Jay Gruden may don a helmet once again, but he's more likely to stick with the headset.
By FRANK PASTOR
Published February 8, 2004
TAMPA - Jay Gruden is 99 percent sure he has played his final game.
Which means there's a chance he hasn't.
Had he not had major ankle surgery six months ago and Orlando coach Fran Papasedero not died in a car accident in June, Gruden might be playing quarterback for the Predators instead of coaching rookie Joe Hamilton.
But not likely.
"The way this (ankle) feels right now, I couldn't even dream of taking a snap," said Gruden, younger brother of Bucs coach Jon Gruden. "Maybe the middle of the year, if something happens there's a 1 percent chance that will happen. But Joe's a lot better right now than I could be."
Two seasons after he ended a five-year retirement, Gruden, 36, will be back on the sideline for Orlando's opener against the Storm today at the St. Pete Times Forum.
As a player, Gruden was known for absorbing hits in the pocket, then getting off the turf and throwing touchdowns. But the shots he took from defensive linemen were nothing compared with what he endured during the past year.
Gruden was enjoying one of the finest statistical seasons of his eight-year career when Carolina defensive lineman Kelvin Ingram landed awkwardly on his right ankle last February. What first was thought to be a sprain turned out to be a break, and Gruden had an eight-hour operation in July to realign the ankle.
Gruden was hurting even more after learning Papasedero, his best friend, died in a one-car accident in the days before last season's ArenaBowl. A toxicology report determined Papasedero, who left behind a 2-year-old daughter, had a blood-alcohol level above what Florida considers too impaired to drive. Gruden had brought Papasedero onto Orlando's staff and played or coached alongside him for six seasons.
"It's still tough every day to go in there and not hear him joking around about something or ripping on somebody," Gruden said.
One month after the accident, Gruden was named coach of the Predators, a position he held from 1998-2001. Gruden's contract called for him to become coach once he was done playing, so Papasedero's death might not have changed anything in that respect. But it certainly sped the process.
"I don't know what would happen," Gruden said. "Fran and I talked before the ArenaBowl about what we were going to do, because I was due to have a major surgery and it was doubtful I would play again."
Gruden, who won four ArenaBowls as a player and two as a coach, said he enjoys coaching. But he misses playing.
"I love playing," he said. "I had my finest years playing. It's been a lot more fun. They're both equally fun, but I just love being part of the action."
Gruden spent the past two offseasons brushing up on his coaching as a Bucs offensive assistant, earning a Super Bowl ring after the 2002 season. He said working around his brother should make him an even better coach.
Hamilton, who has played for both Grudens, said Jay is calmer.
"I think that's a result of the different leagues," said Hamilton, who spent four seasons with the Bucs. "I think Jon Gruden is in a league where you have to be more demanding, more up front. Here, you can be a little more relaxed, and Jay is for the most part."
Except for that 1 percent of him that is itching to get back on the field.