Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano has a saying that he frequently emphasizes to his players: "Circumstances cannot dictate our behavior."
Schiano's Buccaneers will take on the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday in just his fifth regular-season game at the helm. That lesson, and others of similar variety, are still permeating their way through the Buccaneers' culture. In this particular case, and on this particular day, Schiano has been gifted with an absolutely perfect illustration, an exemplar in the flesh.
At halftime of Sunday's game, the Buccaneers will induct former offensive tackle Paul Gruber into the Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium. His name and number will be unveiled along the stadium façade, joining those of Lee Roy Selmon, John McKay and Jimmie Giles. All of Gruber's Ring of Honor predecessors have defining traits as both NFL stars and human beings, whether it was Selmon's humble dominance, McKay's wry command or Giles' precocious talent. Gruber's is easily summed up in one word: Perseverance.
Gruber says his Buccaneer experience, from early years of team struggles to the franchise breakthrough in the mid-'90s, helped him establish that defining characteristic, though others might suggest he brought a certain amount of innate resolve into the situation.
"Perseverance is probably a pretty important attribute in anything you do in life, and I definitely learned that here," said Gruber, a few short days before his Ring of Honor induction. "Just consistency and perseverance. And preparation – I think that was always something I took pride in."
Gruber was the fourth player selected overall in the 1988 NFL Draft, and a pioneer of sorts. He certainly wasn't the first offensive lineman drafted that high, but he was part of a football transition, as teams began to place ever more importance on protecting the quarterback's blind side. The Bucs had drafted a running back with the first overall pick in 1986, and a quarterback with the first overall pick in 1987, and those were certainly high-profile crowd-pleasers. But Gruber was an asset of a different sort, and his personality mirrored that. He never sought the spotlight – and still doesn't, even as he prepares to see his name put in a place of permanence – but he knew he had an important job and he intended to take care of it.
And that is exactly the lesson that Schiano would like his young roster to absorb on Sunday. The Buccaneers are coming off a difficult 2011 season and are working to build a consistent winner under Schiano, just as they did in the second half of Gruber's career, with him helping to lead the way.
"Those were some tough times and he's one of those guys that fought through it," said Schiano. "People may not recognize it, but those are the bridges to the good times, the guys who will fight their rear end off no matter the circumstance. Guys like that who just continually keep going one play at a time and doing their job – that's how you build something."
The Bucs built something around Gruber and like-minded players in the '90s. The team shook off a decade-and-a-half of torpor and suddenly decided to compete on an annual basis. The 1997 team – Gruber's most memorable season and the group of alumni that will join him on the field for Sunday's induction ceremony – made it to the playoffs and shut down Tampa Stadium with a playoff win over Detroit. The 1999 team emerged as an NFL powerhouse, with an indomitable defense that carried it to the brink of the Super Bowl. Gruber famously and regretfully broke his leg in the 1999 regular-season finale, a division-clinching win at Chicago, and that would prove to the be the end of his playing career. But the Bucs didn't stop rising, and just a few short years later they were holding up the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl XXXVII.
Gruber wasn't there for that moment, but he played a gigantic role in paving the way. He knows his own name is more prominent in Tampa than the rest of the nation – in that way, as he points out, it compares to that of Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon – while former teammates such as Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and Ronde Barber have a broader recognition. Whether he intends to or not, Gruber serves as the perfect bridge between the nascent Buccaneer days of Selmon and the later Super Bowl era, and he is thus an incredibly significant figure in franchise history.
That will be evident on Sunday.
"I think it's an honor just because of the guys I'm going in with, number one," said Gruber. "And I know there will be guys that come after me that are more well-known. To me, that's one of the biggest things, because those are the guys that I was aware of while I was struggling through the early Buc years, the monumental guys."
Paul Gruber is one of the monumental guys in franchise history. He's the ironman who started 183 games on the corner that protects Buccaneer quarterbacks, and virtually never missed a snap. He's the quiet team leader who sat in Tony Dungy's office in 1996, with free agency beckoning, and decided to stick around to lead the way to prosperity. He's the locker room leader who didn't say much, but commanded everyone's attention when he did. He is, without question, one of the greatest players in the history of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
And, on Sunday, he will become the fourth member of the Buccaneers Ring of Honor. Paul Gruber's perseverance pays off once again.