If you have watched Jon Gruden on Monday Night Football or other programs on ESPN, you know he is passionate about football. The former college and NFL coach has made an impact on the game in many ways, but not all of them are played out in his role as an analyst under the bright lights of prime-time television.
In a rather quiet and private affair on Saturday afternoon at the Vikings’ headquarters in Eden Prairie, Gruden made an impact on players and coaches from four Minnesota high school football teams. They will remember it as long as they live.
Teams from Red Lake, Eden Valley-Watkins, Minneapolis North and St. Paul Como Park were invited to attend a special event headlined by Gruden, who coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title in 2003. Gruden talked to the teams en masse, ran them through drills, shared a meal with them and delivered gifts to each team. He also complied with every autograph request and posed for a photo with every person who asked.
Gruden and ESPN, in partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods, hold similar events in every city the Saturday before Monday Night Football games (the Vikings host the New York Giants on Monday night). Each Minnesota team received a $2,000 donation along with new footballs, tackling dummies, blocking pads and t-shirts. The head coaches received gift cards.
In years of writing about high school sports, I have never met anyone who displayed more passion than Gruden. He has taken on the mantle of supporting football and all youth sports because of what they teach.
“I think the lessons that you learn from football are lessons you can’t get anywhere else,” he told me after the two-hour event ended. “Teamwork, sportsmanship, your work ethic, the discipline, accountability, mental toughness, all those things. Things that a lot of people don’t think are important anymore, but they’re wrong.”
Gruden began the session by gathering all four teams (“take a knee”) at midfield on the Vikings’ indoor practice field. The players wore their jerseys: Red for Red Lake, blue for Eden Valley-Watkins, black for Como Park and gray for North. He talked about determination, effort and communication, but first he stressed the importance of a proper handshake.
He had one of the players stand up and shake hands with him, saying “C’mon! I wanna see a good handshake!” Then he had all the players shake hands with players from other teams as they introduced themselves.
He had the four starting quarterbacks stand up and bark out a cadence. Middle linebackers did the same thing, calling defensive signals. As one of the quarterbacks displayed a deep, loud cadence, Gruden shouted, “That’s a great voice there!”
“You’ve got to communicate, and I’m not talking about Twitter, texting and that Snapchat thing,” he told the boys.
He told the players to appreciate every practice, every game and every memory.
“The best times of my life, 53 years, was playing this game,” he said.
Gruden grew up in Sandusky, Ohio. In college at Dayton he was a backup quarterback. His college coaching career took him to Tennessee, Southeast Missouri State, University of Pacific and University of Pittsburgh. He was an NFL assistant in San Francisco, Green Bay and Philadelphia before becoming head coach in Oakland in 1998. He replaced Tony Dungy as head coach in Tampa Bay in 2002.
After he was fired by Tampa Bay in 2010, Gruden helped coach his son’s high school football team in Tampa. He also created an organization called the Fired Football Coaches Association, “dedicated to giving back to the game of football, with a specific emphasis on high school athletic programs.”
“When I got fired we formed this FFCA. The only job I really had was coaching my son’s high school football team,” Gruden told me. “And I realized then that the coaches don’t get paid anything, they don’t have a budget, and everybody complains about everything. And in a lot of places kids have to pay to play football.
“Dick’s Sporting Goods teamed up and they have a program where they’re trying to save youth sports. There are people who are trying to diminish them; no more recess, no more games, no more football, no more anything. And I’m not just talking about football. I’m talking about women’s sports, all kinds of youth sports.”
Gruden smiled when I asked him about his memories of playing high school football.
“I still remember the games. I can remember putting on my pads. I remember pregame meals. I can remember what I did after the games. The great wins, the tough losses, the lessons I learned, the friends I made, the places I got to see. And my coaches and the lessons they taught. And I don’t know where we’d be without those, you know?”
Gruden hands out “Gruden Grinder” awards during NFL games, and Saturday he awarded Gruden Grinder t-shirts to selected players from each high school, based on things like work ethic, grades, and other school activities in which the players are involved. An ESPN camera crew filmed Saturday’s event and excerpts will be televised during Monday night Giants-Vikings game.
Before the four Minnesota teams headed for home, they posed for team photos with Gruden and a ceremonial $2,000 check in front of a Dick’s Sporting Goods bus that carried a simple message in giant letters: “Sports Matter.”
“As long as I’m alive we’re going to try and create some awareness that it’s a problem.” Gruden said of the challenges facing youth sports. “I want my kids and their kids and their kids to have a chance to play the games I got to play. Because there’s no way I am where I am without sports.”--To see photos from the event, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 72
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 2,667
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn