PITTSBURGH - When the Steelers selected quarterback Omar Jacobs of Bowling Green State University in the fifth round of the NFL draft in April, many Steelers fans were puzzled by the selection. But for dozens of people from the Gradkowski clan who were in the family's residence in Dormont, Pa., the news was even harder to comprehend.
Bruce Gradkowski, who played quarterback at Seton-La Salle High School and the University of Toledo, had yearned to play for the Steelers, the team he grew up rooting for.
The sting of being passed over by the hometown team was one thing. But being passed over for a quarterback he had twice beaten was another, especially after Gradkowski's agent, Ralph Cindrich, informed him that the Steelers might be taking him in the fifth round.
"It was hard to believe, actually," said Gradkowski, who eventually was taken in the sixth round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "Those two days of the draft were hard. And then that happened on top of everything else."
When Tampa Bay plays the Steelers Sunday, Gradkowski will be the starting quarterback for the Buccaneers and Jacobs won't be anywhere near Heinz Field. He was cut by the Steelers in training camp.
"It's kind of crazy how it worked out," said Ralph DelSardo, Gradkowski's cousin and former teammate at Seton-LaSalle. "For Bruce to be starting this game, he'll get the chance to show the Steelers that they screwed up."
That's the emotional view the family holds. The rational view, one that has evolved with time, is that being snubbed by the Steelers was the best thing that could have happened to Gradkowski.
After all, had the Steelers selected Gradkowski he likely would be holding a clipboard as the third-string quarterback behind Ben Roethlisberger and backup Charlie Batch.
As it is, Gradkowski will be making his ninth start in the NFL on Sunday - more than any other rookie quarterback this season - after taking over for Chris Simms, who had surgery to remove his spleen after playing against Carolina in the third week of the season.
Gradkowski is over the Steelers passing on him.
"That's in the past," he said. "It's kind of like college recruiting. They were going to take who they thought was best for them. I can't be mad because I'm in a great situation here in Tampa."
Gradkowski is getting the opportunity not many rookie quarterbacks get in the NFL. He is learning on the job.
"He's a good quarterback," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "He's a young guy going through a lot. You watch him play and you see a lot of good things. Other times, you see some of the inexperience."
With Gradkowski under center, the Buccaneers are 3-5. In little more than two months he has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows the NFL has to offer. He beat Carson Palmer and the Cincinnati Bengals 14-13 in his second start after engineering a fourth-quarter touchdown drive.
A week later, he got the Buccaneers in position for a winning 62-yard field goal from Matt Bryant that beat the Eagles 23-21 on the final play of the game.
Since then, the Buccaneers have dropped four of their past five and are coming off a 38-10 drubbing at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day. For the first time in his career, he is hearing criticism from fans and media. Making things more difficult was the news Monday that Buccaneers management gave a two-year contract extension to Simms, a sign that the team views Simms as its long-term quarterback.
"It's tough," Gradkowski said. "This is the first time I've ever been through anything like this. In college, I never lost more than two in a row. It's definitely something that's hard to deal with. But I go back to something that I learned a long time ago: tough times don't last, tough people do."
Through it all, the Gradkowski family is trying to enjoy this special time as much as possible. Bruce Gradkowski Sr. was in attendance for every one of his son's games except for the Dallas defeat. His mother, Debbie, has been to all of the Buccaneers' home games.
Sunday, hundreds of friends and family members will descend on Heinz Field to watch "Brucey" face his hometown team. Debbie Gradkowski is cooking an Italian feast Saturday night. She is hoping Bruce and a few of his teammates show up. If not, the stuffed shells and grilled chicken breast will be served at the tailgate party the family will attend Sunday morning and early afternoon before the 4:15 kickoff. Bruce Sr. has printed special T-shirts for family members to wear.
Gradkowski talks with his parents every day. If he doesn't call home, his mom calls to check in on him. It is through those conversations that he realizes how special a time this is for him and his family. During the daily grind of practice, meetings and other football obligations, Gradkowski has little time to think about his life.
"I'm so focused on what I have to do that I don't see it sometimes," he said. "Then I'll talk to my dad and I'll sit back and think how awesome this is for them. They'll ask me stuff like, 'Did you talk to Drew Brees after the game? Did you talk to Randle El?' Little stuff like that they think is cool. I try to take the time to understand how interested they are."
There have even been a few moments Gradkowski has come to cherish. One of them was talking to Donovan McNabb after the Buccaneers beat the Eagles. The other was last week when he got to spend some time with Drew Bledsoe of the Cowboys.
When Bledsoe told him after the game that he was "going to be a good one" it had some impact. When Gradkowski was growing up, he had a New England No. 11 Bledsoe jersey.
Gradkowski was looking forward to another moment like that Sunday. He was hoping to play against Troy Polamalu and talk with him afterward.
That won't happen, though. Polamalu is out of the game with a knee injury.
"It stinks that he won't be out there," Gradkowski said. "I love watching him play. As a competitor, you want to face the best. On the other hand, he's one guy we won't have to worry about."
In a nutshell, that is Gradkowski's season summed up in one paragraph: A rookie in the NFL caught up trying to win games, all the while trying to enjoy the moment.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ray Fittipaldo is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
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