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Raider of the Lost Arts There's not much flash in Rich Gannon's game, but moxie and hard work have made him one of the league's top quarterbacks

Oct. 15, 2001
Oct. 15, 2001

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Oct. 15, 2001

Inside Soccer

Raider of the Lost Arts There's not much flash in Rich Gannon's game, but moxie and hard work have made him one of the league's top quarterbacks

Rich Gannon surveyed the ragtag assemblage--pudgy punks with red
baseball cleats, workout warriors in tank tops, old guys with
beer bellies and tattered gym bags, pimply poseurs chowing down
Double Whoppers, street thugs in long mesh shorts--and thought he
must be having an out-of-body experience. Or maybe that's merely
what he wished it were, instead of a very real reminder of his
inglorious place on the football food chain. Fourteen months
earlier Gannon had played quarterback for the Washington Redskins
at RFK Stadium. Now, in February 1995, here he was in a public
park in suburban Dallas preparing to display his talents at an
open tryout for the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg Blue
Bombers.

This is an article from the Oct. 15, 2001 issue Original Layout

Think The Longest Yard meets a high school jayvee team's first
practice of the summer, and you're still not there. "It was even
worse," Gannon says. "I've never really told anybody the story
because it was probably the most humiliating moment of my life.
Guys were running here, jumping there, with no apparent rhyme or
reason. I remember thinking, Am I really here? Have I entered the
Twilight Zone?"

For a player known to erupt over the slightest sign of
shoddiness, this was torture. However, with a rapidly shrinking
bank account and a daughter on the way, Gannon swallowed hard and
finished the workout. The Blue Bombers had wooed him for months,
and now Gannon was resigned to making an unwelcome border run.
"When I finished that workout, they told me they wanted to sign
me," Gannon says. "I said to myself, This is it. This is the
alltime low. I'll never get back to the NFL."

Instead of signing, Gannon went home determined to make one final
push for the big stage, which landed him a backup job with the
Kansas City Chiefs. For this the Oakland Raiders are grateful.
Since being coaxed to Oakland by coach Jon Gruden following the
1998 season, Gannon has helped prod one of the league's sloppiest
ensembles into a lean, mean fighting machine. The All-Pro
quarterback (2000) serves not only as the Raiders' fiery leader
but also as their de facto den mother, snuffing out
distractions--he only recently allowed games of pool to resume at
the team's Alameda training facility after a hiatus of nearly two
years--and venting at anyone who fails to match his focus. The
21st-century Raiders thus have fewer weekday diversions and far
more fun on Sundays, as evidenced by last year's AFC Championship
Game appearance, the team's first in seven seasons.

On Sunday, Gannon completed 21 of 28 passes for 209 yards and a
touchdown to lead Oakland (3-1) to a 28-21 victory over the
Dallas Cowboys. With a 99.6 passer rating that ranks him tied for
first (with Denver's Brian Griese) in the AFC, the cunning, agile
Gannon seems headed for a third consecutive Pro Bowl and is the
team's unquestioned MVPP: Most Valuable Party Pooper. "On several
occasions Rich has gotten in front of the team and laid out his
views rather strongly," says fullback Jon Ritchie. "I know some
guys don't agree with everything he says, but they have to
respect him for speaking his mind." Gannon has been known to
castigate teammates for turning around too quickly on 20-yard
back-and-forth sprints. Says Oakland tackle Barry Sims,
"Sometimes in practice he'll get mad in the middle of a play and
start yelling--with the ball still in his hands."

