed to borrow some ice. So they called the neighbor across the street, a nice young man with a nice young wife. The Grudens were all out on the porch, immersed in a game of Scattergories, when Jack spotted someone creeping through the house. All of a sudden, the young neighbor, Robert Griffin III, came bursting out into the porch, holding a bag of ice, and laughing uncontrollably at the stunned looks at the Grudens’ faces.
“He goes, ‘Game night at the Grudens!’ ” Sherry Gruden says. “And he sat down and played with us for awhile.”
“No,” Jay Gruden corrects her. “He won the first game, then got up and left.”
They make quite a pair, these two quarterbacks — Gruden and the anti-Gruden. Griffin, entering his third season as the Redskins’ signal-caller, was given a $21.1 million contract and a handful of lucrative, national endorsement deals before he had taken his first NFL snap. He is 24 years old — the same age Gruden was when he slouched off to play in the Arena League, the same age he was when Schnellenberger told him to go wash his car.
Twenty-five years ago, Gruden might have resented a guy like Griffin, who had so much handed to him so young. But certainly not now. For the next six months — and the hope at team headquarters in Ashburn is for years to come — they must rely on each other in their shared mission: restoring the Redskins to relevance and championship contention. And besides, Gruden can’t help but like a kid who probably has more sheer talent in his pinky finger than Gruden himself had in his entire body, but who works like a grinder — like a Gruden.
“All spring, he’s bugging me, trying to get plays, trying to get the playbook,” Gruden says. “I said, ‘Naw, you can’t. It’s illegal, by the [collective bargaining agreement] rules.’ But he’s in here working out like a madman. He has impressed me.”
Gruden has won everywhere he has coached, whether his role was small or large — a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay, four Arena Bowl titles with Orlando, two title game appearances in two years with the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League, three playoff appearances in three seasons with the Bengals — and he has done so with all manner of quarterbacks: classic drop-back passers, option specialists and everything in between. But he has never coached a quarterback like Griffin.
“After watching all the games from ’12 and ’13, I’m really excited to work with him,” Gruden says. “Six-foot-two, with a 4.3 [time in the 40-yard dash]? Yeah, I’ll take that. . . . My biggest fear is [that] I’m not going to find anything he can’t do. There’s going to be so many things he can do, we’re going to have too many plays.”
It was purely by accident that they wound up living across the street from each other, but it works for the Grudens and the Griffins. At home, they can bond over games of Scattergories and driveway basketball, and over breakfasts of Griffin’s family-recipe beignets. And at work, they can bond in film sessions and game-plan meetings.
Come Sundays in the fall, Gruden will project onto his quarterback every dream he had that went unfulfilled, every opportunity that never came for himself. Having finally reached the top rung of professional football, Gruden will need Griffin’s help to stay there.
“I try to see everything through a quarterback’s eyes because I know how hard it was,” Gruden says. “I wasn’t quite good enough.”
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