PITTSBURGH — This season has been a challenging one for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Currently, the team has six wins and eight losses and is a longshot for the playoffs, even if they win their final two games of the regular season. Despite the Steelers’ troubles, the team’s backup quarterback, Bruce Gradkowski, doesn’t have a gloomy outlook.
Gradkowski was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the sixth round of the 2006 NFL Draft, after playing college football at the University of Toledo. Following stints with the St. Louis Rams, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals, he came to the Steelers in 2013.
The 30-year-old Pittsburgh native is keenly aware of what a blessing it is to be playing football professionally at all, regardless of wins and losses. He is also mindful of the even greater blessing of family life. With a wife and 8-month-old daughter, Gradkowski is happiest when at home or in church with his family.
Bruce Gradkowski recently spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie about football and family in the light of faith.
This season has been tough for the Steelers. What have you learned from it?
Something that has been reinforced for me is to look at what you can do, not what you can’t. People talk about if this or that team wins and all these other things that really aren’t under your control. Worrying about those things is counterproductive. You just have to do what you can. What the team has to try to do is take care of our own business and win out. Then whatever happens after that is up to God’s providence.
What is the best part of pro football?
The best part is that you’re getting paid to play a game. Playing a game is fun on its own, but to be able to say that it’s your job to play it — that’s quite a blessing. It’s something I thank God for every day. At a time when so many people are out of work, I’m very conscious of how fortunate I am.
What is the toughest part of pro football?
The toughest thing is trying to play at a high level on a consistent basis. There’s so much talent among so many players in this league, but the key is to be able to use that talent day in and day out. Trying to be the same player every day — a player the others can rely on — that’s a great challenge.
There’s the joke that NFL stands for “Not For Long” because the average playing career is only about three years. There’s a lot of competition, and pro football can be a very strenuous game, physically and mentally. You have to give it your best while you’re playing, but also keep in mind that there’s so much more to life after your playing days are over.
Since your brother Gino plays for the Baltimore Ravens, you obviously come from a football family, but is it also a Catholic family?
Yes, my younger brother Gino and two sisters were raised Catholic. We were baptized, went to reconciliation and holy Communion and then were confirmed. We attended Catholic schools, and my mom would frequently talk about St. Teresa of Lisieux and call on her intercession. My mom would even take holy water and bless us with the Sign of the Cross on our foreheads before a big game or some other event. Even to this day, she still blesses me when I visit her.
Your first child was born earlier this year. What is the best part of family life?
Aside from the day I was married to my wife, Miranda, the day our daughter, Liliana Rae, was born was the best of my life. It’s such a blessing to come home from work and see Liliana smiling at me. That’s the cutest thing in the world. I enjoy football, but being with my daughter and wife is the best part of my day.
Looking at my daughter reminds me of how God the Father looks at us: with such indescribable love. He enables us, despite our weaknesses, to live a life of grace as his children. We don’t always do it well, but despite our sins, he does forgive us. Sometimes a baby can cry a lot or not go to sleep, but because of the love you have for the baby, those things are easily forgiven.
I love family life and look forward to having a house full of kids. We’ll see what happens, but maybe we can give Philip and Tiffany Rivers, who currently have seven children, a run for their money. Regardless, the Church’s teachings about the sacredness of marriage and human life are something beautiful to be a part of on a daily basis.
Was there a challenging time in your life that your faith got you through?
There have been many of those times, but one that stands out is when I was at the University of Toledo. A junior college transfer was brought in before my red-shirt sophomore season. I was worried that he would be the starter for the next two years, which would mean I would only be able to play for one season. That would make it less likely that I’d get into the NFL.
My anxiety was relieved in light of a Scripture passage that a teammate told me about: Jeremiah 29:11. It says, “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” That helped me to know that, whatever the future might hold, I knew who held the future. Everything is in God’s hands.
It might seem like we need to worry about things and frantically try to get our plans to work out, but God is with us every step of the way. He knows what’s best for us, and he’s the one who provides for us. All we have control over is our own actions, not the results of those actions or how others will respond to them. We can only do so much, and then it’s out of our hands.
After realizing this, I just prepared myself as well as I could and tried to be the best player I could be, and it turned out that I became Toledo’s starting QB for three years and am now in the NFL. I did put in a lot of work, but all the credit for the results I had goes to God. He’s the one who loves us as children and gives us everything we need.
What are some of the other things you appreciate about God and the Catholic Church?
I enjoy how the Church feels like a family. We’re not lonely individuals doing our own thing, but a family united with a common purpose. We believe what the Church teaches, we participate in the Church’s sacraments, and we operate as members of the body of Christ.
Jesus Christ suffered and died in atonement for our sins, so that we may have everlasting life. I love how this is made crystal clear though the sacraments. We’re not just spirit, but matter as well, so it is very good to have sense-perceptible signs showing us the spiritual realities taking place. In the sacrament of reconciliation, when the priest raises his hand in absolution and says we are forgiven, that is Jesus forgiving our sins through the priest. We can hear it with our own ears and not just wonder, “Am I really forgiven for that sin?” Jesus wants us to hear his words and be sanctified by them.
This happens not only in reconciliation but in the Mass as well. My wife and I also make it a point to go to Mass every Sunday of the year, whether it’s football season or not. As a pro athlete, there can be timing challenges, but you really have to make the effort to get to Mass. During the season, I either go to a vigil Mass at a parish in the Pittsburgh area or at the Sunday morning Mass provided for the team at the stadium.
The Mass keeps alive the family-like unity of the Church in many ways, because Jesus Christ himself is present there to unite us. He’s there through the Bible readings, in those who have been baptized, and in other ways, such as the art of music, stained glass or Stations of the Cross. Yet the most outstanding way Jesus is present is in holy Communion. That’s the greatest gift that outshines every other gift, because holy Communion is truly the Word made flesh. Once Jesus has been adored and received, everyone and everything else comes together in the right order.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.