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Gradkowski's homecoming built around family, community

08/10/2017, 6:35am EDT
By By DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Former UT QB passed on pursuing college, pro job to sow family’s roots in Toledo


Former Toledo quarterback Bruce Gradkowski has joined the Anthony Wayne football staff as a volunteer assistant quarterbacks coach. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Our first thought upon hearing Bruce Gradkowski joined the Anthony Wayne football staff as a volunteer assistant quarterbacks coach was likely the same as yours. 

Very cool. 

Our second thought: Wait, who is the top assistant quarterbacks coach?

I imagined someone hasn’t looked over his shoulder this much since The Fugitive. In these parts, the most prolific passer in University of Toledo history, NFL veteran, and local celebrity lending a hand on Friday nights would be like Picasso — or, at the very least, Bob Ross — teaching sixth-period art class. 

I asked second-year Generals coach Andy Brungard if I could talk to the poor guy who normally shepherds the quarterbacks. 

He smiled. 

“That’s me,” Brungard said. 

Uh, um, oh, yeah, I knew that. What I meant is ... isn’t this great!?

Truth be known, Gradkowski being around really is as neat as it sounds. 

“With Bruce, there is no ego,” Brungard said. 

VIDEO: Gradkowski joins AW coaching staff

“From the start, he said to me, ‘I don't want to at all do anything to go against what you're saying.’ I was like, ‘I want you to say whatever you want to say, and I'll follow you.’ We have a great back-and-forth relationship. He'll ask me questions, and we kind of feed off of each other. He just wants to help. 

“Regardless of being an NFL quarterback, he's an excellent mentor and a good coach.”

For the newly retired Gradkowski and a Generals program striving to evolve from their Wing-T offensive past to a more air-it-out spread, the match came at the perfect time. 

There was old No. 7 this week cajoling and coaching the Generals’ three quarterbacks, then sweating it out with the team in a series of post-practice 40-yard sprints under the mid-day sun. 

It still feels foreign not wearing a helmet of his own this time of year. But after 11 seasons in the NFL — including the last four years playing for his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers — he is at peace with the next chapter. 

Gradkowski, 34, passed on pursuing a college or pro coaching job to sow his family’s roots in greater Toledo, where he owns a popular restaurant and will serve as the color analyst on the Rockets’ radio broadcasts this fall. 

He works with the Anthony Wayne football team three times per week. 

“I'm ready for that next step in my life to see what God has in store,” said Gradkowski, who lives in Maumee with his wife, Miranda, and their three young children.

“I'm excited to be here in Toledo. I can't say enough about how good the City of Toledo and all of the communities here have been to me throughout my career. So it's great to be back in the area and to give back any way I can.”

His volunteer gig is proving a major coup for Anthony Wayne. 

This is not to say the Generals needed Gradkowski. They would have been just fine as it were. Brungard, a 2005 University of Findlay graduate, is one of the area’s best young coaches. Make that one of the area’s best coaches. In his first season as the boss, the Generals made a storybook run to the Division II state semifinals. 

But, incidentally, while Brungard assumes the roles of offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, his bailiwick is the other side of the line. Brungard played linebacker at Findlay and spent seven seasons as Perrysburg’s defensive coordinator before his hire at AW, where he succeeded program wins leader Craig Smith. He switched sides as head coach because he felt more comfortable teaching an assistant his defense than his preferred offense. 

In Gradkowski, whom the coach met last summer when the quarterback was training on the high school field, the Generals gained invaluable expertise.  

The former Rockets’ star is part assistant, part consultant. He drills the quarterbacks — incumbent starter Nick Schneider, junior Max Denman, and sophomore Zach Szul — on their fundamentals, putting them through the same workouts he did in the NFL. One such exercise features Gradkowski hurling basketballs to simulate the pressure and frenzy of a pass rush. 

More than that, though, Gradkowski has changed the way the passers see the game. They are now aspiring pigskin savants. 

“It’s all the little things he points out after the play,” Schneider said. “He shows us how to read the defense.”

Say, the Generals are running a trips formation, a staple in which three receivers — the trips receivers — line up on the same side of the field. “The biggest thing he explained to us was how to read our X [receiver] backside. For me, a lot of times I was reading trips frontside,” Brungard said. “So we talked about different defensive coverages, whether it’s Cover 3 or Cover 4, and how to use our X receiver backside as our first read versus looking frontside. We were looking at the trips receivers first every time. Now, with Bruce in the mix, he's telling us whether we should be reading the X or reading the trips, and how to include our running back in the passing game.”

Got all that? 

What matters is the players do. With another year in the spread offense and the addition of Gradkowski and new receivers coach Jonathan Sandwisch — who instructed the quarterbacks at Bluffton University last season — the Generals are ready to let it fly. 

“In Year 2, we've gone through a couple team sessions where we haven't dropped a ball,” Brungard said. “Last year, we went through a couple sessions where we were just trying to catch a ball.”

For the man who dished out touchdowns like nobody in Toledo history, it may be his most rewarding assist yet. 

“These young kids, they're so excited to learn and they work hard every day,” Gradkowski said. “Anything I can give to them to help them on their path, that's rewarding for me.”

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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Tag(s): High School  Anthony Wayne  Toledo  David Briggs