Gradkowski ready for Super Bowl ride

Published Jan 30, 2013 at 11:00 am (Updated Jan 30, 2013 at 11:00 am)

When Gino Gradkowski was 5, his father always had him don a uniform and watch his older brother play football for the Keystone Oaks Association. Come Sunday, Feb. 3, the Gradkowski family and the entire world will be watching Gino play on the offensive line for the Baltimore Ravens as they battle the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl.

“It’s every kid’s dream who has ever played the game of football to be in the Super Bowl,” said the 23-year-old son of Bruce and Debbie Gradkowski. “I am very excited. It’s been a dream ride so far.”

From the sandlots of Dormont where they always let him “suit up” to the Superdome in New Orleans, Gino fantasized about this moment, which has arrived during his first season with the Ravens. Baltimore drafted Gino in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

“For a rookie, this is fantastic,” he said. “I’ve never been to New Orleans before. I’ve never been to a Super Bowl before. For this to be my first one and I’m actually playing in it, that’s amazing. It’s going to be real sweet.”

But, it’s also going to be work for the 6-3, 300-pound lineman. Last Thursday, a day after he arranged hotel rooms and airline tickets for his immediate family, Gino and the Ravens began preparing for the 49ers.

“It’s all business. It was good to get all that (the arrangements) out of the way. Now we can focus on the game.

“I’m going to enjoy every minute of it,” he noted, “but it’s a business trip. You’ve got to remember that there’s a game to be played.”

The Ravens, who upended the New England Patriots, 28-13, in the AFC championship game, finished 10-6 during the regular season while the 49ers were 11-4-1 before beating Green Bay, 45-31, and Atlanta, 28-24, to win the NFC championship and earn their trip to New Orleans.

While the 49ers boast quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has passed for over 1,800 yards and 10 touchdowns, Gradkowski noted defense as the key to the contest. “San Francisco has a great defense; their front seven, the D-linemen and the linebackers,” Gino said. “They have the best inside line-backing combination in (Patrick) Willis and No. 53 (NaVorro Bowman). The (49ers) are a good challenge for us.”

Playing against Gino and his brother, Bruce, has always been a challenge for opponents. Before both entered the NFL, each experienced success while playing scholastically at Seton-La Salle High School, located in Mt. Lebanon. While Bruce started Seton’s passion for passing, Gino re-established the Rebels’ reliance on the run because of his blocking abilities.

“SLS has played a huge role in my success and I’ll never forget it. I’m proud to be a Rebel. It’s stayed in my blood,” said Gino, who often returns to his alma mater for visits and to help out the football team. “The school is always competitive and they do well every year.

“That competitiveness,” he continued, “has stuck with me and how to play the game tough. I’ve been fortunate to work around coaches and players who love to play the game.”

Gradkowski did not find that toughness at West Virginia so he transferred to Delaware, ironically the same school that produced Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco. For three seasons, Gino excelled. The All-American lineman saw action at both guard positions as well as center and helped the Blue Hens to a 25-12 record.

Prepared skill-wise for the NFL, Gino grappled with other aspects of the game once he arrived at Baltimore. The biggest adjustment he said he had to make dealt with the “mental” aspect of the game. “There is a lot that goes into a game and playing. The game moves a lot faster. It’s quicker for sure. Then there’s the verbiage use and complexity of plays,” he said. “It’s been a big jump for me.”

From a veteran, the rookie made a successful leap. Drafted to eventually replace him, Matt Birk has mentored Gino. A 15-year veteran of the NFL, Birk is also playing in his first Super Bowl.

“I’ve learned a lot this season, especially from Matt. He’s helped me out a lot. I’ve learned a lot about the game of football, defenses and all that,” Gino said.

Gino learned a great deal, too, from his older brother. Bruce paved the path first. After a stellar career at the University of Toledo, Bruce landed in the NFL. Currently, he is a back-up quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals.

“Bruce has been a great role model. From him, I’ve watched and learned how to handle myself on and off the field. He’s been a great resource for me. Not everybody has a brother like Bruce who can help you.”

And like the Harbaugh brothers, Jim, the coach of the 49ers, and John, the coach of the Ravens, the Gradkowski siblings have played on opposite sidelines this season. The occasion was memorable for Gino because it came in his first NFL game. During a Monday Night Football game in September, the Ravens lost to the Bengals, 23-17.

“I’ll always remember my first NFL appearance. Monday Night Football game. Against the Bengals,” Gino said. “Bruce was there on the other sideline. My whole family made it to the game. Towards the end of the game, I got in. It was sweet.”

While Gino knows that playing for the Ravens does not endear him to Steelers’ fans, he’s excited to play in Baltimore. When his name was called on draft day, he was thrilled.

“I’ve gotten some flack about it,” said Gino of playing for the Ravens, “but it’s all in fun.

Gino says that he has found they root just as hard in Baltimore for their Ravens as they do in Pittsburgh for the Steelers. “They are a lot a like in that respect so I guess that’s why there’s this thing between the Steelers and the Ravens. It’s a great rivalry and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Gino’s delighted to be part of the NFL. “I’d have been excited no matter where I went but I landed in a great situation. I’m very fortunate.

“I’m playing behind a great veteran,” he continued. “He’s intelligent and he’s helped me out a great deal and it helps playing on a good team. It’s a great situation for me and I love it.”

Gino would love Super Bowl XLVII to be the first of many. While he would not make any predictions for Sunday’s game, he expects his outcome for a favorable NFL career to be positive.

“I hope to play as long as I can play. As long as I am able to,” he said. “I love football and I love being a part of the game. The best part of making it to the NFL is that I am able to continue to play the game I love. I’d like to be around it for a long time either as a player or a coach.”

If Gino sticks around as long as Birks, and he continues to succeed, then accolades could come his way. Next to a Super Bowl ring, the ultimate would be a mustard-colored jacket and induction into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

“Every player who makes it into the NFL wants to be the best and the Hall Of Fame recognizes the best, but I’m going to take it one game at a time. We’re worried about the 49ers and winning this week’s game That’s most important,” Gino said.

While family and team are most important to Gino, football has played a vital role regarding life’s most important lessons. Gino says that football has taught him many life lessons, the most essential he says is to stay level-headed no matter what. “Good and bad things happen. You have to keep moving forward and working hard – have to handle adversity and difficulties in life.”

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