|03-31-2007, 09:19 PM||Topic Starter|
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Finding Elvis Grbac
Finding Elvis grbac: If he's lost, it's only because he wants to be
By WRIGHT THOMPSON
The Kansas City Star
CHAGRIN FALLS, Ohio - You're off in search of Elvis grbac. About nine hours before the plane leaves, a friend and lifelong Chiefs fan calls on the phone. When she finds out where you're going and why, she blurts out, "Finding Elvis grbac? I'm glad he's lost."
He is lost, at least from the NFL's radar. grbac won't return phone calls. He hasn't been on TV. After a sub-par year with Baltimore in 2001, he simply quit. He didn't want to take a pay cut, nor did he want to move his family again.
His wife threw him a surprise retirement party, and only two NFL teammates were there, linemen from Kansas City. Friends said he looked content that night. Clearly, he'd had enough.
"I think it was more a career than something you love getting up and doing," says grbac's best friend, Jon Sbrocco.
At 31, with a million-dollar arm and at least five good years left, he dropped off the face of the world.
"When you look around the league and see who's playing and starting, it's amazing," CBS NFL analyst Randy Cross says. "Maybe he'll come back. At this point, he's gone."
But where? And why?
"It's highly unusual to see a guy no mas it," Cross says. "What made him unique, he's got the money; he'd done very well financially. At some point, you have to wonder if it's worth putting up with the personal attacks and grief."
On the plane, you try to go over some of grbac's history with Kansas City, all four years of it. The Pro Bowl is good. Much of the rest isn't so good. When grbac left football, Chiefs fans -- who never liked him much anyway -- smugly thought they were right all along. Ah, he is a quitter.
This was the guy who said he'd rather be a backup with the Browns than a starter with the Chiefs. This was the guy who came to symbolize underachieving teams and playoff failures. This was the guy they kept instead of Rich Gannon. Dashed hopes had a name, and that name was grbac.
When Sbrocco would come to Arrowhead, he would get madder and madder at the attacks going on in the stands. Once, he spit on a fan. After his last trip to a game, he came home and burned all his Chiefs apparel. It had gotten that bad.
"I think the way they handled him there was as pathetic as you get," Sbrocco says. "I think the fans out there were god-awful." (sounds like charger johnny defending Gunther)
In Kansas City, he's still a household name -- and not in a good way. Like Woody Harrelson's character in the movie "Kingpin," grbac's name has come to mean something. As in, boy, Trent Green sure grbac-ed that pass. Chiefs fans can't forget grbac and what he symbolized.
With that in mind, you arrive at the Cleveland airport. The rental-car place gives you a bright orange sport-utility vehicle, the exact same color as the Browns helmet, and you're off. Off to find out what happened to Elvis grbac. Off to get some answers.
Take I-71 north to I-480 east to Highway 422 east. Roll over perfectly paved highways, past "Private Drive" signs and beautiful public parks. Man, grbac really is hiding out. This place is in the middle of nowhere; it seems farther than 27 miles from the airport. The road to town is under construction, and there are no signs suggesting another way into Chagrin Falls. It's like a price tag on a Ferrari -- if you have to ask, you've got no business being there.
After a few guesses, the right road appears. Bridle trails, hills and car-commercial curves lead to the center of town, which looks like a movie set. A sign welcomes all to the "Village of Chagrin Falls."
There's another sign, too, notifying all that this is the home of Olympian Diana Munz. No mention of another local: Super Bowl ring-owning, Pro Bowl-going Elvis grbac.
Around town most have heard of him but not seen him. He's not the pride of Chagrin Falls by any stretch, just another resident. That's the way he likes it.
Picturesque shops dot the street. People honk and wave out of their cars. It's so friendly, which seems like the perfect place for grbac.
A river runs under part of Main Street, and luxury cars are everywhere. There's a Lexus. A Mercedes. A Porsche. A Saab.
Across the street from Chagrin Hardware -- "Serving the Chagrin Valley since 1857" -- is a Starbucks. It's 9:30 a.m., and most stores are closed. The town is just waking up, so a cup of cafe au lait seems like a good way to kill time. Inside is more of the same. The workers speak to the customers, all apparently regulars. More people are reading the New York Times than the local newspaper, Cleveland's Plain Dealer.
A man comes in, quietly, attracting no attention. He's burly, wearing blue jeans, a navy wool sweater and hip-hiking boots. He's got a thick, mountain-man beard. He's holding a paper, waiting to order. When he gets to the counter, he asks for a cup of hot tea and a blueberry muffin.
You turn to look at him, slack-jawed. It's Elvis grbac. You tell him you work for the paper in Kansas City.
"Do I know you?" you ask.
"No," he says, smiling slightly.
He opens up the Cleveland paper, A-section first. The main story is about Browns owner Al Lerner, who died the night before. grbac follows the obituary inside the paper, reading to the end.
Around him, people wear Patagonia, use Mont Blanc pens and type on laptops. grbac still hasn't touched his tea. Two women speak. One is going shopping.
