When Bruce Gradkowski drove from Toledo to Pittsburgh recently to begin voluntary off-season workouts with the Steelers, was he driving home or leaving home?
“That’s a good question,” he said.
Pittsburgh will always be Gradkowski’s hometown. He was born and raised there and starred at Seton La Salle High School. And preparing for a ninth season as an NFL quarterback, his second with the Steelers, is like being back in high school — football during the day followed by a family dinner at grandma’s house.
But Toledo may now be home. He starred here for the University of Toledo. He, wife Miranda, and baby Lily make their off-season residence in the Monclova area. And he has a stake in two local restaurants, one of which bears his name.
If you’ve dined at Gradkowski’s near the corner of Secor and Dorr, on the southwest corner of the UT campus, you know it is on the eclectic side.
Where else in town can you get a pork barbecue appetizer with smoked bacon and coleslaw that is stuffed between the top and bottom of a maple glazed doughnut? Or a beef burger piled high with sautéed pancetta, red onions, and peanut butter? Or lamb marinated in espresso?
The quarterback is also an investor in Social Gastropub across from Levis Commons on Dixie Highway in Perrysburg. It’s the place for fried deviled eggs, pig cheek braised in ginger beer, and build-your-own macaroni and cheese. Among the ingredient options are truffle oil and oxtail.
“My partner, Mike Graber, and our chefs are mostly responsible for the philosophy of expanding the menu and trying new things,” Gradkowski said. “I was one of those guys who basically got what he always gets when he goes out to eat. So I had to learn to trust Mike when he tells me what to try. A burger with peanut butter; you kidding? But I tried it and it’s pretty darned good.”
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Bruce contents himself to learn the business side of things and is considering expansion into other markets, especially Pittsburgh, another place where everybody knows the name.
“I’m exploring the possibilities,” Gradkowski said. “I think it’s an impressive, top-notch place and I’d love to build the same business in Pittsburgh. A lot of the guys, even coach [Mike] Tomlin are always asking how the restaurant is doing. Maybe I should let them find out.
“Toledo was the perfect place to start, though. It’s more than football. I got a great education there and I’m still close to a lot of my professors, so this was a way to give back a little.”
In three years (2003-05) as UT’s starting quarterback, Gradkowski passed for 9,197 yards and 85 touchdowns before going in the sixth round of the 2006 NFL draft to Tampa Bay. He started 11 of 13 games his rookie season and was in and out of the starting lineup with Oakland in 2009-10. Torn ligaments in both knees and a right shoulder separation interrupted and eventually ended his stay with the Raiders.
When Gradkowski had his greatest opportunities it was complicated by being with not-too-good teams.
“There’s a process, a learning curve, and I bounced around a little,” he said. “When I got my shot in Oakland, it was when I really began to understand the league and what it took to win. I had fun and I was playing pretty well and coming into my own. I threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns and we beat Pittsburgh one week. The next week against the Redskins I tore both MCLs in the same game. It was pretty tough from there.”
He followed with two seasons as backup and mentor to young Andy Dalton in Cincinnati and, a year ago, signed a three-season deal with the Steelers to back up Ben Roethlisberger.
Gradkowski, always such a competitor, knows he is not expected to compete for a starting role.
“The Steelers have a franchise quarterback and everybody knows it,” he said. “You look how Ben competes, the poise he plays with, and what he’s already accomplished on the biggest stages; it’s just awesome to be a part of that.
“In Tampa and Oakland, if I wasn’t starting I had to be ready in the event the starter didn’t perform well. That’s not the thing here. But I still have to prepare and be ready. I’m more a team player than anything else and I always have been.
“In Oakland I always wanted JaMarcus [Russell] to do well. I wanted Andy to do well in Cincinnati. And it’s the same thing with Ben. I’ve been on both sides of it, getting booed as the starter in Tampa and having people cheer me as the backup in Oakland. It’s hard to win NFL games. I would never sit beside someone and not be their biggest fan.
“I’ll always treasure the experiences and the relationships, the different coaches and teammates, but I’ll tell you, I couldn’t be happier than where I am.”
He’s home playing football. But he’s always thinking about his other home and that other f-word — food.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.