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Path to glory is long, rough for QB Gannon

After years of struggle, Rich Gannon has blossomed into a consummate performer. Raider wishes it could have happened earlier.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- You look at Rich Gannon's history -- the lack of overwhelming physical skills, the small-college background, the struggles in Minnesota and Washington, the year away from football when the best he could do was an open tryout for a Canadian league team, the repeated benchings in Kansas City -- and you wonder how he got to the Super Bowl.

Then you look at how it turned out -- the three straight playoff appearances with the Raiders, the four consecutive Pro Bowl selections, the NFL record 418 completions this season, the league MVP award, the lavish praise from friends and foes -- and you wonder how it took so long.

"I sure would have liked to have seen it happen 10 years ago, but that's not the way it worked out," Gannon said. "Sometimes you have to wait a long time for good things to happen to you. And sometimes you appreciate them more."

As much as this Super Bowl is about Jon Gruden facing his old Raiders and about receiver Tim Brown finally getting to the Super Bowl in his 15th season, Gannon's journey is nearly as compelling.

"I'm surprised this is his first Super Bowl because of how hard he works and how he's a perfectionist on and off the field," tackle Barry Sims said. "I'm surprised he wasn't able to lead Kansas City here back in the day, or Minnesota or whoever. I'm surprised with him at the helm it's taken us four years to get there."

It was just over eight years ago when Gannon's career seemed stalled, if not over. He was 28, and had already washed out with two teams. When he was having trouble arousing interest from any others, he took the extreme step of getting a real job.

"It didn't look good at that point," Gannon said Wednesday.

He got on the phone himself, got on with Kansas City as a backup in 1995, and got the chance to start as many as 10 games in the 1998 season, but never got the chance to be the starter.

That's when he got the break of a lifetime, though he had to break a promise to take advantage of it.

Gruden, the second-year coach of the Raiders, was looking for a quarterback to lead the short-passing game offense he was installing, and decided Gannon was the man.

Then Gruden had to convince Gannon, who'd told his wife, Shelley, that he had "complete disdain" for the Oakland organization and would never play for the Raiders. But Gruden sold him, first over a dinner of Mexican food and margaritas, then going back to the Raiders complex and splitting a six pack of beer while watching game tapes.

Four years later, Gannon is at the controls of the league's most prolific offense and has taken the Raiders to the verge of a championship. And Gruden is on the other sideline, making sure everyone knows how good Gannon is.

"Gannon is a lot like a robot," Gruden said. "He's like the Terminator. He has got a lot of different ways to destruct a defense -- with his legs, with his arms, with his mind."

Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin met Gannon when they were together for two rough years in Minnesota. How impressed is he with Gannon's development?

"He's a special guy," Kiffin said. "He's just a great competitor. He's so smart. He's like a coach on the field. He's a gamer. I can't tell you how much respect I have for him. He's awesome."

Gannon, 37, is known for his precision passing, a knack for successful audibles and an ability to make plays in even the most dire situations. But it may be his extraordinary preparation that sets him apart.

He spends so much time watching film of opponents that the Raiders gave him his own key to the training complex. He works so hard on studying the game plan that he'll usually have Shelley quiz him on formations when they are in bed.

"I really believe Rich Gannon is one of those individuals who continues to get better because of his intelligence," coach Bill Callahan said. "He's smart enough to know how to improve on a daily basis, his ability to push himself mentally in the classroom and in his preparation, as he prepares for an opponent, is something that is special."

The results have been impressive, though Gannon has developed a reputation for being a bit churlish toward those who don't share his dedication.

The Raiders still talk about the day he was so annoyed at teammates goofing off playing pool in the players lounge while he was watching game film that he took the pool balls and put them in his locker. A few days later, he gathered the team for a damning speech, telling players in some rather specific terms they had better take the game more seriously. Similarly, he has whined about how this week's Super Bowl activities have disrupted his game-week preparation.

In a way, you might think it odd that someone so grateful for an opportunity would complain about such little things. Actually, it makes perfect sense. As arduous of a journey that he had, he isn't going to let anyone, or anything, cheat him.

"I try," he said, "to take advantage of opportunities."

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