- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

The Orlando Predators are huffing and puffing down in Florida, getting ready for their Arena Football League opener 10 days hence against the Chicago Rush. Unfortunately, their starting quarterback, winner of six league titles and thrower of 68 touchdown passes last season, isn't among them. He's here at the Super Bowl, watching his waistline expand as an offensive assistant for the Tampa Bay Bucs.
"We've got a guy who caters breakfast, lunch and dinner for [the coaching staff]," Jay Gruden explains, glancing down at his too-ample middle, "and there aren't too many fruits and vegetables in those meals. I've probably gained seven or 10 pounds that I need to lose in the next two weeks."
This is a big year for the Arena League. For the first time, some of its games are going to be televised by a major network, NBC. That's particularly exciting to Jay, who has been in the league since the early, pre-Kurt Warner days, when the NFL and a lot of other people barely acknowledged its existence. He's willing to keep his Arena team waiting, though, because, well, his brother Jon happens to be the Tampa Bay head coach.
"I need to be at practice [in Orlando]," he says, "but I wouldn't miss this for the world. It's the greatest sports event there is. Nothing I've been through comes even close to this. I remember when we won the Arena League title in Detroit in '91. I think I got interviewed by one guy before the game a janitor who was sweeping out our locker room.
"Besides, I throw in practice every day [with the Bucs]. I'll be ready for the [Predators] first game. In fact, tell those other quarterbacks down there that I'm starting. I don't want 'em getting any ideas."
Throwing passes at a Bucs practice is nothing new to Gruden. He used to do it as a high schooler in the early '80s, when his dad, Jim, was Tampa Bay's running backs coach (and later player personnel director). He tossed bombs to Kevin House, curls to Jimmie Giles, swing passes to James Wilder.
"The first 10 passes I threw were about 20 yards over their heads," he says. "I was so nervous. But those are the best memories I have." (Even though the team was legendarily lousy and "I'd have to go to school and hear kids say, 'The Bucs suck,' all the time.")
It's kind of amazing in this media-saturated age that someone could win six Arena League championships four as a player, two as a coach and be a virtual unknown until he took a job running offensive errands for the Tampa Bay Bucs. It's also kind of amazing that the success Jay has had in Indoor Ball didn't earn him at least one invite to an NFL camp, given the modest abilities of many teams' backups.
"I'm still a little bit bitter," he says. "Given the right opportunity, I could have at least played in some preseason games or something. I think the rest of the league just thought. 'If his father doesn't want to sign him, why should we want to sign him?' But I see these other slappies who've gotten nine or 10 years in and wonder why that couldn't have been me."
Such, it seems, is his fate. He played at Louisville in the late '80s before the program got really good, and now he's finishing up his career in the Arena League just as it's beginning to attract network attention.
No matter. He can always follow his father's and brother's lead and become an NFL coach. Jon, for one, thinks Jay would make "a great coach" someday. And maybe Jay will make a great coach someday; he already has coached the Predators to two titles (before coming out of retirement last season to quarterback them again). But unlike Jon, he doesn't ooze intensity from every pore. And he certainly wouldn't go to work in the wee hours of the morning if his "boss" didn't.
"Everything Jon does, he does at 100 miles an hour," he says. "Me, I like my free time. I like to go out at night. It was the same way when we were growing up. Jon would go to practice with my father all the time, hang around the players and coaches, watch them work out. I liked to watch cartoons."
For years, the Bucs were a cartoon. An anvil was always falling on their heads. But 25 years after starting out 0-26, they're in the Super Bowl, and the Gruden boys have front-row seats for the spectacle.
"It's funny," Jay says. "When Ray Perkins came in [as Tampa Bay's coach and GM in '87] and fired my dad, nobody hated the Bucs more than the Grudens. We wanted 'em to lose every game. And now for Jon to be part of the turnaround …"
And Jay, too, in a much smaller way. He won't have much time to celebrate, though, if the Bucs beat the Raiders. His Arena League team is saving a uniform for him.

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