Toledo, UConn wounded work their way back in time

Friday, December 24th 2004, 3:54 pm
By: News On 6

DETROIT (AP) _ Three weeks after breaking his throwing hand in the Mid-American Conference championship, Toledo quarterback Bruce Gradkowski is patched up and ready lead the Rockets against Connecticut in the Motor City Bowl.

For UConn's Tyler King, the road back has been much longer. The 6-foot-5 defensive end broke his lower right leg Sept. 30 in the Huskies' 29-17 win over Pittsburgh.

Both players now have enough hardware in them to light up metal detectors. But they're cleared to play on Monday.

``I've got a couple of screws in there. The bone's not going anywhere,'' Gradkowski said after practice Friday at Ford Field. ``I'll just work my way back slowly and I'm sure the adrenaline will help too.''

The junior signal-caller broke his right hand on an opponent's helmet in the second quarter of Toledo's 35-27 win over Miami in the MAC title game. His fingers turned sideways and the bone rattled loose in his hand, but it wasn't enough to keep him on the bench. Gradkowski threw a wobbly interception on his next pass, yet came back and completed eight of his next 11 passes and threw for three scores to rally the Rockets.

``He's as tough as a young man as we've ever coached,'' Rockets' coach Tom Amstutz said. ``He would not come off the field. So unless we tackled him and dragged him off, he was going to play.''

Gradkowski took a few snaps Friday and said his hand was still sore from a full practice the day before. But he's not concerned.

``Reps really don't matter at his point,'' he said. ``As long as I study the game plan and know what I'm doing and know what UConn's trying to do, once I step on the field game day I'll be fine.''

His teammates said Gradkowski's grit in the championship game was cause for inspiration. But after seeing him play through pain before, they weren't surprised, either.

``If there's a will there's a way with him,'' senior receiver Lance Moore said. ``That type of thing is going to pick your whole team up. We kind of rallied around him.''

King's UConn teammates made sure the senior end would suit up for the program's first bowl game as a Division I-A school. The Huskies clinched a berth in the Motor City Bowl after their 41-35 win over Rutgers in the regular season finale.

King said there was a lot of emotion in the locker room after that game.

``They said 'We told you we'd get you another one,''' King said. ``This became my goal from day one after my surgery. I said I don't care what it takes to play again.''

That meant hours of physical therapy to build up the leg to full strength again and plenty of bike work to get his wind back.

King needed six screws and a plate to repair the bone in his lower right leg that he injured pressuring Pittsburgh quarterback Tyler Palko in the closing minutes of UConn's victory. King had six tackles, including a sack and recovered a fumble in the game before the injury. In his five games, he had 27 tackles, including eight for a loss, and 3.5 sacks. The UConn defensive line has missed him and for the next few weeks he watched his teammates struggle.

``When you watch your friends go through that, it really does hurt,'' King said.

A vocal leader, King offered his moral support each day and said he turned the helpless frustration of standing on the sidelines into something positive.

``Turn all that anger, all that pain, all that frustration _ add it to the fire so I can pour it into my rehab, pour it into my lifting, pour it into everything else I had to do to get here,'' King said.

For King there's not a better place to end his collegiate career then on the big stage of an NFL stadium. His father, Steve King, played linebacker for the New England Patriots from 1973-81 and his son gobbled up all the stories he could about football.

``He knows what it's like to play on that stage,'' King said. ``I want some of those stories for my own.''