"Buy something stylish," says the first.
"I'll try," replies the second.
A trendy brick wall is on grbac's left. His cowboy-esque jacket hangs behind him. He sits in a wood, red-finished chair, facing the window. A Range Rover drives by. Jazz plays on the sound system. It sounds like John Coltrane. People come in and out, yet no one notices him or says a word. He is just another customer.
Twenty minutes into the paper, he picks up the tea, blows on it and takes the first sip. He looks out the window and stretches his back. This is a picture of a man relaxed. The high school football section is in his hand, but he tosses it aside for Business. He holds his paper with his million-dollar right arm and rubs his knee with his left. Finally, he takes a big gulp. The waitress says he comes here every day.
He reads the high school football tab and, at last, opens the sports page. Thirty-five minutes after sitting down, he opens his brown paper bag, carefully unwraps the muffin and breaks off a bite. Willie Nelson's "You Were Always on My Mind" comes on the stereo.
His wife walks in to hang out.
"What's up?" he says.
You've seen enough, and decide it's time to go. Before leaving, you stop by their table to say hello. You ask how they're doing these days.
"We're doing great," he says, turning back around to talk to his wife.
That's your cue. You know he looks content, but you still don't know why. The questions -- the ones Chiefs fans want to ask -- still go unanswered. Maybe friends can help.
Across town, near where grbac grew up, is his old high school: Villa Angela-St. Joseph. The gym here has both his football and basketball numbers hanging. Athletic director Tommy Shane takes you outside and shows you the new $250,000 track. grbac paid for most of it.
He has always helped the high school. For his entire career, all the football and basketball players had free shoes. He still comes to games, helps out with the quarterbacks and scrimmages with the basketball team.
grbac hangs out with his buddies, eating wings and drinking beer. The annual Halloween party is coming up. They'll wear costumes and hang out all night in a friend's downtown office. They're bringing sleeping bags.
Basically, grbac is loving life.
He golfs, says former teammate and current St. Joseph coach Dave Wojciechowski. He golfs a lot. Then he golfs some more.
grbac drives his kids to school each day and picks them up in the afternoon. He goes to a lot of soccer games. His agent, Jim Steiner, says several teams have called, but grbac isn't interested; he'll play again only if the hometown Browns need a backup.
Steiner even called the Browns, but he didn't hear back. Coach Butch Davis is telling the Cleveland media that no new quarterbacks will be signed.
Imagine grbac sitting over his coffee and his Plain Dealer reading, "I haven't even thought about Elvis to be honest with you." That's got to sting -- a Pro Bowl quarterback and hometown boy can't even get a call back.
Obviously, part of him misses it. A few weeks before the season started, some friends were cutting up down at the Flats, an entertainment district in Cleveland. Sbrocco, a former minor-league baseball player, noticed his buddy was quieter than usual.
They talked about how it was OK to feel strange without the hustle and bustle of professional sports in your daily life. After all, it's not as though he rode off into the sunset like Jim Brown or Barry Sanders. He left, in some ways, because he had to.
"I think he's accepted it very, very well," Sbrocco said. "It helps when you're financially set."
After the coffeehouse coincidence, you try calling to set up an interview. You leave two messages at his home and talk to his agent. Still no word from grbac. Friends say he's probably not calling; he doesn't have the best memories of Kansas City.
"It's like one of those ex-girlfriend things," Sbrocco said. "You might have a few decent memories, but overall it's a disaster."
That leaves only one thing to do.
Winding out of Chagrin Falls, you come to the entrance of Canyon Lakes subdivision. Three quick turns later, past the tennis court, is grbac's street. His house is about eight miles from Six Flags, tucked into the corner of a cul-de-sac. Rising high above the street, the Victorian mansion is the reward from a decade in the NFL. His black Suburban is parked in the driveway; Elvis is home.
There are a thousand reasons to go knock on his door.
There are so many questions to ask, like: "Why'd you quit?" and "Do you hate Kansas City?"
Your boss wants you to do it. He might go ballistic if you don't. And part of you would like to see the look on grbac's face when he realizes that he might have gotten his rear out of Kansas City, but he'll never get Kansas City out of his rear.
But there also are reasons to leave him alone. This peace, this small bit of country living, is why he endured the picks and the newspaper columns and the talk radio. When does it end for grbac? When is he not a public figure? When will he be allowed to fade into his desired obscurity?
Eleven geese waddle toward the pond by his house, which is 801 miles from Arrowhead Stadium but seems 10 times that. There are no other cars on the road. The kids' fort sits ready in the back yard. The basketball hoop waits in the driveway. His idyllic life is in full swing in front of you, a place where the boos don't reach anymore, the interceptions won't haunt and the fans can't go.
What to do? There's only one thing to do. The right thing. You turn the car back toward the airport and leave. In the rear-view mirror is Elvis grbac's home. He's been found -- although perhaps never completely dissected -- and now it's time to let him go.