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Ex-Knight measures up to NFL

Little recruited out of Tarpon Springs and UCF, Mike Gruttadauria has grown into an OL anchor.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2000


ST. LOUIS -- One thing you can say for certain about Tarpon Springs High's Mike Gruttadauria. He was worth the weight.

In his pants.

He was undersized and overlooked in 1994 as a senior offensive lineman at Central Florida. Today he's the Rams' starting center, one of four NFL offensive linemen from North Pinellas.

Fellow former Sponger Kipp Vickers is with the Redskins; Tarpon Springs resident Robbie Tobeck, who attended since-closed New Port Richey Christian, is a Falcon; and Countryside High alumnus Jeff Mitchell is a Raven.

Gruttadauria's senior season as a 215-pound tight end at Tarpon Springs was his first in football. "I felt like, watching him on his high school film, he could possibly play center for us," UCF coach Gene McDowell said. "That's one of the things we agreed on, that he would be able to grow into a lineman."

Only Central Florida offered a scholarship. He majored in graphic arts and minored in animation.

"I've been drawing and painting -- any kind of medium I can get my hands on -- for as long as I can remember, a lot longer than football," Gruttadauria said. This year he created a Christmas card for the Rams, with proceeds going to the St. Louis Crisis Nursery. "When football's over, I'm going to devote every day to creating some form of artwork."

Football, Gruttadauria figured, would be no more than a route to a free college education. But he excelled at UCF, being named offensive player of the year all four years he played. McDowell told him he had pro potential.

"I think the coaches felt I had the drive, the desire, the heart to compete in the NFL," he said. "They didn't fill me with any false hopes. They told me I was somewhat small, that I had to put on some bulk, but they also told me there were some undersized centers in the league, like (Dallas') Mark Stepnoski, playing at 265."

It took a bit of ... well, cheating is too harsh a word, but it's close, for Gruttadauria to get past the first roadblock when NFL scouts came to the campus.

"They came to try out players they'd heard about and were interested in," the 6-foot-3, 297-pound Gruttadauria said. "I wasn't one of them, but they'll give you a look. The first thing they want to know about is your height and weight and stuff.

"At that point, I'd played my final game in college at about 260 (pounds), so I was trying to put on as much weight as I could. Whatever I was weighing, it wasn't enough. So I just slipped some weights in my pants, about 5 pounds, and taped some to my lower back. In all, it was about 71/2 pounds. They weighed me at around 270, 275."

The Cowboys signed him as a free agent. "I did nothing but eat all summer. By the time they weighed me (at training camp in 1995) I was about 273." Without weights. No one caught on, Gruttadauria said. "Never busted, never convicted."

He was among the Cowboys' final training camp cuts. They told him they'd bring him back in a week. Or a month. Or more. They never did. The next summer they invited him to re-sign. But the Rams were interested, too. He went with St. Louis.

Gruttadauria gave himself three years to find out if he'd make it as a pro, "in Europe, the Arena League, Canada, whatever." He made it in one. At 27 and in is his fourth season with the Rams, he started all 16 games plus the playoff against Minnesota.

"He's one of the millions of examples of guys who are overlooked in high school or are underrated," McDowell said.

The biggest difference between UCF and the NFL is the weight of the opposing linemen, and how Gruttadauria is trying to keep his weight up. "That's the thing I've been dealing with every day, just eating more and eating more," he said. "These guys weigh 300-plus, and I'm just a small guy trying to stay fat to play the game."


-- Information from staff writer Roger Mills and Into the Knights, UCF's athletics-only Web site, was used in this report.

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