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The Life


July 10, 2002
Warm Front
ESPN The Magazine

The more it comes up, the more Brian Griese does exactly what he never used to do, what his teammates and coaches and even his old man hope he'll do more often. Laugh. Smile. Joke. Usually, when Griese is asked to explain his public embarrassments, a scowl forms fast and the wind chill gets dangerous. Right now he's kidding around, and that's a good thing. Because when people ask how Griese managed to knock himself out cold -- not groggy, but cold -- on a teammate's driveway, here's what comes up.

He "just tripped" (tailback Mike Anderson); "he had a little too much to drink" (linebacker Keith Burns); he was "plastered" (anonymous). Noted NFL statistician Jay Leno credits a "12-pack of Coors." Denver's KLTK radio reported defensive end Trevor Pryce decked Griese. No way, says driveway owner Terrell Davis, who jokes that he beat up Griese. No way did that happen, says Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, who jokes that he leveled Griese. To all this, Griese laughs. "I lost my balance," he shrugs, adding, with a comic's pause, "I've been working on my footwork drills out there so I can stay up."

Brian Griese
 
Perfect. Just like on third-and-long, he doesn't want to get trapped. But it stops being funny when reporters ask Griese if he has a drinking problem. When he's only 27 and has had three public embarrassments involving alcohol. When Mike Shanahan says, "Does Brian have a perception problem? Yeah. Anytime you have a DUI, and then you do something like fall at a party, there's always going to be the perception of, 'Hey, what kind of guy is Brian Griese?' The thing is, Brian Griese doesn't really care what people think."

Well, Griese used to not care, and because of that, he irked teammates and fans, knocking down bridges of communication with an aloof and sometimes angry attitude. But everyone agrees on one thing: With bruises still fresh on his face and his right eye still bloodshot from the fall -- and with a lingering hangover from a 19-pick 2001 -- Griese is trying to build the bridges back up. He laughs more now, asks teammates about their families and even shows up at club outings. And maybe that's just what the Broncos -- and Griese -- need.

He says he's ready to take responsibility, eager to open up to his teammates and prove himself a leader. He knows the May 5 driveway incident embarrassed himself and the team. So he's the first to clock in every morning for off-season workouts. He's watched every down from last season on tape, even if some of the film is worse than Juwanna Mann. And teammates have noticed. "More than ever, he's focused," says Anderson. "When he steps onto the field, it's all business. Serious. Going about his job. If he makes a mistake, he wants it corrected now. Not in the film room. Now."

Griese's newfound dedication shows not only how badly he wants to win but also how deep a ditch he's dug for himself. In three years as a starter, he's never led the Broncos to three straight victories or to the playoffs. Because of injuries, he's never played an entire season. But last year he stumbled as if the field were a driveway itself. His fourth-quarter passing rating -- highest in the league in 2000 at 112.6 -- plummeted to 51.4, the NFL's worst. Which moves Shanahan, noting Griese's 1919 record as a starter, to say, "That's just not good enough."

It's not all Griese's fault. When you look into his struggles, look at his receivers, who last year disappeared faster than The Chamber. Ed McCaffrey broke his leg in Week 1. Three weeks later, Kevin Kasper fractured his ankle. McCaffrey's replacement, Eddie Kennison, "retired" in midseason (he unretired to play for the Chiefs later). And Rod Smith played most of the year on bad ankles. Griese would slide back into the pocket and see Chris Cole, Scottie Montgomery and Keith Poole running routes. He lost confidence in his teammates and, according to some, in himself. "There were times he had guys open and he just didn't throw it," says Gus Frerotte, Griese's former backup. "He'd get so upset it'd affect him. Little things would get to him, stuff that should roll off his back."

"If we're down three with seven minutes left," Smith says, "you can't let everyone see you with your head down. Last year, Brian's head was down."

Especially after a 21-10 Week 12 loss to Miami. With the 65 Broncos holding a 10-7 fourth-quarter lead with 10:10 left, Griese dropped back on second-and-six. Before he could look downfield, the rush was in his face. Griese blindly tossed the ball 10 feet into the air, like a wedding bouquet, and Dolphins DE Kenny Mixon snared it and went 56 yards for a touchdown. The lead and Denver's playoff chances evaporated. Trying to pinpoint why his interceptions were rising, Griese pointed to his teammates, saying his picks were up as he was "trying to make something out of an offense where we don't have a lot of talent."

When Shanahan heard that, he pulled Griese aside and told him to zip it. Worse, whatever gulf existed between Griese and his teammates widened. "It's just something you don't do, no matter what position you're in," says Burns. Adds Smith, "You just can't say those things. There's a line, and he crossed it."

Griese knows the line now. But as he adds the grit he needs to put the team on his shoulders, he's learning how to loosen up, too. Smith tells a revealing story about Griese, a story Griese made him promise he'd keep quiet, because it contains everything Griese doesn't want out: his private life, alcohol, humiliation. Smith takes you back to 2000, when he spotted some shopping carts packed in Griese's garage.

Smith: "Where'd you get those?"

Griese: "Can't drive because of the DUI. How do you expect me to get groceries home?"

Smith: "But you stole those?"

Griese: "Yeah, and don't tell anyone about it!"

Two months ago, Smith finally leaked the story. So when Griese, sitting on a bench, panting hard after sprints, finds out Smith ratted him out, you expect him to morph into an All-Pro grouch, just as he would have last year. But what does he do? Laugh. Smile. Joke. "Well, I did return them," he says. "Really. It was just two months later."

