- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

SAN DIEGO. — Soon after signing with the Raiders as a free agent in 1999, Rich Gannon showed up at the team's training complex at 6a.m. to begin his day's labors. Alas, the outside door was locked, and Gannon, being new to the club, hadn't yet been issued a key. So he threw pebbles at coach Jon Gruden's window and, once he got his attention, yelled at him to come down and let his quarterback in.

Gannon spent his first 12 years in the NFL throwing pebbles at coaches' windows literally and figuratively. And for the longest time, it didn't look like anybody was going to let him in. The Patriots, who drafted him out of Delaware in '87, wanted to turn him into a defensive back, but Gannon resisted and forced a trade to Minnesota. Thus began an odyssey that took him to Washington, Kansas City and finally Oakland and had many more tears than triumphs.

Few quarterbacks, in fact, have followed a more serpentine path to the Super Bowl than Gannon. Heck, in '94, the year after he temped with the Redskins, he was out of football unwanted, unloved and with a bum shoulder to boot. Had Marty Schottenheimer not given him another shot with the Chiefs, "The Rich Gannon Story" might have ended right there.

Instead, it's going to have a more satisfying final chapter, regardless of how Sunday's game against the Bucs turns out. The quarterback who didn't fit the profile, who lacked the big arm clubs crave in a QB, has become the league MVP, a four-time Pro Bowler and the poster boy for athletic persistence. Who woulda thunk it?

"I don't have any animosity toward any teams or any coaches," he said yesterday. "I just think I took the road less traveled, if you will, and while it's been difficult at times I've enjoyed the experience."

No animosity? Well, maybe a little. Even toward his current club. At one point he fairly muttered, "The Raiders had me down as a DB [coming out of college]. It only took me 12 years to prove they were wrong."

But that's just the competitor in him coming out. The guy who goes to work at 6a.m. to watch tape and try to make himself better. The guy who wouldn't take no for an answer when three teams let him go.

Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson, Gannon's opponent in this Super Bowl, certainly has been influenced by his example. Johnson was a rookie with the Vikings in '92 when Gannon was the starter, and "you could see how tough he was, how stubborn he was and how much he wanted it," Brad said. "He's a model for other quarterbacks. What he taught me as much as anything is that you don't have to be a great passer, a pure passer, to be a successful quarterback in the NFL. There are all kinds of ways to get the job done leadership, getting your team in the right play, just finding a way to win. "

You're apt to hear Gannon referred to as "a former Redskin" a lot this week, but in truth he was barely in town. He joined the club late, had that shoulder injury that required surgery after the season and started only four games. Richie Petitbon brought him in because he wanted a veteran behind Mark Rypien and because mobile quarterbacks like Gannon had always driven Petitbon crazy as a defensive coordinator.

"I was like everybody else when he was coming out of college," Richie says. "I wanted him as a defensive back. But then we played Minnesota in a preseason game early in his career, and I came away thinking: The Vikings have found the answer at quarterback."

Petitbon lasted only a year as the Redskins' coach, though, and Gannon got discarded when Norv Turner took over. "It was obviously a mistake getting rid of the guy," Richie says.

That seems to happen more and more in the NFL these days. A team hires a new coach, and perfectly useful players get swept out the door. (Turner, you may recall, decided go with rookies Heath Shuler and Gus Frerotte as his quarterbacks, along with journeyman John Friesz.) Turning over rosters is so much easier now that there's free agency dangerously easy.

Consider: Five of the last six Super Bowl QBs the two this year, plus Kurt Warner, Trent Dilfer and Kerry Collins came to their clubs as free agents. What does that say about the NFL and the state of the quarterback position?

"It's the one position in the league right now that, I think, is in jeopardy," Gannon said. "A lot of young quarterbacks are being forced to play right away, and they're not ready. The way to do it is how the Jets did it with Chad Pennington. He was able to sit for two years and learn from Vinny Testaverde and Paul Hackett, and when they needed him to step in he played well. But if you don't have success right away, it can ruin a young player."

It didn't ruin Gannon, though, when Denny Green gave up on him. Nor did he lose faith when things went poorly in Washington nor when he lost out to Elvis Grbac in Kansas City. He gave it another try in Oakland, threw pebbles at the coach's window and, at the advanced age of 33, finally established himself as an NFL quarterback.

And now look at him. He's 60 minutes from a Super Bowl ring. Not that he has any animosity or anything.


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