In the late 1970s and early '80s, ILB Randy Gradishar was the leader of Denver's Orange Crush defense — a 3-4 that gave up little ground to the opposition. Gradishar was compact but quick, with keen football instincts. Opposing ballcarriers hated having to play against him, but offered nothing but the utmost respect for him.
In 1977, Gradishar and his teammates took the city of Denver on a joyous ride, beginning with a 12-2 regular season and finishing in Super Bowl XII, where they lost to Dallas, 27-10. The following year Gradishar was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year — to this day the only Broncos defender to win the award.
A product of Woody Hayes' outstanding Ohio State teams of the early 1970s, Gradishar capped his collegiate career with a 10-0-1 season in 1974, including a 42-21 win over USC in the Rose Bowl. He was one of three Buckeyes to finish among the top six in Heisman balloting that year. Many Big Ten writers consider him to be one of the conference's all-time great linebackers.
During his 10-year NFL career, Gradishar, who's now 58 and working as corporate community director for Phil Long auto dealerships in Colorado, averaged more than 200 tackles per season and was named to seven Pro Bowls.
Who was the toughest back for you to bring down?
For the quick and fast guys it'd be (Walter) Payton and (Tony) Dorsett. For the bigger guys it was Earl Campbell and Mark van Eeghen. They were both 230 to 240 pounds back then, 30 years ago.
You had been to three consecutive Pro Bowls when you retired following the 1983 season. Why did you decide to leave the game at that point?
I had a goal when I first came to Denver that I wanted to play for 10 years. When I got to that 10th year, it was June or July before camp, I made my decision that I was going to retire and announced it on my way to training camp. The whole year was a fun deal … I was running my last sprints, lifting my last weight, playing my last game. I didn't want a coach to come along and say, 'Randy, you're losing a step, you're not as quick.' I wanted to leave at the top of my game.
Talk about the impact Ohio State coach Woody Hayes had on you.
His emphasis was paying forward. He always talked to his players about paying forward. Back then I didn't have a clue what that meant when I was 18, 19, 20 years old … (he was) a national figure, legendary college football coach, and the emphasis was on the ethics, morals and standards of the players' lives that he was trying to mold. Athletics eventually go and you get older, but it was the things you can carry on that matter.
Does it bother you that Hayes is often remembered most for his infamous punch in the 1978 Gator Bowl?
I went back after he had been fired and took him out to dinner — just to visit. He was the first to tell you he didn't condone what he did to get fired. He felt horrible. But he felt more horrible for that community, for his coaches and his players, for football and what it means across the country, and the alumni. There was real regret that he hurt a lot of people with his actions. But he'll always be remembered as a great, legendary coach, and you can certainly tell that on a national level because his name continues to come up. People remember the incident, but it's (miniscule) compared to his contributions as a coach, contributions to the community, to Ohio State and to football.
Talk about the military trips you've been able to take overseas.
I've had the opportunity to go three different times to Iraq, Afghanistan, Emirates … My first trip was in 2004, then again in 2005 and '07 — a bunch of us NFL guys through the USO and NFL. Having an opportunity to go over there and spend 10 days — we didn't sing or dance, just shook hands and talked to troops. None of us knew what to expect, hadn't been into a war zone and knew little about the environment. Going over those three times changed my life. I feel blessed to have been able to do it and thank our troops for serving our country.
The Denver Broncos got to the Super Bowl five times in the 1980s and '90s, but talk about that very first ride that you and your Orange Crush teammates took the community on in 1977 leading up to Super Bowl XII.
That was a major foundational block for the city. I think sometimes people forget John Ralston was the head coach prior to 1977, and through the draft created that defense with the exception of Billy Thompson, who was a product of another era — (Lyle) Alzado, (Barney) Chavous, (Rubin) Carter, (Bob) Swenson, (Tom) Jackson, (Joe) Rizzo and myself, Louis Wright and Steve Foley — that whole defense was drafted within a few years, and (head coach) Red Miller came in 1977. We just started winning, and the fans went nuts, went crazy with excitement and enthusiasm. Painting their houses. Everything was orange and blue. There had been 17 years of not winning many games and all of a sudden there was a playoff, an AFC championship and a berth in the Super Bowl. Even as a player it was exciting to see that kind of excitement and loyalty.
Talk about what keeps you busy these days.
I've been able to support some non-profits, whether it's the Salvation Army, Children's Hospital, the Boys and Girls Clubs — so that all keeps me going. And I get excited during the football season to meet and greet Broncos football fans. I've been able to remain connected to the community through working for the Phil Long Dealership group. We give to the community and youth organizations to help champion the self-esteem of our youth. I also still do some speaking and interacting with different companies.
Gradishar deserves to be in Canton
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).