- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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The kid clears out as quickly as he can. Gruden begins his daily walk through the heat-baked gantlet of fans, who include, besides the usual eager boys and memorabilia hounds, a deep and patient line of women. One 60ish matron grabs Gruden's arm, says, "I love you!" and kisses it.
"Finally," says one man, "a Super Bowl coach."
"Aw, we got to get there, man," Gruden says.
Noon in Orlando in August: To stand here is to stand on an anvil in the desert. Gruden stays until everyone has gotten a piece of him, signs Chucky dolls and T-shirts, says thank you, poses for each camera. The women giggle and whisper the word cute. A tubby man walks up to them. "Any players?" he asks.
"No," say two women almost simultaneously, "they saved the best for last." Gruden gets into a cart and rides off to applause. He couldn't have been more charming. Then again, he never stopped moving.
"He's a warm and fuzzy guy the first time he meets you, and if that's a five-minute deal, he's the greatest guy in the world," says Jay Gruden, 35, who, after four years and two Arena Football League titles as coach of the Orlando Predators, returned to the field last spring as the team's quarterback. "But sit with him for a half hour? You got problems."
Jon's support of his little brother's comeback as a player was constant and public, and he made it clear that Jay—without any major-college or NFL coaching experience—would have a place on his staff the moment the arena season ended. Jay is now a Bucs offensive assistant, but before taking the job he was wary. He'd seen that Chucky face his whole life. "Jon is very easily agitated," Jay says. "We get along great, but the thing that worried me was, if you're in the same room with him for a long period of time, he's going to find something you're doing that bothers him. If I had an itch, he'd call me Dog Boy. Move my foot wrong? Sit still?
Jay laughs at the memory. So do the other Grudens, who love Jon and long ago learned to live with his quirks. When the family lived in Ohio during Jim's coaching stint at Dayton from 1969 to '72, the racket of one aunt's eating habits scarred Jon for life. The clank of a spoon on a bowl or on teeth is intolerable to him, and he has gotten on Cindy for swallowing too loudly. When his wife and three boys sit down for breakfast, Jon takes his plate and sits on a couch far from the nightmare.
"He's in the perfect place," Cindy says of Jon's job. "He works long hours, so he doesn't drive me crazy—he gets very irritated quickly. If he's in a movie theater and someone's chewing too loudly or talking, we get up and move. One time we moved five times. I was so embarrassed. It's just the chewing thing. Is that weird?"
God bless Kathy Gruden. Anyone with a big family knows the casual riot caused by three tart-tongued and headstrong brothers. With her husband gone for long stretches, Kathy raised her boys with little more than her will and a deadly wooden spoon. Besides playing the usual mom roles of cook and cheerleader, she endured bruises on her shins from trying to catch baseballs and bruises on her heart from trying to keep the peace. Jon battled daily with his other brother, James, who is three years older and had no deep interest in sports; he loved to study. Jon thought James was a nerd. James thought Jon was nothing but a jock—just smart enough, he told Jon, to be his chauffeur someday. One time the fighting got so savage that Kathy took the three boys into the living room and made them kneel and pray to God for some mutual respect.