Rich Gannon surveyed the ragtag assemblage—pudgy punks with red baseball cleats, workout warriors in tank tops, old guys with beer bellies and tattered gym bags, pimply poseurs chowing down Double Whoppers, street thugs in long mesh shorts—and thought he must be having an out-of-body experience. Or maybe that's merely what he wished it were, instead of a very real reminder of his inglorious place on the football food chain. Fourteen months earlier Gannon had played quarterback for the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium. Now, in February 1995, here he was in a public park in suburban Dallas preparing to display his talents at an open tryout for the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Think The Longest Yard meets a high school jayvee team's first practice of the summer, and you're still not there. "It was even worse," Gannon says. "I've never really told anybody the story because it was probably the most humiliating moment of my life. Guys were running here, jumping there, with no apparent rhyme or reason. I remember thinking, Am I really here? Have I entered the Twilight Zone?"
For a player known to erupt over the slightest sign of shoddiness, this was torture. However, with a rapidly shrinking bank account and a daughter on the way, Gannon swallowed hard and finished the workout. The Blue Bombers had wooed him for months, and now Gannon was resigned to making an unwelcome border run. "When I finished that workout, they told me they wanted to sign me," Gannon says. "I said to myself, This is it. This is the alltime low. I'll never get back to the NFL."
Instead of signing, Gannon went home determined to make one final push for the big stage, which landed him a backup job with the Kansas City Chiefs. For this the Oakland Raiders are grateful. Since being coaxed to Oakland by coach Jon Gruden following the 1998 season, Gannon has helped prod one of the league's sloppiest ensembles into a lean, mean fighting machine. The All-Pro quarterback (2000) serves not only as the Raiders' fiery leader but also as their de facto den mother, snuffing out distractions—he only recently allowed games of pool to resume at the team's Alameda training facility after a hiatus of nearly two years—and venting at anyone who fails to match his focus. The 21st-century Raiders thus have fewer weekday diversions and far more fun on Sundays, as evidenced by last year's AFC Championship Game appearance, the team's first in seven seasons.
On Sunday, Gannon completed 21 of 28 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown to lead Oakland (3-1) to a 28-21 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. With a 99.6 passer rating that ranks him tied for first (with Denver's Brian Griese) in the AFC, the cunning, agile Gannon seems headed for a third consecutive Pro Bowl and is the team's unquestioned MVPP: Most Valuable Party Pooper. "On several occasions Rich has gotten in front of the team and laid out his views rather strongly," says fullback Jon Ritchie. "I know some guys don't agree with everything he says, but they have to respect him for speaking his mind." Gannon has been known to castigate teammates for turning around too quickly on 20-yard back-and-forth sprints. Says Oakland tackle Barry Sims, "Sometimes in practice he'll get mad in the middle of a play and start yelling—with the ball still in his hands."
It's not uncommon for coaches and quarterbacks to engage in heated exchanges, but the G-men, as Gruden and Gannon call themselves, take it to another level. Because they are so close in age—Gruden, the NFL's youngest head coach, is 38, while Gannon turns 36 in December—and temperament, they often go at it like combative guests on Politically Incorrect. Pressed for an example, Gruden cites last season's 34-28 overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers. "Rich wasn't in rhythm, so at halftime I asked, 'Are you O.K.? Do you want me to go with [backup Bobby Hoying]?' " Gruden says. "He went off on me: 'Bleep this, bleep that, you bleepity bleep.' Sometimes something like that snaps him out of his funk." Gannon finished the game with 310 passing yards, including a game-winning 31-yard touchdown throw, and 85 rushing yards.
Gruden would like to see less loose cannon and more loose Gannon, but he's reluctant to meddle with a winning formula. "Every year at our quarterback orientation I tell him his number one weakness is those displays of emotion," Gruden says. "He can say whatever he wants to me—he knows that—but around others, sometimes he'd be better off internalizing. I have to be careful about this because he's an emotional man, and that's one of his qualities I admire most, but I tell him, 'Don't carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. You're a Pro Bowl QB. Enjoy this time.' "
Excessive enjoyment, though, is against Gannon's nature. As a freshman at Division I-AA Delaware, a Belushiesque roommate compelled Gannon to abandon his dorm for an off-campus apartment. Now, having fought his way through a career that has spanned five teams and numerous setbacks, he's determined not to take this opportunity for granted. "I've invested a lot of time and energy," he says, "and one promise I made to Jon and to myself is that if I'm going to go down, I'm going to go down swinging—in a ball of flames."
Gannon's NFL career appeared to be toast after the 1993 season, when his contract with the Redskins expired and a routine arthroscopic procedure on his right (throwing) shoulder revealed a torn rotator cuff. He had surgery, then returned home to Eden Prairie, Minn., and underwent a long and painful rehabilitation. The '94 season began, and Gannon stayed unemployed, working out on his own in Minnesota and, at night, meticulously building a model train layout in his basement. His lone tryout during that season was with the Arizona Cardinals because, Gannon surmised, " Buddy Ryan [the Cardinals' coach at the time] wanted to piss off his quarterbacks."
By the next February, Gannon was desperate enough to attend that tryout session with the Blue Bombers, but before agreeing to bolt to Canada he gave the NFL one final push. Gannon went to the Minnesota Vikings' headquarters, scoured the entire set of NFL media guides, identified 18 teams that had at least one staff member with whom he was acquainted and started calling. "Almost everyone blew me off," Gannon says. "It was very humbling and very frustrating. I'd get a lot of, 'He's in a meeting. May I tell him what it's in regard to?' "