Gradkowski brothers' parents will be 'cheering for both' in Ravens-Steelers game

In Dormont, a quiet neighborhood across the Monongahela River and over Mount Washington from Heinz Field, a nondescript family home is smack dab in the middle of the NFL's hardest-hitting rivalry.

Walk inside the house and you would find family photo albums, old sports trophies and Terrible Towels — pretty standard stuff in Pittsburgh Steelers country.


But the Ravens memorabilia?

It's only when you see the recent photograph on the wall, the one of Bruce Gradkowski on an NFL field with his arm around his younger but bigger brother, Gino, that it finally starts to make sense.

The Gradkowski family has produced a pair of NFL players in Bruce, 30, a quarterback for the Steelers, and Gino, 24, the starting center for the Ravens. Gino has always followed his older brother's lead, even still, and their proud parents have influenced both. So when two of the NFL's biggest rivals duke it out Sunday at Heinz Field, this Pittsburgh home will not be a house divided.

"My family is born and raised here. They're true Pittsburgh fans. Gino knows that. He knows he lost the [extended] family now," Bruce Jr. said. "But my mom and dad, they'll be cheering for both."

At the head of a through and through football family, Bruce Sr. and Debbie Gradkowski on Sunday will savor watching their boys on the same field again from their stadium seats.

"I love it. I love the competition, the excitement," Debbie said. "Of course there is going to be an up-and-down moment during the game and at the end of the game, but as long as nobody gets hurt we'll survive."

Growing up in a large, close-knit family, the Gradkowski boys were always playing some game with their small army of cousins. Their two sisters, Brittney and Deanna, were born between the boys and played basketball and softball when they weren't cheerleading.

The Gradkowskis pulled for the Pirates and Penguins and attended church before watching the Steelers every Sunday. Years later, Gino's parents, siblings and members of his extended family would travel to New Orleans to watch Gino and the rival Ravens win the Super Bowl.

"We were all very close. We still are," Gino said. "We played every sport there was. Whatever season it was, we were playing that sport. It was awesome."

When Gino was five, he tagged along to football practice, where Bruce Sr. coached his older brother. Gino was already so big he blended in with boys two or three years older. He would wiggle into shoulder pads, put on a helmet and join them for a pre-practice jog around the field.

"We would be done and stretching and Gino would still be on the lap. So we'd see Gino still running the lap because he was five years old trying to run around with all that equipment on," Bruce Jr. said. "It's cool to see how far he's come and how he's grown into a good player."

Gino was too young to practice then, so he would amuse himself by jumping on the blocking bags off to the side. When he was old enough to participate in Pop Warner midget leagues, he sometimes had to sit out games because he was too heavy.

Gino once wanted to play quarterback like his big brother, but that desire didn't last long.

"I kind of took that right out of his mind. He was big. His feet were big. His legs were big," his father said, calling him a "grunt" as a term of endearment.


Bruce Sr. coached the boys in various youth sports, including football. "He yelled at them and had veins popping out of his neck," Debbie said, laughing at the memory of her 6 foot 3, 300-pound teddy bear of a husband losing his cool. She said Bruce Sr. had a big role in their sons' football careers before handing them over to the coaches at Seton-La Salle High School.

But Bruce Jr. said his mother, all 5 feet, 2 inches of her, was the one the boys feared most.

"She has the tenacity," he said. "She's a little Italian. She gets after it."

Debbie will spend Saturday in the kitchen, preparing for Gino and a dozen or so of his friends to stop by for dinner. Last year, Gino brought home with him quarterback Joe Flacco, his mentor Matt Birk and several other Ravens players. Whoever comes home with Gino on Saturday night will be treated to a hearty Italian meal, including stuffed shells and chicken.

Both boys have shaved heads — Gino's has a five o'clock shadow — and dark facial features. Gino has two inches and 80 pounds on his big brother and he is also more shy than Bruce, who hosts a weekly radio show in Pittsburgh.

"It's funny. That's what I get a kick out of," their father said. "Watching the boys play two different positions, they're two different characters. I always tease Bruce that it's all about drama with the quarterbacks. But the linemen, it's not. They just go out there and block."

This season, though, it is Gino who has been in the spotlight, not Bruce, who is the backup to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. In his second year in the NFL, Gino is a first-time starter on a Ravens offensive line that has been scrutinized in recent weeks for struggling to protect Flacco and plow open running lanes for running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.

When Ravens run game coordinator Juan Castillo has gotten in his ear, or when he has heard the outside criticism when he leaves the team's facility, Gino knows who to call first.

Bruce Jr., a 2006 sixth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has played for five teams in eight seasons. After two years with the Cincinnati Bengals, Bruce joined his hometown Steelers. Considered one of the NFL's better backups, Bruce has started for three teams,compiling a 6-14 record.

"Bruce has been a huge influence on me, a great role model for me," said Gino, whose deep voice and Pittsburgh accent makes him sound nearly identical to his brother. "I still talk to him almost every day about pretty much everything. And any problem that I'm going through, he's been through it already."

And, of course, their father still gives them pointers after games, such as asking Gino why he didn't pick up a blitzer or Bruce why he failed to spot an open receiver. The boys just shake their heads.

Bruce Sr. and Debbie try to attend one of their sons' games every weekend. This week they can see both at Heinz Field. Debbie will wear a custom jersey — made by daughter Deanna, a fashion designer — that is Bruce Jr.'s No. 5 Steelers jersey in the front and Gino's No. 66 Ravens jersey in the back. Bruce Sr. has been known to dress in purple to stick up for Gino.

No matter the outcome when the rival Ravens and Steelers collide, the Gradkowskis will share a moment in the bowels of the stadium after the game. Maybe one day the boys will again get to play together on the same team. But to their parents, it doesn't get much better than this.

"It's a great thing the way things have worked out for them," Bruce Sr. said. "Yeah, I'm a proud father, but we're humbled by it. We're really having a good time with it."



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