Lord of the Rings 

The Orlando Predators knew what they had, all right. Not willing to miss a marketing opportunity, the arena football team made rowdy fans at the TD Waterhouse Centre endure a parade of players at an April 12 exhibition game before, at last, welcoming their new starting quarterback. Amid a shower of fireworks and green lasers, Jay Gruden emerged from a giant inflated helmet and jogged into a huddle of bouncing Predators, then strode to the sideline to await the kickoff. Just like that, one of the most revered-ever arena players returned to the game he once dominated.

The baby-faced Gruden won four championships while quarterbacking the Tampa Bay Storm from 1991 to 1996. He was the league's Most Valuable Player in 1992. He had passed for the most yards in arena history -- 15,500 -- at the time of his retirement as a player in 1996. He was inducted into the Arena Football League Hall of Fame in 1999. After a year as an assistant coach in Nashville, he came to Orlando and continued his storybook career by winning a championship in his first season as a head coach, beating his old team, the Storm, for the title. He then took the Predators to two more championship games, winning one, before losing in the first round of the playoffs last year.

Then last summer, almost out of the blue, Gruden declared he was returning to the field. It came as a shock to many. But those close to Gruden knew his desire to play had never diminished. "He's been talking about coming back since forever," says new Predator coach Fran Papasedero, who has worked with Gruden since 1997.

At 35, Gruden is attempting a comeback at an age when many football players are counting the days until they collect pension checks. He is the oldest Predator by two years. The next oldest is David Cool, who makes his living kicking footballs rather than sidestepping 280-pound pass-rushers. Gruden is also two years older than Papasedero, the Predator head coach.

Moreover, Gruden is making his return on a rough-and-tumble field. A miniaturized version of the NFL, arenaball -- as it's known -- is played on a shortened, 50-yard field, with rules that are intended to pick up the pace. At either end zone, giant nets strung between metal beams ricochet the ball back into play on kickoffs. Players often get tackled into padded walls that surround the confined arena turf. Like any collision sport, arenaball is not for sissies.

Then there are the fans -- loud, unforgiving and practically on top of the playing field. Indeed, theirs is an over-the-top sport made for an audience in search of stimulation. Besides the pyrotechnics, the crowd is plied with all sorts of amusements exaggerated for effect. Young women in sequined gowns filter through the crowd, selling souvenirs. Humvees and motorcycles circle the field between quarters. Alcohol is a big seller: Predator fans spend a larger percentage of money on liquor consumption than fans of the NBA Magic.

"I like to tell people that a Predators game is like a rock concert where a football game breaks out," says Predator fan Chris Ristau.

"Arena football is a great big party," says another fan, Jay Anuszewski. "If we have a good team, that's a bonus."

Against that backdrop, the Predators' publicity machine is selling Gruden as the second coming ("DON'T MISS GRUDEN'S RETURN!" screamed one ad for the season, which opens at home Friday, April 19.) This is a team that once paid for a large pair of female breasts to be displayed on an I-4 billboard above the tag line, "Fake left, fake right." Is it any wonder some might mumble that Gruden's reappearance on the field has been calculated in box-office receipts?

"I don't think I'd put myself in harm's way for a publicity stunt," he says. "To come back and play a very physical game, to get hit while I wait till the last second to throw the ball -- I don't think I'd do that for a marketing stunt even if the publicity is good."

But the publicity is good, even if Gruden's memory isn't. In 1996 he already was bemoaning the hits he'd taken: "Some games are worse than others," he told a Tampa reporter. "I'm going on 30 but sometimes I feel like I'm going on 60."

Five years later, how does he feel? Slightly sensitive -- at least about the question everyone keeps asking. When a photographer suggests he pose for this article in a throwback leather helmet, Gruden responds, "I'm not that old."

In Orlando's first preseason game, a 67-65 win April 5 at Indiana, Gruden barely got hit so he didn't have much soreness to report. But in the next game against the Storm, 260-pound linebacker Darion Conner shook loose from his blocker in the first quarter and crashed into Gruden's left side. The tackle won't go down as a sack since Gruden released the ball into the turf as he was hit. But that was the first time Gruden took a shot in six years. (Three days after the game, Gruden says he one of his toes hurt and his neck is stiff but otherwise he feels fine.)

Another Hall of Fame quarterback, former Predator Ben Bennett suffered a career-ending injury when he was smashed into a wall in 1997. Ironically, that play came against the Predators because Bennett had, by that time, joined the Portland Forest Dragons. "I'd still be playing today," says Bennett, who retired at 37. "But I have three bulging disks at the base of my skull. The doctors said I could go back out and play but there's no telling what might happen. I enjoy walking just as much as I enjoy playing football."

At practice, Gruden sometimes wears a brace on his left knee, which was operated on in 1986. You would swear he walks with a slight limp. But no, Gruden says. He isn't sore, though knee surgery has left him with a slight imbalance. The left leg doesn't straighten out as far as the right, he says, causing him to teeter a bit.