It's not uncommon for coaches and quarterbacks to engage in
heated exchanges, but the G-men, as Gruden and Gannon call
themselves, take it to another level. Because they are so close
in age--Gruden, the NFL's youngest head coach, is 38, while Gannon
turns 36 in December--and temperament, they often go at it like
combative guests on Politically Incorrect. Pressed for an
example, Gruden cites last season's 34-28 overtime victory over
the San Francisco 49ers. "Rich wasn't in rhythm, so at halftime I
asked, 'Are you O.K.? Do you want me to go with [backup Bobby
Hoying]?'" Gruden says. "He went off on me: 'Bleep this, bleep
that, you bleepity bleep.' Sometimes something like that snaps
him out of his funk." Gannon finished the game with 310 passing
yards, including a game-winning 31-yard touchdown throw, and 85
rushing yards.

Gruden would like to see less loose cannon and more loose Gannon,
but he's reluctant to meddle with a winning formula. "Every year
at our quarterback orientation I tell him his number one weakness
is those displays of emotion," Gruden says. "He can say whatever
he wants to me--he knows that--but around others, sometimes he'd be
better off internalizing. I have to be careful about this because
he's an emotional man, and that's one of his qualities I admire
most, but I tell him, 'Don't carry the weight of the world on
your shoulders. You're a Pro Bowl QB. Enjoy this time.'"

Excessive enjoyment, though, is against Gannon's nature. As a
freshman at Division I-AA Delaware, a Belushiesque roommate
compelled Gannon to abandon his dorm for an off-campus apartment.
Now, having fought his way through a career that has spanned five
teams and numerous setbacks, he's determined not to take this
opportunity for granted. "I've invested a lot of time and
energy," he says, "and one promise I made to Jon and to myself is
that if I'm going to go down, I'm going to go down swinging--in a
ball of flames."

Gannon's NFL career appeared to be toast after the 1993 season,
when his contract with the Redskins expired and a routine
arthroscopic procedure on his right (throwing) shoulder revealed
a torn rotator cuff. He had surgery, then returned home to Eden
Prairie, Minn., and underwent a long and painful rehabilitation.
The '94 season began, and Gannon stayed unemployed, working out
on his own in Minnesota and, at night, meticulously building a
model train layout in his basement. His lone tryout during that
season was with the Arizona Cardinals because, Gannon surmised,
"Buddy Ryan [the Cardinals' coach at the time] wanted to piss
off his quarterbacks."

By the next February, Gannon was desperate enough to attend that
tryout session with the Blue Bombers, but before agreeing to bolt
to Canada he gave the NFL one final push. Gannon went to the
Minnesota Vikings' headquarters, scoured the entire set of NFL
media guides, identified 18 teams that had at least one staff
member with whom he was acquainted and started calling. "Almost
everyone blew me off," Gannon says. "It was very humbling and
very frustrating. I'd get a lot of, 'He's in a meeting. May I
tell him what it's in regard to?'"

Two candidates emerged, the 49ers and the Chiefs. Gannon chose
Kansas City, beat out Matt Blundin for the backup job and, under
the guidance of offensive coordinator Paul Hackett and
quarterbacks coach Mike McCarthy, improved his timing, footwork
and decision-making. It was also then that Gannon began enlisting
the services of his wife, Shelley, a daughter of former Vikings
running back Bill Brown. "She'd quiz him on formations while they
lay in bed," says McCarthy, now the New Orleans Saints' offensive
coordinator. "It might not sound romantic, but that's Rich--the
ultimate professional from a work-ethic standpoint."

When Elvis Grbac was injured late in the 1997 season, Gannon
shone in winning five of six starts, but when Grbac returned,
Gannon was benched for K.C.'s divisional playoff loss to the
Denver Broncos. After his contract expired following the '98
season, which he'd spent trading places with Grbac as the Chiefs'
starting quarterback, Rich told Shelley he would sign with anyone
but the AFC West rival Raiders, for whom he had "complete
disdain." Gruden won over Gannon during what has to rank as the
NFL's coolest-ever job interview. "We went out for Mexican food
and margaritas," Gruden says, "then had the limo driver stop at
7-Eleven so we could get a six-pack. We went back to my office,
watched film of our most recent game against Kansas City and
talked into the night."

