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Jersey issue spices up rivalry

His number unretired, Jay Gruden plays for 1st time against the Storm.

By FRANK PASTOR
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002


It won't be the first thing on Jay Gruden's mind as he prepares to face his former team for the first time as a player in a regular-season game.

But it will be there, feeding an already competitive fire.

Gruden gave the Storm everything he had for six seasons. Led the team to four ArenaBowl titles. Stood proudly as the team retired his number.

Then he watched with clenched teeth as it was given to another player.

Gruden's No. 7 will be on the field when Orlando hosts Tampa Bay today in the resumption of the Arena Football League's top rivalry. But it will be worn by Tampa Bay offensive specialist Calvin Schexnayder.

Four years after retiring Gruden's number in a pregame ceremony, the Storm unretired it.

"I don't think it's right, but I don't make those decisions there," said Gruden, who is making a comeback as a player with the Predators this season. "I put a lot of work into making that team successful. What I did in the past shouldn't affect what I do now."

Tampa Bay coach Tim Marcum said it didn't make sense to keep a jersey retired for a player competing for another team. The Storm unretired No. 24 after Tracey Perkins returned to play for San Jose last season.

"I like Jay," Marcum said. "I liked him in '96. I wish I could have had him in '97, but he made that decision (to retire). Jay Gruden is as good a quarterback as there is in this league."

The return of Gruden's number adds intrigue to a game already rife with meaning.

After slow starts, Orlando (3-4) and Tampa Bay (2-5) are separated by one game in the Southern Division. A Predators win would put them two games ahead of the Storm, while a Tampa Bay victory would create a tie for second place.

"From a personal standpoint, it means a lot from playing there and playing against Coach Marcum again," the 35-year-old Gruden said. "Since they unretired my jersey, there's a little bit of ill will there. But the big picture is, we're just trying to get this team going."

Gruden capped his Storm career in 1996 when he led it to a 42-38 victory against the Kurt Warner-led Iowa Barnstormers in ArenaBowl X, Tampa Bay's fourth title in six seasons. With a banged-up ankle and little financial incentive to stay, Gruden retired after the season and became an assistant with Nashville.

He was named coach at Orlando in 1998 and became a thorn in Tampa Bay's side. The Predators beat the heavily-favored Storm in ArenaBowl XII, then knocked Tampa Bay out of the playoffs the next two seasons.

Still, the desire to play remained strong. An opportunity presented itself when Orlando quarterback Craig Whelihan blew out his knee in a first-round playoff loss last season.

"Had he not blown out his knee, we would have had a different ending to last season and wouldn't have needed a quarterback," Gruden said.

Gruden resigned as coach and returned to the field. He also put off a chance to join his brother's Bucs staff.

"He was offered a job," Jon Gruden said. "He also made a commitment with the Predators to come back and be their quarterback. He's a loyal guy, intensely loyal. He was not about to retire or suddenly change his mind, given the circumstances and timing."

Jay has completed 151 of 243 passes for 1,661 yards and 34 touchdowns with 11 interceptions in seven games.

Jon, an avid AFL fan, said he has enjoyed watching his brother's comeback.

"I think he's playing better," Jon said. "The timing of the game, the speed of the game, takes any quarterback time to get used to."

Jay said he never worried about tarnishing his legacy as one of the Arena League's top quarterbacks.

"The only guys I really cared about were my teammates and my immediate family," he said. "Everybody else, I didn't really care what they thought."

Jon still thinks his brother would make a great NFL coach.

"I'm going to continue to be persistent," Jon said. "If he signs another five-year contract to keep playing, I'll be a Predators fan as long as he keeps playing."

TODAY: STORM AT ORLANDO

WHEN/WHERE: 4:30; TD Waterhouse Centre.

TV/RADIO: TNN; WDAE-AM 620.

RECORDS: Tampa Bay 2-5, Orlando 3-4.

COACHES: Tampa Bay -- Tim Marcum (138-47, 14th season); Orlando -- Fran Papasedero (first season).

SERIES: Predators lead 15-13.

TICKETS: $7.50-$40; (407) 44-PREDS.

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