Part of what makes Gruden's story so good is that he is a champ with a chip on his shoulder. Despite having a father, Jim, who was a coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a scout with the San Francisco 49ers, Jay Gruden never received a shot at the NFL. He's still bitter about it.

Gruden also is often overshadowed by his older brother Jon, who recently achieved celebrity status in Tampa when he took over as coach of the Bucs after four seasons leading the Oakland Raiders. In fact, Jay Gruden declined to pursue a position as the Bucs quarterbacks coach to continue his quest for more glory in the arena league.

What about quarterbacking for the Bucs himself? It never entered his mind, he says. "I'm too old to be a rookie in the NFL. I have no intention of being the fourth or fifth quarterback in camp and getting cut after two weeks."

Still, Gruden doesn't expect his return to arenaball to be all roses. He was booed in Indiana. "Road fans are brutal," he says. "A majority of them are drunks. I would think it's a joy to be an arena fan because you sit so close to the players that they can hear you talk trash to them." His wife, Sherry, already has warned the Grudens' three boys to ignore and laugh at anything they hear -- and that's at the home games.

With the media, who follow Gruden's every move as the Predators practice on a field outside the Citrus Bowl, Gruden's age comes up constantly. Yes, he feels like a rookie again. Yes, he threw some bad balls in the first preseason game. Yes, he has to get used to game-time speed. "Mentally I'm ahead of the game," he says more than once. "But I need more game-time reps. There's no substitute for game-time speed."

Yet he returns to a league much different than when he left. The consensus is that the 16-team arena league attracts faster, bigger players than even a few years ago. Franchises like the Iowa Barnstormers, the team NFL quarterback Kurt Warner led against Gruden in the 1996 championship game, have moved. Others, like Fort Lauderdale's Florida Bobcats, have folded.

Amid the changes, there's also a feeling that the league, now in its 16th year, could be on the brink of something huge. Several NFL owners, including Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Tom Benson of the Saints, are launching arena teams. And last month the league announced it had signed an agreement with NBC that would allow the network to televise 15 of the league's regular season games, the playoffs and championship game. NBC isn't paying money for the rights; rather, the AFL is promising to share revenue as it increases in value.

How well the sport and its many fan-friendly diversions does on a major network will go a long way in determining the future of arenaball -- and where Gruden decides to coach once he retires for good. "If we don't do well on NBC in two years, I don't know what will happen," he says. "I have to see where the league is. I have to see where it is going. If it is still treading water, then obviously we'll be done."

For now the Gruden story will unfold on The National Network, the cable channel that owns arena broadcast rights through this season. The Predator-Storm rivalry, the best in the arena league, is so intense it will be shown twice on TNN this season. But not everyone is hailing Jay's return.

"It's not that big a deal outside of Orlando," says Jim Ferraro, a Miami attorney and second-year owner of the New Jersey Gladiators. "It just isn't."

In the second quarter of the Storm game, Gruden unleashes a postcard-perfect spiral to Predator receiver Cliff Dell, completing a 47-yard touchdown. Gruden is psyched; he slams his body into BJ Cohen, Orlando's 260-pound lineman, knocking Cohen off balance.

For a moment, the Predator fans are excited, too, standing and cheering as if the preseason game actually mattered. And in one sense, it does.

The Storm is the team Gruden quarterbacked to four championships from 1991 to 1996. Gruden won two of those titles with coach Tim Marcum, an old-school coach with a storied arena history. Marcum was selling cars in Tempe, Ariz., when he received a call from Mouse Davis, the mastermind behind the NFL's run-and-shoot offense, asking if he wanted to coach in the arena league. Marcum took over the Denver Dynamite in 1987, the AFL's second season, and, except for short stints with the Atlanta Falcons and Florida Gators, hasn't stopped coaching arenaball since. Like Gruden, Marcum has won six championships.

"In Tampa, Marcum was like Vince Lombardi and Gruden was like Bart Starr," says John Ferlazzo, news editor of Arenafan.com, a first-rate arena website run by fans of the game. "Gruden was a great leader. But since the Storm always had good defenses, nobody ever saw how great he could be in terms of slinging the ball down the field."

Gruden came to the arena league in 1991 on a lark and only after he'd been passed over by the NFL. He had been out of football for three years, working as a student assistant at the University of Louisville, where Gruden was named MVP his junior and senior years. Gruden showed enough promise as a college quarterback to play in the 1988 Blue-Grey Game and East-West Shrine Game, which showcase prospects expected to have a shot at the NFL. At just over six feet, Gruden was considered short by NFL standards and he didn't possess a rocket-launcher arm. Yet, he says, "I was supposed to be the sleeper of the draft." Reporters from New York to L.A. included Gruden in draft roundups.

