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Young Gruden knows pressure

After a Super Bowl season with brother Jon and the Bucs, Predators QB Jay Gruden is prepared for anything.

By FRANK PASTOR

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 2003


Imagine being inside a tea kettle as the water begins to boil. Under the hood of a Ferrari when the pedal hits the floor. Near a launching pad at liftoff.

That's where Jay Gruden was for the Super Bowl.

In his brother's headset.

As a first-year offensive assistant, Gruden communicated with his brother from the coaches box as Jon led the Bucs to victory in Super Bowl XXXVII at San Diego.

And there was nothing friendly about it.

"Jon is a very intense guy," Gruden said. "He's really into the game, and he expects a lot of the coaches on the headset. He just wants as much information as we can throw at him. If I don't get an answer out, it's tough."

Gruden, an Arena Football League Hall of Fame quarterback and former coach, joined the Bucs during the summer after the Orlando Predators were eliminated from the playoffs.

At first, he said his job was to be "a fly on the wall." Later, he watched film of upcoming opponents, breaking down defensive tendencies. On game days, he relayed information to his brother, sometimes watching replays and advising Jon on whether to challenge calls.

"My whole job was to get him what he wanted, get it in a hurry and let him do his thing," Gruden said.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime for Gruden, who at 35 is 31/2 years younger than his brother. He never expected it to produce enough thrills to last a lifetime.

Gruden left Louisville in 1989 as the school's career passing leader. He won four ArenaBowls as a player with the Tampa Bay Storm and two as coach of the Predators.

But nothing compared to winning the Super Bowl. Gruden said the experience is something he -- and his brother -- will never forget.

"It's the Super Bowl," Gruden said. "Only 37 teams have ever won the Super Bowl, and (Jon's) is one of them. This is something he'll remember forever, and something they'll never take away from him."

Gruden downplayed his role in the Bucs' run, despite his 16-hour work days. He stayed in the background and deflected praise toward his brother.

"He was more happy for his brother's achievements than he was happy to get a Super Bowl ring," said Fran Papasedero, Gruden's coach with the Predators. "I think he felt like he was not a big part of the Bucs winning the Super Bowl, and I feel like at some point he knows down the road he will be a big part of somebody probably being involved in the Super Bowl."

When television cameramen asked Jon Gruden and Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson where they were going after the Super Bowl, they said, "Disney World." Asked the same question on the field, Jay responded, "Orlando. We've got a game coming up against Chicago."

Less than 48 hours after the Bucs beat the Raiders, Gruden was back with the Predators, preparing for his eighth season as a player.

Gruden again was a big fish in a small pond. But it was his pond.

"For him, coming back and being in Arena football is exciting because he knows if we have success, it's largely in part due to him," Papasedero said.

After spending months with his brother, who gets up at 3:17 each morning, returning to Orlando was like a vacation for Gruden.

"This was more of a break for me," he said. "I'm able to get more sleep and spend more time with the family."

The Bucs' Super Bowl run kept Gruden out of training camp, but it didn't interfere with his preparation. He threw passes to Keyshawn Johnson and Joe Jurevicius in practice, getting in more throws than before any other season, Papasedero said.

"It helped," Gruden said. "You've got to throw the ball on the money to those guys."

Gruden's NFL experience also helped the Predators coaches. Papasedero said Gruden returned with ideas for how the staff could become better organized.

"I think it has had an impact on our whole staff, because we're always going to take Jay's input and it's going to help us become more of a streamlined operation," Papasedero said.

Any questions about Gruden's readiness were put to rest when he completed 18 of 26 passes for 200 yards and six touchdowns in Orlando's season-opening 47-35 victory at Chicago.

"His arm looked good, his arm looked alive," said Storm coach Tim Marcum, whose team plays at Orlando on Sunday. "He took a shot or two and jumped off the ground just like the old Jay Gruden we all know. Certainly, what we're going to have to do is find a way to rush that guy, because if you let him have time as Chicago did, you're in trouble."

The Orlando-Chicago game was one of four televised regionally as part of NBC's inaugural Arena broadcast.

"It's a great league and something I'm proud to be part of for 11 years and, hopefully, can continue to be a part of," Gruden said. "To be on NBC and see myself being interviewed by Michael Irvin, it's pretty special."

Gruden will be back in front of the cameras when the Predators host the Storm in NBC's lead game.

To add spice to Arena football's biggest rivalry, Gruden arranged for a $5 discount for Storm fans who purchase tickets in advance. Those fans will be seated in a special section, where they can cheer or boo the former Tampa Bay star.

"Back when I played for the Storm, it was not unheard of for 1,000 or 2,000 of the other team's fans to make the road trip for the War on I-4," Gruden said. "I thought it would be great if we could somehow encourage that again."

Gruden remembers batteries being thrown at him by Orlando fans, beer and soda being spilled on his wife and melees breaking out in the stands at Tampa Bay-Orlando games.

Still, the rivalry would be hard-pressed to match the intensity Gruden's brother projects through his headset.

"I stay out of his way as much as I can," Gruden said, laughing.

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