Red-letter day

Published October 8, 2006

Bruce Gradkowski always lived for Sunday.

That was when everyone gathered at Nonna Mimi's, the large, brick house where his mother grew up. From the front porch, you could smell the fried meatballs she had fixed for breakfast.

Before those dishes were cleared from the table, the aroma of pepper and garlic from the sauce his grandmother had begun to make for dinner - a thick, mouth-watering topping sure to be poured over a dinner feast of risotto, lasagna or spaghetti - filled your lungs.

Gradkowski was enriched by growing up in two cultures. While his last name is Polish, he always has been reminded he is 75 percent Italian.

And food always has been an expression of love. If the food was good, life was good - no matter what cruelties the world might be dishing out that day.

"This has always been like Grand Central Station," Gradkowski's mother, Deborah, said. "It's where everyone still congregates, five days a week. But especially on Sundays."

There were 28 on the Del Sardo side of his family alone. Uncles, aunts and cousins, all living within 5 miles. Counting the Gradkowski and the in-laws, it wasn't unusual for 75 to be served on holidays.

On a nice Sunday in Pittsburgh, Gradkowski would sit on the front porch with his cousins, T.J. and Ralph, who strummed guitars. The dads would nap on the couch while the women sipped coffee and helped Nonna Mimi in the kitchen.

"My family ... will welcome anyone, and they'll make them feel at home," Gradkowski said. "Oh, and you're going to eat when you come home. My mom is always asking, 'Do you need something?' My grandmother is always asking, 'What do you want me to make you?'

"That's the thing I miss most, not being at home on Sundays. It's just the people around you. People all over the place."

Gradkowski still lives for Sunday. Except now, it's when he makes his living.

Starting this afternoon, the rookie quarterback will be under center for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And the Superdome in New Orleans figures to be even louder and more crowded than Nonna Mimi's place.

"This is what I always dreamed about doing," Gradkowski said. "Every time I go home and run into my fourth grade teacher, she tells me she still has the card she gave me and told me to write down what I wanted to do when I grew up. I told her I wanted to be an NFL player."

'Lucky to be 6 feet'

Gradkowski, 23, always has been the guy everyone counted out before they learned how much he could be counted on.

That's mostly because he was one of the scrawniest quarterbacks you've ever seen. His father, Bruce Sr., and younger brother, Gino, are 6 feet 3 and pushing 300 pounds. Gino, a senior lineman at Seton-LaSalle Catholic High School, already has orally committed to West Virginia.

In fact, the only time Gradkowski really fought with his sister, Brittany, was when she towered over him in middle school.

"That's when the doctors are trying to estimate how tall you are. And the doctors are like, 'Oh, you'll be lucky to be 6 feet,' " Gradkowski said. "And that crushed me. I was sitting there thinking, 'Oh my God! I've got to be at least 6 feet.'

"That's where my mom comes in because I'll say that all the time. 'I wish I was 6-4 or 6-5.' And she always is like, 'Height doesn't matter! If you have the heart, you can make it.' "

He made it to 6 feet but just barely. Despite breaking Dan Marino's high school conference passing records in Pittsburgh, Gradkowski did not have a Division I-A scholarship until Toledo showed up on his doorstep just as he was ready to sign with I-AA Eastern Kentucky.

"We had nearly 3,000 yards of passing and 30 touchdowns on tape, and not even the Division I-AA offers were flying in," said Lou Cerro, Gradkowski's coach at Seton-LaSalle.

In fact, Toledo coach Bruce Amstutz wasn't sold on Gradkowski until he saw him play basketball, where he was the point guard and team's leading scorer.

"It was unbelievable the way he was flying up and down the court," Amstutz said. "He had all those things you don't measure with a scale."

When Gradkowski showed up for the first team meeting at Toledo, he made quite an impression. While the other players sauntered in wearing basketball shorts and T-shirts, Gradkowski put on a starched shirt and a pair of slacks and slicked his hair back.

