You make your debut as a starter in the Superdome. Weeks later, you’re under the lights on Monday Night Football. Then, you find yourself in the national spotlight playing the Dallas Cowboys in a Thanksgiving Day game.

Three months ago, Buccaneers quarterback Bruce Gradkowski was a sixth-round draft pick in Tampa Bay’s training camp as the backup to the backup.

A lot can change in three months.

And while his baptism by fire has included playing on some of the biggest stages any NFL player can step on, this Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh, on a personal level, might top them all for the rookie signal caller.

“I circled this game early when I got drafted,” Gradkowski said of his return to his home state of Pennsylvania. “And everyone said, ‘Wow, that’s a ways away.’ I was like, ‘I might not even be playing then. But to know I am going to be playing in this game, it’s going to be exciting and I just want to go out and play hard.”

Coal, steel, and the birthplace of independence.

A state with as much history as Pennsylvania has a lot of pride and tradition when it comes to its exports, but when it comes to football, Pennsylvanian’s chests swell a little bit larger.

The Quaker State might be better known as Quarterback Country, producing the likes of Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Dan Marino.

Surely, Gradkowski would like to be added to that list some day. After all, every pee wee QB in the state of Pennsylvania aspires to be the next great one.

His 29.2 passer rating against the Cowboys may not say he belongs in the same sentence with those legends, but Gradkowski’s high school football resume’ begs to differ.

Gradkowski was a prep standout at Seton-La Salle High School in Pittsburgh, PA, part of the notorious Western Pennsylvania Athletic League that Namath, Montana and Mario played.

As a senior, he passed for 2,978 yards, the most in the conference’s 87-year history, surpassing all the aforementioned Hall of Famers.

Growing up, Gradkowski was a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and returning to his home state to play in front of friends and family is something he is looking forward to with much anticipation.

“Yea, this is definitely going to be a great time, playing in Pittsburgh in front of the home town,” he said. “You know, they’ve been great to me.”  

Getting tickets for relatives and old friends is something that has been in the works for some time now as he is expecting more than 100 of them to attend the game. The question is, who will they be cheering for? We know which team Gradkowski is behind.

“I was a big Steelers fan growing up,” Gradkowski said. “If you grew up in Pittsburgh, you’re going to be rooting for the Steelers.
But knowing what I wanted to do when I got older, it was hard to be a fan of one team.”

On Monday, guard Dan Buenning became the fourth Buccaneer starter to be placed on injured reserve this season, joining quarterback Chris Simms, cornerback Brian Kelly and defensive end Simeon Rice.

Buenning, who started all 17 games at left guard last season, injured his knee in Thursday’s game against Dallas and will be replaced by fourth-year pro Sean Mahan.

Mahan has started seven games this year, all at the left guard position, spelling Buenning after he suffered a sprained ankle.

“It’s a big blow you know, it’s a very big blow. Unfortunately we will have to go on without him,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of losing Buenning.

Gradkowski said that the injury is unfortunate because it comes at a time when the team’s running game was beginning to pick up momentum. However, the rookie signal caller is confident in Mahan.

“It’s definitely tough losing Dan,” Gradkowski said. “But Sean Mahan has been in the mix this season, so that’s fine putting him in because he already knows what to do. He’s been in game situations, so I’m confident with him stepping in.”

Mahan started 16 games last season, all at the right guard position. Being able to flip sides of the center is something he says can be difficult.

“Everything is backwards, so you have to relearn your technique,” Mahan said of the switch. “This game is all about technique at this level. You have to have good technique or be an absolute monster to play. You have to be able to reverse everything. It’s hard for some people, easier for others.”

The Buccaneers rushing attack has seen a slight spark over the last two games with Cadillac Williams averaging 4.6 yards per carry against Dallas and having his best day in terms of production the week before against Washington when he rushed for 122 yards.

Williams attributes the improvement to the offensive line, saying the linemen have taken more pride in rushing the ball and controlling the line of scrimmage.

In turn, he says he has become more patient over the same period of time, not looking so much to break the big run, but rather waiting for holes to develop and taking the yards where he can get them.

Losing is not something Williams is comfortable with or accustomed to. In, 2004, his senior year at Auburn, the Tigers went 13-0. As a rookie last season with the Bucs, he was part of an 11-5 effort. In this time of hardship, he says he  looks to veterans on the team for inspiration.

“It’s tough, but Mike Alstott and Derrick Brooks are some of the guys who have been here in times when things weren’t very good. You kind of just lean on those guys for support,” Williams said. “How did they get through it? Some of the things they did. You just have to be tough and keep on pushing.

Gruden called these “trying times” and said everybody goes through them. It’s what you do in these bad times, he said, that defines a team.

“I think it’s big [to finish strong],” Willaims said. “It shows the character of this football team, how we finish up and continue to play hard, even though it seems like we’re not going to make the playoffs.”

Gruden himself continues to deflect questions surrounding the team’s commitment and effort in the face of adversity, saying the effort hasn’t been just good lately, but rather “outstanding.”

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