Then, on draft day, nothing happened. Gruden received a call from someone claiming to be a New York Giants coach, but that turned out to be a friend disguising his voice. After the draft, the Arizona Cardinals offered Gruden a free-agent tryout. But he failed a physical because his left knee had been operated on two years prior. Gruden ran two practices as a developmental player for Miami after the Dolphins cut longtime backup Cliff Stoudt. Then Dan Marino threw an awkward pass. The Dolphins promptly cut Gruden and brought back Stoudt. "I think Marino did that on purpose because he wanted his buddy back," Gruden says.

"That was about it for an NFL career," Gruden adds. His father's connections as a 49ers scout were no help; the 49ers then had two Hall of Fame quarterbacks on their roster, Steve Young and Gruden's favorite, Joe Montana. Actually, Jay Gruden says, his father's occupation worked against the young quarterback. The attitude of other teams, he says, was, "If the 49ers don't want him, why the hell should we?"

"I never got a shot from day one," Gruden says. "It's still insulting. But I've learned to accept it."

Craig Whelihan was the Predators starting quarterback last year before injuring his left knee toward the end of the season. Whelihan, who spent four seasons with the San Diego Chargers, threw for 3,000 yards and 60 touchdowns with the Predators, better stats than Gruden earned in all but his last season. (When Whelihan returns, the Predators will have either a lot of depth at quarterback or one hell of a quarterback controversy.) Whelihan says that, given a shot, Gruden likely would have held his own in the other pro league. "He has a sharp mind," Whelihan says. "He's definitely a leader. He's a guy I think deserved a better shot in the NFL. There's a lot of guys in the NFL who don't belong there."

On a whim, Gruden called the Tampa Bay Storm in 1991 and asked for a tryout. At the time, arenaball was still a mysterious game to many players. "I didn't know anything about the league," Gruden says. "I saw glimpses of it on television."

In a 1996 newspaper article, Gruden described his first arena preseason game: "There were about 100 people in the stands. There were nets on the walls. We were in our Zubaz `striped` uniforms. I almost walked out right then. I was like, Ã?This is a joke. It's like a circus.'"

Asked what he likes about the game 12 years later, Gruden responds, "They were the only ones who gave me an opportunity."

At halftime of the Storm preseason game, the Predator cheerleaders take the field and begin a synchronized routine. The Predator marketing department has also arranged for a small brown pig to be led around the field on a leash, another of a hundred things cooked up for each game's excitement.

In a hallway on the lower level of The Jungle -- the Predators' nickname for the TD Waterhouse Centre -- a crowd has gathered around Jon Gruden, Jay's brother and the Bucs coach. Jon Gruden is three years older than Jay; his 6-year-old son, Jon Jr., wears a Predator jersey with Jay's No. 7 on it. As his father stops to talk to news cameras, Jon Jr. clings to the back of his father's legs, out of the way. "I think it's a great story," Jon says when asked about Jay. "I support him 100 percent." Then he answers questions about the Bucs, ending the interview with, "I'm happy to be back living in Florida. I can't tell you how excited I am."

Then, as Jon Gruden heads down the hallway, a man screams at him, "Hey Jon! Do you want to see your brother chase a pig?"

It's that sort of nonsensical barb that defines the no-holds-barred attitude of arena fans, who aren't likely to be forgiving no matter who leads the team if it doesn't perform well. Indeed, Jay Gruden's game against the Storm ends horribly, with a Predator drive that stalls in penalty flags and a fumble that Gruden falls on. On the night, Gruden completes 16-of-22 passes for 205 yards and five touchdowns, but the Predators lose 64-53.

For the most part, Gruden receives positive reviews and even the game's MVP honors. "That has to be something, coming back to play your arch-rival," says Shane Steward, a UCF student attending his first Predator game. "He stood up under pressure. He only threw away a couple of passes." Will Steward come again? Yes, he says. But not necessarily to see Gruden play. "I need the phone number of the cheerleaders."

After the game, Gruden is upbeat. He tells a reporter, "I'm happy with the way the team played. I'm happy with the way I'm playing. I think there's things I can do to come up with better plays. It's so hard to score sometimes."

Then it comes, a question about Gruden's age. "How old are you?" Gruden fires back at the reporter. "I'm not that old, so drop the old bit." His eyes hold an unmistakable intensity. It is an awkward moment -- but just as quickly the moment is gone. Gruden says later that he knew the reporter and was just clowning.

For the next 20 minutes, he signs posters, T-shirts and plastic footballs while a half-eaten slice of pepperoni pizza rests on his leg. The crowd around him is no larger than the crowd around other players, but they must compete with the ever-popular Predator cheerleaders. Gruden hugs women, he talks to children. As he tries to make an exit, a Predator staffer buttonholes him for one last picture with a group of women. Then he showers and walks out the tunnel with his wife and some friends.

A block from the arena, fans are finishing off a keg of beer in a dimly lit parking lot. The mood is jovial and the spectators are discussing a number of issues, few of them related to football. One in the group is asked how Gruden looked tonight. Without missing a beat, the man replies, "He's getting older." It's not the politically correct answer, but it's one Gruden is likely to hear often this season.


More by William Dean Hinton


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