Playing for the Steelers was something Bruce Gradkowski dreamt about as a kid growing up in the Pittsburgh area, and that dream turned into reality on Wednesday when the free agent quarterback signed with the Steelers.
"Growing up here in Pittsburgh everyone is a Steelers fan," said Gradkowski, just moments after signing his contract. "That is one of the things that excites me about coming home, knowing how diehard these fans are. These fans love their football more than anything. That is what I love.
"To grow up as a kid and think one day I would be playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it's a dream come true. For me to be a part of this, I will do anything I can to help us win and get better each and every day. I am looking forward to being a part of this organization."
The timing couldn't be better for him to come home. Gradkowski and his wife, Miranda, are expecting their first child on April 6 and his uncle, Joe DelSardo, is dealing with issues that make being around family the perfect scenario.
He even surprised his parents, Bruce and Debbie Gradkowski, when he arrived in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, choosing to stay at their house instead of a hotel which is the common practice for free agent visits.
"I told the team when they were making arrangements I think my mom and dad will be disappointed if I didn't stay at home," Gradkowski said with a smile. "Every time we come home we stay with my parents. I kept it a secret until I got in town and they were like, 'Why are you here?' I told them my new job could possibly be here. They were just ecstatic. They have given me so much support. My mom cried, she cries at everything. She was thrilled.
"It's such a blessing. It shows how great God is to work things out and bring my wife and I back home when we are about to have a baby and be around our family and also be a part of a great organization. It's the best organization in football. It's a blessing to be home and experience a winning tradition, a Super Bowl tradition. That is what makes me excited."
The 30-year old Gradkowski, who played at Seton LaSalle High School, will provide experienced depth behind Ben Roethlisberger. Back-up quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich are both unrestricted free agents, and the only other quarterback on the roster is John Parker Wilson, a fourth-year player the Steelers claimed off of waivers from the Jacksonville Jaguars. And while he only signed a short time ago, he is more than ready to get to work.
"To get to learn from Ben and work with him and help this team, I am excited," said Gradkowski, who played collegiately at Toledo. "I watched Ben since his Miami of Ohio days, playing in the MAC together. He is such a competitor. That is one thing I love to do, compete. He is a winner and I love to see that and am happy to be a part of it.
"I am excited to sit down with Todd Haley and dissect the offense, get in the playbook and learn his system and take it from there. My job is to be ready in a moment's notice. I am going to support Ben and do what I can to be prepared and if my time comes, do what I need to do to be ready. I will grasp this offense fast. If anything happens, I will be ready to go, that is my job. In the meantime whatever I can do to help this team get better I will do."
Gradkowski, originally drafted by Tampa Bay in the sixth round in 2006, spent two seasons with the Buccaneers. He started 11 games his rookie year, forced into action after starter Chris Simms was injured. He finished the season with 177 completions for 1,661 yards and nine touchdowns. He saw limited playing time his second season in Tampa, and was released after the year. Gradkowski signed with the Cleveland Browns late in the 2008 season, was waived after the season, and claimed by the Oakland Raiders where he played three years. He spent the last two seasons as a back-up in Cincinnati.
It was when he was with Oakland that Gradkowski had one of the most memorable games of his career, leading the Raiders to a 27-24 win over the Steelers at Heinz Field. Gradkowski threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner with just nine seconds remaining, with family and friends on hand.
"Words can't even express that game," said Gradkowski. "It was a great football game. Any time you played the Steelers you knew it was going to be a tough game because they are a tough football team. Coming into that game we knew we had our hands full, especially since the Raiders weren't as good that year. We knew we were in for a fight and it was a great battle. Fortunately we pulled it out on the winning side that afternoon. For it to be in front of my family and friends, it was a great experience.
"When you faced the Steelers you knew you were in for a dog fight. That is what I am excited to now be a part of, that championship history. You expect to win, you expect to win the division and go to the Super Bowl. That is a reality here."
And for Gradkowski, reality is something that was once only a dream.
"I have so many great memories watching the Steelers play, and there have been so many great Hall of Fame players coming through this organization," said Gradkowski. "Just to step on the field they have practiced and played on, put on the pads, the jersey and helmet so many have worn, and be a part of this organization…it's a blessing."