The Raiders signed Gannon to a four-year, $16 million deal.
Despite owner Al Davis's fondness for the deep ball, Gruden had
enough juice to jettison turbo-armed quarterback Jeff George for
a journeyman who relied on touch, accuracy, scrambling ability
and field awareness. "Everyone thinks Rich is the classic
overachiever because of all his intangibles," says New York Jets
general manager Terry Bradway, who as a Chiefs personnel
executive helped initiate Gannon's signing. "But the guy can
throw the ball with zip, he's very accurate, and he can really
move."

An MVP candidate last year, Gannon doesn't restrict his battles
to Sundays. In his eyes a team's toughness and mood are molded on
a continuous basis, which is why he confiscated the pool balls
from the team's player lounge late in the '99 season. "I was used
to an organized, disciplined system," he says, "and when I got to
the Raiders, guys were showing up late to practice and meetings,
and missing curfew, among other problems. Then we had this lounge
that was like a big playroom, with a pool table, one of those
pop-a-shot basketball hoops and video games."

The noise from the lounge could be clearly heard in the room
where Gruden holds his midday meetings with the quarterbacks. "We
were cramming for a Thursday game against Tennessee late in the
season, and I finally flew off the handle," Gannon says. "I went
in and took all the pool balls and put them in a box over my
locker."

The following Monday, Gannon stood up in a team meeting and
delivered a now famous speech. (It's commemorated by a T-shirt
featuring Gannon's face inside the Raider logo.) "I told them to
look at guys like Steve Wisniewski, Tim Brown and Russell
Maryland and consider why they've been so good for so many
years," Gannon says. "It's like, sit next to the kid who keeps
getting A's in class; don't hang in back with the dummies. It was
a difficult thing to say to my teammates, and there was a group
that didn't like what I said. At least two guys told me so, and I
know there were more who didn't come to me directly."

Despite Gannon's locker room clout, he's hardly spared intrasquad
abuse. It's always an event when he boards the team plane for
road trips, because Gannon's wardrobe has been known to include
such gems as a multitoned leather jacket featuring the logos of
each NFL team. "Dude tries to be down, but it ain't happening,"
says halfback Tyrone Wheatley. "Sometimes we have to get the
fashion police on him. He wears the tightest jeans I've ever
seen, and he has that walk like Travolta in Grease." Ritchie
calls Gannon's look "Minnesota shopping mall, with glam-rock
Muzak playing on the sound system."

Imagine what Gannon's teammates might do with this bit of
information, courtesy of Shelley Gannon. "We have two daughters
[Alexis, 6, and Danielle, 4], and Rich plays Barbies with them,"
she says. "The girls got him a Prince Ken doll for Christmas,
with the little sword and everything. He was thrilled."

Chide him as they might, the Raiders can't fathom life without
their leader. Take away Rich and they are poor. Exhibit A: Last
January's AFC Championship Game defeat to the Baltimore Ravens in
Oakland. After taking shots from defensive linemen Michael
McCrary and Tony Siragusa that could have been flagged as
personal fouls--"Let's be honest," the 6'3", 210-pound Gannon
says, "defensive line coaches teach players how to take
quarterbacks down"--Gannon left the game in the second quarter
with a bruised collarbone. The Raiders lost 16-3.

"He means so much to us, even though he drives me nuts
sometimes," Gruden says. "But deep down, I know the sumbitch
knows I love him."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Loose Gannon Although he's notoriously intense on the field, Gannon can unwind a bit when he's behind bars--handlebars.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Rich in ability He may seem like a classic overachiever, but Gannon has a strong, accurate arm and great feet.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Family plan Gannon even reviews plays with his wife, Shelley, seen here with their two daughters, Alexis (left) and Danielle.
Gannon has helped prod one of the NFL's sloppiest ensembles into
a lean, mean fighting machine.
"The girls got him a Prince Ken doll," says Shelley. "He was
thrilled."