So there are signs Griese's changing -- and that he knows he must. It hit him like a rushing DE when Smith pulled him aside late last season and gave him something to think about. Smith sensed the Broncos, playoff bystanders for the second time in three years, weren't going to change until Griese did.

"Dude, we have more fun when you're smiling," Smith said. "You're too uptight."

"You're right," Griese said. "Yeah, you're right."

As a third-round pick out of Michigan in 1998, success on the field came more quickly for Griese than anyone thought it would, and that made everything he was missing -- the polish, the touch, the charm of his Hall of Fame father -- easier to live with. When he's on, Griese can look like Joe Montana -- bouncing and sliding in the pocket, eyes weaving through coverage as if it's a book he's already read, a technician who could find Waldo in Grand Central Station at rush hour. He already owns a single-season TD-to-INT ratio (19:4 in '00) that's the second best in NFL history.

"I have to enjoy this more," Griese says. "It's just that when you put a lot of stock in something and it doesn't work out, you're not going to be happy about it. It's not my nature to open up, but I do care. This is a family."

Brian Griese
Brian & the turf have become great friends.
But his Broncos family is still not quite sure what to make of him. "No one knows how to approach him," Burns says. "People are like, 'What's wrong with this guy? Does he talk? What type of guy is he?' This is our quarterback. He may not be outgoing, but that's what people need and expect from him now." Says Smith, "Elway had a confidence, a glow. Brian needs to establish that he's The Guy with this team."

It's tough for Griese to open up. If you try to buddy-up to him, you're most likely going to get a terrific view of his back. Growing up the son of an ultraprivate celebrity QB in Miami, he lost his mother to breast cancer when he was 12. He didn't have a friend he could relate to. "If Brian were an offensive tackle, he'd be fine," says dad Bob. "He's not a natural leader verbally."

Maybe if he owned up to his faults, his teammates would cut him some slack. But, whether in the locker room or out of it, Griese is about as warm and fuzzy as Barry Bonds. And it doesn't help that Griese carries even more serious baggage. At Michigan in 1996, he was suspended after throwing a rock through a bar window, and there's that arrest in 2000 for DUI. Throw in some nasty chatter on Denver's sports talk stations on whether he has a drinking problem, and you can see why Griese, not one to mask his media-loathing, has two public moods: peeved and about to be peeved. Says former guard Mark Schlereth, "If he's disliked in the community, it's because of how he complained last year. He called people out, didn't take any responsibility."

Even Shanahan caught some of it. After Griese threw four interceptions in a season-ending loss to the Colts, and with rumors swirling that Shanahan would bolt to replace Steve Spurrier at Florida, Griese issued what sounded like a verbal shrug: "If Mike leaves, he leaves ... I'm not tied to anybody." When word got back to Shanahan -- who, after all, had drafted Griese, started him over Bubby Brister despite moaning from his veterans, made him the NFL's highest-paid player last year and watched his back throughout -- well, could anyone blame the coach if he expected a little more from his QB? "I think I know what Brian meant," Shanahan says. "That if I were to leave, he'd still have to quarterback the team. If his statements had bothered me personally, I would have spoken with him." Still, after turning down the Gators job, Shanahan's turning up the heat. "We'll find out if he likes to be the quarterback and likes to be the underdog and likes a little pressure on him," Shanahan says. "This will be the year we find out."

***

"Atta boy, Griese!" It's late May, when players are scattered and workouts are "voluntary." The voice belongs to offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who watches his quarterback finish first in 200-yard conditioning drills. First, in a meaningless drill through which every Bronco but one jogs. But that one sprints hard and upon finishing bends over, hands at his hips, breathing heavy. As teammates, loping, finally finish, they lean against him, leaving an unfiltered glimpse of a team bonding around its quarterback.

Strange it took so long. In private, Griese has shown that he has a heart. Why can't he let everyone see it? He routinely tears up around kids, especially those who've lost a parent. When KOA radio offered him $25,000 a year to do a weekly five-minute show, he declined the money but agreed to do it if the station set up appointments with its sponsors so he could lobby for his charities. Remember, this is an environmental policy major who, after winning a split national championship, was set to go to South America to develop sanitation systems. Shanahan helped him find a different career. Now, Griese has to help find himself.

His image needs a little help too. Fans still call radio stations claiming Griese was out last night, sloshed, whether it's true or not. He knows every time he goes to a bar he is going to be scrutinized, but he's not about to pull a Favre and go dry. "I like to go out and have a few beers," he says. "But I don't have a drinking problem." Shanahan agrees, but he understands that until Griese wins games, his fratboy rep will follow him. "Talk is cheap," the coach says. "Until he wins, people are going to second-guess him. Brian hasn't done it. I've got no question he can run this offense at a high level, but he needs to do it consistently."

His teammates are hoping he does. And as people reach out to him, Griese's reaching back. In May, when backup DB Delvin Hughley was injured during a drill, Griese dashed over and crouched by his side until the trainers toted him off. These days, when Griese's carpet of chest hair inspires catcalls of "Teen Wolf!" he fires barbs right back. 'Backer Ian Gold, who played with Griese at Michigan, swears Griese has actually uttered the word "dawg." Says Burns, "For the first time, he's asking people questions: Who are their kids? Do they have kids? He's getting to know the guys. And we've tried to get him involved more, inviting him to team functions."

You know, where he can laugh, smile, joke.

This article appears in the July 22 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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