CHICAGO – Continuing its countdown of the 25 Greatest Players in AFL History, the Silver Anniversary Committee has announced its selection for the 4th Greatest Player in AFL History: Jay Gruden.
A four-year letterman at the University of Louisville, Gruden led the Cardinals to their first winning season in ten years as a senior in 1988. His collegiate achievements earned him invitations to two college all-star games – the East-West Shrine Game and Blue-Gray Football Classic. Despite Gruden’s success in the exhibitions, he was not drafted. Without an opportunity to play professionally, Gruden turned to coaching, serving as a graduate assistant at his alma mater for the next two seasons.
When the AFL’s Pittsburgh Gladiators relocated to Tampa Bay in 1991, Gruden took notice. After receiving a workout invite from the newly rebranded Tampa Bay Storm, Gruden impressed enough to make the team, eventually battling his way into the starting lineup. Learning the game on the fly, the rookie quarterback played well enough to lead Tampa Bay to ArenaBowl V. With 39 seconds to play, Gruden found receiver Stevie Thomas for a 35-yard touchdown, halting the Detroit Drive’s bid for four straight championships and bringing Tampa Bay its first ArenaBowl title.
The following season, Gruden was named League MVP after posting 2,491 passing yards and 50 touchdowns, nearly doubling his statistics from the previous year. The Storm, however, would fall in the Conference Championship to their “War on I-4” rivals, the Orlando Predators. The loss left a bitter taste in Gruden’s mouth and propelled the Storm to win three championships over the next four seasons, including back-to-back titles in 1995 and 1996.
Despite producing his best statistical season in 1996, totaling 3,626 passing yards and 70 touchdowns and becoming the first passer in AFL history to eclipse the 15,000-yard mark for a career, Gruden was beginning to feel the effects of six years under center. Upon being offered the opportunity to serve as the Offensive Coordinator for the expansion-Nashville Kats in 1997, Gruden once again traded his helmet for a headset. The team exceeded expectations, finishing the year 10-4 and breaking what was then the record for most wins for a first-year franchise. As fate would have it, the Kats fell to Gruden’s old team in the first round of the playoffs.
Following the success of his first year as a coordinator, Gruden was offered the position of Head Coach for the Orlando Predators. As a revered figure in Tampa, Gruden knew crossing over to the “other side” would only turn up the temperature in the already heated rivalry. However, the opportunity to return to Florida as a Head Coach for a team with a passionate fan base was simply too great to pass up. In his first season, Gruden led the Predators to a 62-31 victory over the Storm in ArenaBowl XII.
Gruden brought another championship to Orlando in 2000, but was beginning to feel the itch to play again. In 2002, Gruden returned to the field, this time in the red and black of the Orlando Predators. He finished his first year back with 3,621 passing yards and 68 touchdowns. Following the AFL season, he joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff as an offensive assistant for his brother, Jon, who was hired as the team’s Head Coach in 2002.
The 2003 season would be his last as a player in the AFL, as Gruden returned to the sidelines after the tragic death of Predators’ Head Coach Fran Papasedero in 2003. Gruden finished his playing career with 21,476 passing yards and 397 touchdowns along with two First-Team All-Arena selections and four ArenaBowl championships. He was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame in 1999.
As gifted as he was as a player, Gruden has proven to be just as good as a coach, compiling a 93-61 overall record in the AFL, including an 11-7 mark in the postseason, adding two more ArenaBowl championships to his name along the way. Following the success of his AFL coaching career, Gruden took his talents back outdoors. He was hired as the Offensive Coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011, guiding the team to a 9-7 season and a wildcard playoff berth.
The AFL Historical Committee tabbed Gruden as the 4th Greatest Player in AFL History in 2006, while the Silver Anniversary Committee selected him the 2nd Greatest Quarterback in AFL History in 2012.
The League’s Silver Anniversary Committee will continue to countdown its list of the 25 Greatest Players in AFL History with the announcements of the 3rd Greatest Player in AFL history on Friday, August 3 during NFL Network’s 8 p.m. ET broadcast of the American Conference Championship game between the Jacksonville Sharks and Philadelphia Soul on “NET10 Arena Football Friday”. The announcement of the Silver Anniversary’s Top 2 will be made at AVITAE ArenaBowl XXV in New Orleans on August 10.