Under the Microscope San Jose quarterback Mark Grieb, a former molecular biology student, is overdue in delivering an Arena title

June 06, 2004

The sun was out, the surf was up, and the campus was teeming with
attractive coeds. It was another beautiful day in West L.A. in
1998, and Mark Grieb spent it under artificial light, wearing a
lab coat and bending over a microscope to study organisms in a
petri dish.

Grieb, a former UC Davis quarterback and self-described "science
dork," had enrolled at UCLA to earn a Ph.D. in molecular biology
but quickly lost interest. "That life wasn't for me," says Grieb,
who had tried the Arena Football League the year before and
decided he was better off returning to the game. "You're inside
working on some stinking culture, thinking, Is this really
important? Working in a lab is a very isolating existence, and I
realized how much I liked working with people."

Four years later, as the quarterback of the Arena League's San
Jose SaberCats, Grieb suffered a different kind of
isolation--this time in a jam-packed arena filled with more
overwrought sound effects than a John Woo movie. The league's
Offensive Player of the Year, Grieb watched from the sideline
with a broken left clavicle as his backup, John Dutton, spurred
the SaberCats to their first championship, a 52-14 ArenaBowl XVI
victory over the Arizona Rattlers. Says Grieb, who was injured
with one game left in the regular season, "John was extremely
gracious about it, but I'm not going to lie: It was somewhat
bittersweet to watch us win it all while I was standing there
with my arm in a sling."

Grieb guided the club to the AFL semifinals before losing in
2003, and San Jose is gearing up for another title push this
week. The SaberCats (11-5) are the No. 2 seed in the playoffs,
and Grieb wound up with the best passing rating (133.45) in
league history. His eye-popping numbers included a 73.0
completion percentage and 75 touchdown passes with only seven

One of Grieb's strengths is a willingness to hang in the pocket
under pressure, but his toughness wasn't always so apparent. His
first AFL experience, with the Anaheim Piranhas in 1997, was so
rocky that he recalls, "I thought I was done. I didn't want to go
back to the Arena League." Until he tried molecular biology, then
wound up in San Jose in '99.

SaberCats lineman Sam Hernandez, the league's career sack leader
(58, including four this year), was playing for the Piranhas when
Grieb came aboard. "The league was still finding itself, and we
had some questionable guys in the locker room," Hernandez says.
"Mark was a rookie, and a lot of jokes were on him." The team
trained in a residential area of Orange, Calif., and on Grieb's
first day of practice after winning the starting job, he found
his helmet, shoulder pads and jersey on a tackling dummy outside
the locker room. "Same thing the second day," Hernandez says,
"but the dummy was on the field. The third day, it was on the
porch of a house across the street." The team went 2-12, and
Grieb completed only 55.7% of his passes in eight games.

Grieb, of course, is no dummy, having earned a master's degree in
education from Stanford in 2002. His on-field intelligence,
patience and accuracy are ideally suited to San Jose's offense,
which emphasizes stretching the field then throwing to open
receivers underneath. What he doesn't have is a strong arm, which
kept him from attracting NFL suitors out of college and briefly
cost him his starting job in 2001, when he was replaced by the
hard-throwing Dutton.

Now the SaberCats are indisputably Grieb's team (Dutton signed
with the Colorado Crush before the '03 season), and they're
focused on winning a championship he can get excited about. "I
know missing out on the last ArenaBowl hurt him a lot," says
teammate and offensive specialist James Hundon. "It's not going
to be as easy as it was in 2002, but we'll get there again."

COLOR PHOTO: ARIC CRABB/SAN JOSE SABERCATS TOP CAT Grieb may not have a strong arm, but he more than makesup for it with his intelligence and accuracy.