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Published: Sunday, 2/26/2006

You have to hand it to UT's Gradkowski

INDIANAPOLIS - Bruce Gradkowski has a three-inch steel plate and six screws in his right hand.

And that's the hand he uses to throw the football, the one that's worked so well for him.

Gradkowski shattered his hand in the 2004 Mid-American Conference championship game, striking the helmet of a Miami defender on his follow-through.

The former University of Toledo quarterback still sports a lengthy scar from the surgery, and the plate keeps the bones in his hand in place.

But the pain from more than 14 months ago is long gone.

Bruce Gradkowski was able to juggle the demands placed on him as the quarterback at the University of Toledo. Bruce Gradkowski was able to juggle the demands placed on him as the quarterback at the University of Toledo.
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The only time Gradkowski has problems now is when he passes through a metal detector at the airport.

"I like to joke that it's my bionic hand," he said. "It's the one I've done a lot of damage with."

More than five years and three stellar seasons after securing one of the last scholarships available to play for the Rockets, Gradkowski is getting a chance to put his marketing degree to good use.

Once more, he finds himself having to answer questions about his ability and arm strength for the scouts, coaches and general managers from the 32 teams represented at the NFL scouting combine.

"I love the underdog role," Gradkowski said. "That's what drives me.

"The critics can bash me, but I believe in myself, and that makes me go harder."

Gradkowski was named co-MVP of the MAC this season and was the league's first-team all-conference quarterback.

A three-year starter, he owns 19 school records.

Unlike high-profile quarterbacks such as Vince Young and Matt Leinart, Gradkowski has plenty to prove.

QB 06 - that's his given jersey number here - is projected as a mid-to-late-round pick in April's NFL draft.

Gradkowski could raise his stock with a strong showing today.

He and the other 24 quarterback invitees will work out for the NFL folks at the RCA Dome.

Yesterday, they met with the NFL Players Association, underwent psychological evaluations and wrapped up their formal interviews with teams.

In the last 13 years, 150 quarterbacks have been invited to the combine and 87 have been drafted.

"There are guys who may have bigger numbers, and guys who may be bigger and faster, but Bruce has all of that," said Ralph Cindrich, his Pittsburgh-based agent. "He may be one of the safest picks in the draft this year."

The 6-foot-1 Gradkowski was a mere 175 pounds where he arrived at Toledo five years ago.

He bulked up - to 217 pounds - and so did his numbers.

He holds school marks for career passing yards (9,225), touchdown passes (85) and completion percentage (68.4 percent).

Gradkowski finished his college career in grand fashion, tossing five touchdowns en route to winning MVP honors in UT's 45-13 victory over Texas-El Paso in the GMAC Bowl.

Two years ago, he was the first quarterback in NCAA history to complete 70 percent or more in back-to-back seasons.

"He's got a lot of intangibles going for him," said New York Jets assistant coach Mike Devlin, who got an up-close look at Gradkowski the last two seasons as UT's offensive line coach. "He's the type of guy I would have wanted to be in the huddle with."

The Rockets were the only Division I school to offer Gradkowski a scholarship coming out of Pittsburgh's Seton-La Salle High School.

That, despite the fact that he shattered the single-season records for passing yards (2,978) and touchdowns (30) as a senior in an 87-year old league that produced legends such as Johnny Lujack, George Blanda, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Dan Marino and Terry Hanratty.

Former UT offensive coordinator Rob Spence watched Gradkowski play high school basketball, and was impressed by his mobility and quickness.

Spence and Rockets coach Tom Amstutz offered Gradkowski, a first-team all-state performer, a scholarship just two weeks before national signing day.

It was one of the best last-minute decisions Amstutz has ever made.

"Bruce is a great competitor and a great leader," he said. "I think he'll have a chance to hook on with an NFL team and do something."

Gradkowski's short, snappy passes were precise at UT. The Rockets didn't throw down the field much, bringing into question his arm strength.

However, no one can question his enthusiasm.

"I'm excited," he said. "It's another opportunity to prove myself and show off my skills among the best players in the country. I met Vince Young, and I was like, 'Wow.' It's neat to meet all the guys that I had previously only seen on TV. It makes me feel like one of them."

Gradkowski proved quickly this season that his hand was fully healed.

He completed 62.3 percent of his passes for 2,469 yards and 29 touchdowns.

Since graduating in December, Gradkowski has focused his energy solely on the combine.

He spent some time in Atlanta working out with former NFL quarterback Zeke Bratkowski before returning to Pittsburgh, where he underwent an intense six-week program.

Showtime has arrived.

Gradkowski is ready to showcase his physical skills to the scouts this morning.

"In my mind, I feel like I can be a first-day guy," he said. "I don't know if that's me just being myself, or me just dreaming."

Sixty two days from now, Gradkowski will know for sure when the NFL draft kicks off in New York.



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