Grbac brings a home-field edge to Ravens

Quarterback: After seeing a son beat paralysis, the new Ravens leader strives to win on the field, but he can handle defeat, too.

Pro Football

May 13, 2001|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN COLUMNIST

CLEVELAND - All that Ravens fans want from their new quarterback, Elvis Grbac, is a jazzed-up passing attack and a bit more excitement on offense. Oh, and another Super Bowl championship.

Anything short of an NFL title might be considered a failure, with Grbac taking the blame.

Hearing that, Grbac laughs while sitting on the sofa in the family room of his Victorian-style house in Chagrin Falls, an area of lakes and waterfalls in a southeastern suburb outside Cleveland.

"I haven't spent a lot of time in Baltimore, but it's a place that is pretty hungry," he said. "I was at a golf tournament and everybody talked about winning the Super Bowl, but you sense that they don't want to let it die. People talk about how the Colts left and Baltimore became a baseball town for such a long time, but they sense something special with the Ravens that they can cling to for a long time.

"For the next four or five years, we can be like a Dallas," Grbac said. "We can be the team that makes that run. I won't think any other way."

Then he smiles as his son, Jack, 5, poses for a picture.

"Either way, when I come home at night or after the season, I'll still be a husband and a father. It doesn't get any better than that."

Grbac learned this sense of perspective the hard way.

During winter 1996, Jack was found to have spina bifida, a condition that leaves the spinal column open and can result in paralysis, organ malfunction and learning disabilities.

Doctors performed a five-hour operation on 8-month-old Jack in which, Grbac said, they removed nerves that controlled hip, back and leg movements from a huge mass of scar tissue.

"I remember the doctor telling me removing the nerves was like trying to remove hair from a bundle of gum," Grbac said. "And if one nerve is frayed, it's damaged forever."

The surgery went well, but what happened shortly after changed Grbac. On the day of the surgery, Grbac replaced an injured Steve Young late in a game for the San Francisco 49ers against the Cowboys. Grbac threw an interception that led to a 20-17 loss to Dallas, then the 49ers' chief rival.

A day later, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown called Grbac "an embarrassment to humankind" during a news conference in Paris. Brown later apologized for the remark after learning about the surgery.

"I remember driving home from the hospital and then listening to our answering machine," said Lori Grbac, Elvis' wife. "There were about 30 messages about what the mayor had said. Well, I lost it. Elvis had been driving about four to five hours a day before and after practice to the hospital, and this guy had the nerve to criticize him about a game.

"That changed all of our lives. We got a totally new perspective. We enjoy the wins, and Elvis struggles with the losses, but not like he used to. He knows this is just a game."

The Grbacs have two other children - Calvin, 2, and Ella, 16 months. Jack is now healthy, but each year he has to be evaluated for other problems that may develop from the condition.

"I went through my entire life just focusing on what I did," Grbac said. "I think a lot of guys in sports are like that because they have things their own way. Everything has been given to them because they are superstars.

"But that was a turning point for me. I've won a lot of games going back to my days at Michigan. I've been on a Super Bowl team, but nothing is as important as what you have at home. Real life is at home and how much time you spend with your family."

A composite quarterback

Grbac is a composite of past Ravens quarterbacks: the loner tendencies of Vinny Testaverde, the swagger of Jim Harbaugh and the long-ball touch of Tony Banks.

Now, can he play?

That's the $30 million question. After first pursuing Brad Johnson as a replacement for inconsistent Trent Dilfer, the Ravens signed Grbac as a free agent on March 8 to a five-year, $30 million contract.

But unlike in his previous stops in San Francisco, where he was asked to replace former league MVP Young, or Kansas City, where he had to act as a buffer between dynamic defensive stars and an underachieving offense, Grbac has a different role in Baltimore.

That's a good thing, because Grbac comes with some NFL baggage.

In four years at Kansas City, the Chiefs went to one playoff game despite having some of the best defensive talent in the league.

What happened?

A broken left clavicle forced Grbac, 6 feet 5, 240 pounds, to miss six games in 1997. He was 6-2 as a starter. Then he separated his right shoulder, which forced him to miss four games in 1998.

He escaped the injury bug the past two seasons, but faced serious questions about his ability in two areas essential for any NFL quarterback: running a two-minute offense and providing leadership.

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