With his bald head, dark beard and the pro wrestling T-shirt he wore to lunch Tuesday, Carolina Panthers offensive lineman Gino Gradkowski looks like he could be a bouncer at a dive bar.
But Gradkowski said the only job he’s had in security was the summer he worked at a wave pool in Pittsburgh making sure no western Pennsylvania punks dipped into the register.
“I just kind of hung out and made sure nobody was stealing,” Gradkowski said. “And I would clean up garbage and stuff like that.”
Gradkowski’s done the dirty work most of his football-playing life – so coming off the bench as the Panthers’ backup center/guard will be no different.
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With an older brother (Bruce) in his 11th season as an NFL quarterback and three cousins who were Division I wide receivers, Gradkowski didn’t have a ton of balls thrown his way in the pickup games.
“I’m one of the younger cousins so I wasn’t always bigger than everybody,” he said. “So I got picked on pretty good. But it made me tough.”
That toughness has kept Gradkowski on NFL rosters for five years since Baltimore drafted him in the fourth round out of Delaware in 2012. He won a Super Bowl as a backup with the Ravens during his rookie season and started 16 games the following year.
But he’s spent most of his career as a backup, the role the Panthers pegged him for when they signed him to a three-year, $3.15 million contract in March. Gradkowski, 27, will play behind Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil and fill in at guard as needed.
The Panthers tried to claim Gradkowski when Denver waived him before Week 1 last season, but Atlanta took him ahead of Carolina.
“It just felt like the best fit for me. It was a great offer,” said Gradkowski, adding he’s pleased to be learning from Kalil and offensive line coaches John Matsko and Ray Brown.
Gradkowski played in only three games last season with the Falcons, and was not in the lineup when Atlanta ruined the Panthers’ perfect season with a 20-13 victory at the Georgia Dome in Week 16.
Gradkowski said most Panthers players don’t realize he was a member of the Falcons last season, nor does he bring it up.
But watching the Panthers from the opposite sideline twice last year, Gradkowski noticed a tight-knit team whose players couldn’t stop smiling. It was like the football he’d grown up with during the backyard beatings he took in Pittsburgh.
“You just saw a bunch of guys having fun playing football. That’s one thing that interested me when I was a free agent and they were interested,” Gradkowski said. “They were a really good team, but you could tell everyone was having fun playing together. Now that I’m here I can see why. Everybody gets along. It’s really a great locker room to be a part of.”
With the Panthers mindful of not overworking Kalil during training camp, Gradkowski has had plenty of reps at Wofford. He’s held his own during 1-on-1s against the defensive line while trying to adjust to the calls and pace of the Panthers’ offense.
“He’s done a really nice job. He’s learning our offense. He’s learning the tempo of our offense,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “It’s a little bit different with the way our quarterback (Cam Newton) does things. He’s learning to adapt to that.”
Experience with running QBs
Gradkowski played with Tyrod Taylor in Baltimore, so Gradkowski has experience blocking for a quarterback who can escape the pocket.
“But there’s nobody like Cam, obviously,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure to work with him and see how he goes. He brings a lot of energy and he makes the game fun, so it’s cool to be around.”
Gradkowski was into pro wrestling as a kid but his interest in the sport has waned, despite the Shawn Michaels shirt he had on after Tuesday’s practice. Basketball was his first passion, but when he topped out at 6-3 he figured he’d stick with football.
The Panthers’ preseason schedule will serve as something of an old-home tour for Gradkowski, who will have a bunch of family and old Delaware buddies in Baltimore for Thursday’s exhibition opener.
Older brother Bruce, Ben Roethlisberger’s backup in Pittsburgh, will be in Charlotte on Sept. 1 for the preseason finale for both teams. Theirs was a football family, and Gino Gradkowski is grateful for it.
“It was awesome to grow up in that atmosphere,” he said. “Football was everything to us. It was special.”