Twelve years after his sublime NFL career came to its conclusion, Paul Gruber can be found in an out-of-the-way corner of the Rockies, living with his family in an outdoorsman's paradise. Gruber likes the openness of the place, its rural isolation, the activities provided by nature. One imagines it would be easy to become lost and anonymous in such a place, at least for a few hours, if one so desired.
During the 12 years he spent in the NFL, on the other hand, fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers always knew where to find Gruber. More to the point, Buccaneer quarterbacks knew exactly where he was, and that was on their blind side (for those lucky enough to be right-handed), every snap, vigilantly keeping danger at bay.
The Buccaneers drafted Gruber out of the University of Wisconsin with the fourth overall pick in 1988. He was in the starting lineup at left tackle for the opening game of that season, and virtually every other game for the next dozen years. Gruber missed five games while a new contract was worked out in 1993, plus another one that season and three in 1996 due to minor injuries, and that was it.
Overall, Gruber played in 183 NFL games, starting every single one of them at left tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was six years into his career before he even missed a single offensive snap. For a franchise that for many years struggled to find stability, Gruber was the rare constant, a rock, indispensable and utterly dependable.
And now he has found another form of permanence in the collective consciousness of the Buccaneers and their fans. On October 14, Gruber will become the fourth person inducted into the franchise's Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium. The ceremony will take place at halftime, when Gruber's name and #74 will be unveiled on the stadium façade, next to those of Lee Roy Selmon, John McKay and Jimmie Giles.
The selection of Gruber as the fourth Ring of Honor inductee was announced Wednesday at a press conference at the new One Buccaneer Place, a few miles from the original Buc facility where he honed his craft for those 12 years.
The new One Buc is also within walking distance of Raymond James Stadium, and the spot where Tampa Stadium used to stand. Gruber played in both stadiums, wearing orange and white for nine years and red and pewter for three. He played under Ray Perkins, Richard Williamson, Sam Wyche and Tony Dungy. He was teammates with John Cannon, who played on the playoff-bound team of 1982, and Ronde Barber, who is still playing today. He saw Lee Roy Selmon inducted into the Hall of Fame and was also around when potential Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks was drafted.
The three franchise pillars who preceded Gruber into the Ring of Honor – Selmon, the quarterbacks' nightmare; McKay, the inaugural and iconic head coach; and Giles, the trailblazing tight end – all represented the early days of the Buccaneer franchise and its amazing climb to playoff contender. Eventually some of the key figures who helped the club win its first championship, two decades later, may join the ring. In the meantime, Gruber serves as the perfect bridge, the steadfast Buccaneer who was a source of strength in tough times and a key element in the team's eventual resurgence.
The tough times came first, which he wasn't expecting.
"I was excited about coming to Tampa," said Gruber of being selected in the first round by a team that had been struggling since early in the decade. "They had a new coach and they had just drafted a quarterback, Vinny [Testaverde], with the first pick the year before. I thought we were going to turn it around. And I intended to come in and start right away and be part of that."
Indeed, Gruber succeeded immediately, winning the left tackle job as a rookie. However, his first NFL team went 5-11. So did his second one, and the coach that drafted him, Perkins, was let go 13 games into the third one, a 6-10 campaign in 1990. Williamson's one year at the helm produced a 3-13 record, and that brought in Wyche. Though he was as stoic as ever in those years, Gruber admits that some of them were intensely frustrating. Things didn't really change, he says, until Malcolm Glazer bought the team in 1995.
Then change came in earnest. A new coach in Tony Dungy in '96. New uniforms in 1997, plus Gruber's first taste of the postseason. A new stadium in 1998. The full-on emergence of the ferocious Buccaneers defense in 1999, leading to a trip to the NFC Championship Game.
"I have always felt like the difference between winning and losing in the NFL is so small," said Gruber. "But we never could quite turn it around in the Sam years. The Glazers came in and changed the culture, even more so when they hired Tony Dungy. It was gratifying to feel like I was a part of turning the culture around."
That first playoff experience, at the end of a remarkable turnaround season in 1997, remains one of Gruber's favorite memories from his playing days. In particular, he fondly recalls the last game ever played in Tampa Stadium, a 20-10 Wild Card win over the Detroit Lions that Mike Alstott put out of reach with a 33-yard touchdown run to the left side in the third quarter.
Gruber probably would have enjoyed the 1999 playoffs even more, as the Bucs came within a few minutes of defeating the high-powered St. Louis Rams and going to Super Bowl XXXIV. However, in a cruel twist that hit his teammates and coworkers hard, Gruber broke his leg during the regular-season finale, a 20-6 win at Chicago that clinched the division title and gave the Bucs a first-round playoff bye. Gruber missed out on a second chance at the postseason and, in the coming months, retired from the game.