"I looked at that gelled hair and told my high school quarterback, who was walking-on at Toledo, there's no way this dude is any good," said Saints rookie receiver Lance Moore, Gradkowski's roommate at Toledo. "It didn't take long to know I was wrong."

By the time Gradkowski left Toledo, his hair and records had fallen. He set an NCAA record by completing more than 70 percent of his passes over consecutive seasons. He also passed for more than 9,000 yards and 85 touchdowns while rushing for another 1,000 yards.

He played hard, and he played hurt, refusing to come out of the 2004 Mid-American Conference championship game despite a broken hand and concussion.

Meanwhile, Moore and fellow receiver Trinity Dawson became more than teammates to Gradkowski. They became family, making the 3½-hour trip to Pittsburgh to spend holidays at Nonna Mimi's.

"It's kind of funny," Dawson said. "Being of African-American descent, I got so close to his family, I got where I call some of them Uncle Joe and Uncle Mark."

Blue-collar work ethic

When the NFL draft rolled around in April, Gradkowski was certain he wouldn't be overlooked again. He figured he might go in the third round. His mom reminded him everything happens for a reason.

"I went in the sixth round," Gradkowski said. "But look how it's worked out. That definitely fuels me, being the underdog, being underestimated. I've been in this position before, so it's nothing new."

Gradkowski made a quick impression on Bucs coach Jon Gruden, completing 74 percent of his passes in preseason with five touchdowns and three interceptions to earn the No. 2 spot behind Chris Simms. It's also when he revealed a nervous habit of throwing up before games.

"He's gotten a few of my shoes dirty," Amstutz said.

In two mop-up appearances during the regular season, he is 2-of-6 for 20 yards.

Although popular among teammates, Gradkowski has struggled to make much of a connection with them off the field.

"That's what's tough to get adjusted to right now," he said. "The camaraderie of the NFL ... I mean, guys have families. They're older. So you have to basically build it on the field and when you're in the locker room and around the facility. Because in college, you go home with those guys and you're around them a lot more."

The solitude of his Harbour Island condo is sometimes a curse for Gradkowski. He has invited his sister to stay with him for a week, but her schedule hasn't allowed it.

"I know she would probably do my laundry and cook me a meal," he said.

Two weeks ago, his father and Gino flew down for the Carolina game. Gradkowski credits his father, who supervises the mail room at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for his blue-collar work ethic.

"We didn't grow up with money," Gradkowski said. "We don't even have money now. We work for what we get, and my dad proves that. He works his tail off for the paper. They went out on strike when we were young. He works weekends, like the night shifts.

"My mom always gets mad at him because he's the type that if he has it, he's giving it away no matter what. If we're going out to eat and it's me, my friends and their family, he'll pay. He doesn't care."

About four years ago, the family moved into Nonna Mimi's house. She's 75 now and slowed by a bad back but still does all the cooking on Sunday. The family bought the NFL Ticket so everyone can watch the Bucs games.

Ready as he can be

The night Simms ruptured his spleen, Gradkowski, his father and Gino went to church. When the service ended, he noticed he had a voice message from Gruden.

"He was just telling me he's going to go with me and we're going to make this thing happen and have fun with it," Gradkowski said.

Gradkowski took more than 180 reps with the first-team offense in the past two weeks, and Gruden believes he's as ready as he can be.

"Any time you turn the reigns over to a rookie quarterback, a lot can happen, good and bad," Gruden said. "I'm going to look at it optimistically. This guy can make plays. He can run. He's smart. He's tough. He's a charismatic fellow. He's a winner. I believe he'll rise to the challenge if we rally around him."

Not surprisingly, Gradkowski's family plans to rally around him. Most of them will be at the Superdome along with Dawson and several high school teammates. The rest will gather around the television and plates of pasta at Nonna Mimi's.

Gradkowski shakes his head when he remembers the moment he learned he would make his first NFL start today. Against the Saints, no less.

"It was right after I had just said my prayers at church," he said.

Sunday always was the best day of the week.

"This is what I always dreamed about doing"

Bucs quarterback Bruce Gradkowski