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By this time each spring, Bruce Gradkowski would normally have scabs on both of his elbows, and he would be nursing sore ribs, a twisted ankle and a bloody knuckle or two. He would proudly look every bit the part of gritty, blue-collar football player.
But this year, as the University of Toledo football team has gone through spring drills, its junior quarterback from Pittsburgh has been insulated from all of that, much to his chagrin.
As he continues to recover from a second surgery on his throwing hand, which was originally injured in the Mid-American Conference championship game against Miami on Dec. 2, Gradkowski has had to watch a lot more than he likes to.
"It is definitely tough to not be able to go out there and play full-time like the rest of the guys," Gradkowski said, "but I realized that this was the way it needed to be so I could get healthy and be ready for summer workouts and next season. The way I am, though, I want to go against our defense and be out there competing on every snap."
Gradkowski, who led the Rockets to the MAC championship and a 9-4 record last season, broke a bone on the top of his hand when he struck the helmet of a Miami player while completing his throwing motion. He left the game to have his hand X-rayed, then returned to throw three second-half touchdown passes in the come-from-behind win. He played in the Motor City Bowl about a month later, but struggled to grip the ball in a loss to Connecticut.
"It would be nice to have him out there, but we all know what kind of quarterback Bruce is and what kind of leader he is," UT linebacker Anthony Jordan said. "It's best to let his hand get fully healed so he can have a great senior season in the fall. It's not like he has to be out here earning a spot or proving himself."
Gradkowski has been kept out of contact work, and he has used a smaller, softer football since gripping and throwing a regulation-sized ball could place too much stress on the healing bone. He also shakes hands with his left hand, and admits to doing a lot of pacing and fidgeting while backups Marques Council and Clint Cochran take most of the snaps.
"I have to tell myself, I'm not going to rush things this time and not try to get back ahead of schedule," Gradkowski said. "I can wait until I am 100 percent and ready to go. I'll just continue to work with that Nerf football until I get the strength back and the bones are totally healed."
That means for Saturday's Blue and Gold Spring Game, Gradkowski will be a spectator part of the time, and in the radio booth the rest of the time. He'll watch the first half of the game at the Glass Bowl from the sidelines, then join UT broadcaster Mark Beier in the press box for the second half.
"The coaches are with me on this," Gradkowski said about the cautious approach he's used in spring ball. "They told me to come back when I feel like I'm ready, and there's nothing to be gained by rushing it now. I don't want to do anything that could jeopardize my senior year. For now, I can learn some things from watching the other guys run the offense, and just keep working on getting healthy."
GARAGE SALE: Before and during Saturday night's spring football game at the Glass Bowl, the UT athletic department will hold a garage sale of sorts just outside the Larimer Building. The sale features Rocket football jerseys, Motor City Bowl jerseys, mini football helmets and other used UT sports items. The sale starts at 5:30, an hour before the game kicks off, and lasts until 7:30. All proceeds from the sale benefit the UT athletic department.
There is no admission charge for the spring game.
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