While others bemoaned his fate in an emotional locker room in Chicago and in the days that followed, Gruber accepted it with his characteristic fortitude.
Gruber's stoicism was learned early, in that small dairy-farming town of Prairie du Sac. A moment of personal tragedy transformed into a life-view of which he would never let go.
"My dad died when I was a senior in high school," he said. "That gave me a new perspective on life. You never know what's going to happen in life, and that's part of the rush. I wanted to play in those playoffs, but things happen. Overall, I have been very blessed in my life."
Prairie du Sac was a town of about 800, and before Gruber none of its young athletes had even played Division I football. Gruber didn't necessarily envision that he would either when he began playing football in the seventh grade, particularly since it was basketball that was his first passion. He also ran track…in a small town such as his, high school athletes pretty much play every sport. On the gridiron he was a raw but intriguing tight end.
The Badgers came calling and Gruber went to Madison, where he discovered that his background put him at something of a disadvantage. He had talent, but not the technique of some of his peers, and he still remembers the high school-to-college transition as being much tougher than college-to-the-NFL. He had the support of his eventual wife, Brenda, however, a high school classmate back in Prairie du Sac. The two were married during his senior year at Wisconsin and later, in Tampa, started their own family with sons Blake and Chase and daughter Ashlyn.
In Madison, coach Ron McBride convinced him to switch to the offensive line after he had first transitioned from tight end to the defensive line. He wound up on a unit that would send an amazing six players to the NFL. None of them were drafted as high as Gruber, however. In fact, Gruber remembers some of the reaction to his selection in the Bay area, and not all of it was complimentary.
Offensive tackles were already highly valued by NFL general managers – nine of them had been picked with top-10 selections in the previous five years, including two as high as second overall – but public perception hadn't yet caught up.
"The papers thought Ray Perkins was crazy for drafting a tackle," laughs Gruber now. "Afterward, it took a while to get my first contract done because of the different opinions of the value of the position. The Packers had taken a running back fourth overall the year before [Brent Fullwood] and we wanted a similar deal. I feel like we were near the beginning of the evolution of the importance of the position. Free agency came in the 1990s and then you could see how teams really valued the tackle position."
Gruber blocked for Testaverde, as well as Joe Ferguson, Chris Chandler, Jeff Carlson, Steve DeBerg, Craig Erickson, Trent Dilfer, Eric Zeier and Shaun King. He did so against a murderer's row of edge rushers in the old NFC Central, from Chris Doleman in Minnesota to Richard Dent in Chicago to Reggie White and Sean Jones in Green Bay. He helped Reggie Cobb break the 1,000-yard rushing mark once, and Errict Rhett twice. When the Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn "Thunder & Lightning" duo materialized in the second half of the '90s, he helped produce some of the best rushing seasons in franchise history.
Offensive linemen, even the very best ones, don't have much in the way of their own stats, their effectiveness often measured by what doesn't happen. Gruber's 183 starts and overall games played do still rank as the third and fourth-highest in team history, and no offensive player has ever opened more games for the Buccaneers. He has by far the most games played of any man in team annals who started every one of his contests; he and Hardy Nickerson (104) are the only two on that particular list with at least 90 games played.
And then there's the streak, the career-opening run of participation that had some people referring to him as the "Ironman." From the moment he stepped onto the field for his first regular-season game in 1988 through the end of the 1992 season, Gruber did not miss a single one of his team's offensive snaps. The streak eventually hit 4,850 plays. It was snapped when he missed the opening third of the 1993 season, but it was still his way of doing things. In 1995, for instance, he was the only player on the team to be on the field for every offensive or defensive snap, and that was while playing through a painful shoulder injury.
"That's just how I approached the game of football," he says now. "I wanted to be out there contributing at all times. When I came into the league, there was still a lot of that old-school 'warrior' mentality. Toughness was important to us."
It is still important to Buccaneer fans. A dozen years after his career ended, as he enjoys the great Colorado outdoors, Gruber is still fondly and vividly remembered back in the Bay area, where fans appreciated his unbreakable determination. Nowadays, Gruber manages properties and deals in business ventures that – no complaint – frequently take him to Costa Rica. He also has time to enjoy his children's various successes. Blake works for a tech company and is going to grad school. Chase will soon graduate from Davidson and go on to grad school as well. The youngest, Ashlyn, is a multi-sport standout in high school who will follow her brother to Davidson.
It's a good life. It was good back in rural Wisconsin, too, and the two locations share a certain atmosphere. But in between, Gruber found his way to Tampa, where he left a legacy that Buccaneer fans won't soon forget. And if they need a reminder, all they will have to do is look up at the façade of Raymond James Stadium, where Paul Gruber's name will soon be emblazoned as the newest member of the Ring of Honor.