By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2001
Editors note: Football is more than a game; it's a way of life. In this series, we focus on one player at each stage of the game, from pee wee football through retirement. Through their eyes you, too, may experience the life of football.
TAMPA -- They are celebrating an interception in Chicago. In a cold, harsh stadium, they are cheering a Shaun King pass that never should have been thrown, and delighting in a Bucs rally that never will come. As the seconds roll backward on the clock and the game's end draws near, Paul Gruber hits the mute button on the remote control and a cozy family room turns silent.
This is a life no longer ruled by clocks. Certainly not the mega-watt type on stadium scoreboards. It is a Sunday afternoon in mid-November and Gruber is reclined on a couch in his home in northwest Hillsborough County. He appears neither sad, nor particularly angry about what will turn out to be a crucial Buccaneers loss. It has been about three months since he walked away from his football career, and he seemingly has left his passion behind with his pads.
Twelve years in the NFL, five years in college, countless days on the playgrounds of Wisconsin. His days in football are all in the past.
Is it really as easy to silence as a mute button?
A month later, Gruber walks across the turf at Raymond James Stadium and the noise builds with each step. It is halftime against the Cowboys and the Bucs are honoring the man who appeared in more games than any player in franchise history. With his family at his side and the crowd on its feet, Gruber smiles and waves -- and feels just a little silly. He appreciates the sentiment but does not find it necessary. His wife Brenda has been more enthusiastic about the send-off than him.
You see, Gruber already has said his goodbyes. He made the choice to cut football out of his life and has no desire now to be a hanger-on. Football is something he used to do and now Gruber will do something else. As soon as he figures out what that is, he'll let you know.
"I don't feel like one of those old, retired guys who tell war stories, but I know it's over. I'm watching the Bucs game today and there are guys out there that I don't even know who they are," Gruber said while sitting in the family room. "I don't feel like I'm a part of that anymore. I guess I'm somewhere in between at this point. I'm not sure what I'm going to do -- and everybody keeps asking me -- but I've never been depressed about retiring.
"I miss it sometimes, but I don't think there has ever been a morning where I woke up and just felt like this should have worked out differently."
Do not mistake his dispassionate exit for a lack of gratitude. Gruber, 35, knows he is the exception among NFL players. Not too long ago, a retiring pro football player was just another job applicant in middle America.
The money may be far greater these days but, still, few careers are as long or as prosperous as Gruber's. He signed three contracts during his 12 years with the Bucs and made roughly $22.3-million on the field.
He ponders how he evaded the odds as he watches a neighbor's son play a football game at Hillsborough High. Of all of those players on the field, how many will get a college scholarship? Four, maybe five? Of those four or five, how many will go on to an NFL career? Perhaps one? And then what are the chances of that player lasting 12 seasons?
It is that notion of athletic Darwinism that kept Gruber from making social calls at One Buc Place during the season. When he was active, he never particularly appreciated his routine being interrupted by former players who wanted to stop by his locker and shoot the breeze.
He may have been the steadiest performer in team history, but he was far from irreplaceable. And he accepts that. So if he has nothing to offer the organization, Gruber sees no reason to loiter in the lobby.
"Watch when a guy gets hurt, it's amazing how quickly they move on to the next guy," Gruber said. "That's just the nature of the business. I understand that. If you're injured, or not involved, it's like, 'What can you do for me now?' And that's the way it needs to be."
They say the hardest part of the retirement transition is not the initial decision. Not right away, not when the body is healing and the free time seems so precious. It is after the first year away. When reality has sunk in.
Bucs general manager Rich McKay saw it in his father. John McKay was a legend at the University of Southern California and the only head coach the Buccaneers had from the team's inception in 1976 through 1984. He knew retiring was the right move in 1985. By '86, he wasn't quite sure.
"In Paul's case, it might be easier than some others because his health was the major issue confronting him: 'How am I going to be able to hold up?' " Rich McKay said. "And the thing with Paul is that he had a great career and has no reason to look back and wonder if he missed something because of X, Y or Z. I think he had some uncomfortable moments in the beginning, but he seems to have adjusted well as time has gone on."
Health was the major issue in Gruber's retirement, but not in the way you might think. The broken leg he sustained at the end of the 1999 season and the subsequent knee surgery in the off-season were certainly factors. He would not have been able to start the 2000 season on time, which brought up the possibility of going on injured reserve.
Yet there were other factors involved. The game was still enjoyable, but it was sucking more life out of Gruber than he cared to give. The weight, for one thing. At 6 feet 5, Gruber said his natural weight is in the 250-pound range. As an NFL tackle, he needed to keep his weight around 290. That meant forcing himself to eat and putting more strain on his back, as well as contributing to sore feet and ankles.
And then there was the pounding his body was taking. Controlled violence for three hours every Sunday can wear on a man. Gruber might be a little sore on Mondays, but Tuesday mornings were the worst. It was like his body had time to realize how much it had been abused at that point in the week. And every passing year, it seemed to take a little longer to recover.
"I wasn't afraid of the one big shot, but more the wear and tear of doing this for so long. That's what I feared about staying in the game too long," Gruber said. "It's not so much when you're 35, like I am. It's the guys who are 45 and 55. To me, that's a motivation to spend a couple of hours in the gym, so when I'm 55 I can be skiing with my kids and going on hunting trips and hiking six miles in the mountains."
When he was pushing his body through endless training sessions as far back as his University of Wisconsin days and through his dozen seasons in the NFL, Gruber made a promise that he would take a year or two off when he was through with football. So now he is keeping his word.
People seem chagrined when he tells them he has nothing to do today and hasn't decided about tomorrow.
So the Gruber children -- Blake, 11, Chase, 10, and Ashlyn, 6 -- are now in charge of the family schedule. Paul gets up with them in the morning and helps drive them to their various schools. Then he heads to the gym. At first, he was rehabilitating his leg. Now he is reconfiguring his body. Gruber is dropping weight -- he is below 260 -- while maintaining the muscle tone.
The family spent the holiday season skiing in Colorado (where Paul's mother and younger brother and sister live) and will probably spend a good portion of the summer water skiing in Florida.
"I think we both really knew it was time for him to stop and that's why it hasn't been too drastic a change for him," his wife Brenda said. "Those first few weeks might have been a little difficult, but once he got acclimated, it's worked out well. I can tell there are certain days when his mood is a little different, but it's not this drastic change of personality.
"All he did was retire. It's something everyone does, he's just experienced it at a much younger age."
At some point, Gruber says, he will begin looking for work. Nothing so formal as a 9-to-5 job in suit-and-tie, but perhaps some investing or other business opportunities. He also wants to continue work with some of the charities he gave time and money to during his career.
Of one thing, Gruber appears certain. He has no desire to return to football in any capacity. He said he truly misses the edge of excitement he used to feel in the hours before a Sunday afternoon game, but he does not believe he will recapture that in any other job in football.
"Football is football, but there are a lot of other things to life. And a lot of other things I enjoy," Gruber said. "And because I played football for 12 years, I now have the opportunity to take advantage of those other things. I have the time and the resources."
Because of football, the control rests in his hands to do whatever he wants. And for now, Gruber wants to turn the sound down.