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For NFL Legend Gino Gradkowski, the Life Lessons of Youth Football Started at Age Four

Welcome to Why We Play, a series of discussions with current players and NFL Legends about their youth football experience and why they play the game.

Gino Gradkowski started playing football before he started grade school.

He put on the helmet and pads and took the field in a Pop Warner game when he was just four years old.

"My older brother Bruce was six years older than me, and he was playing Pop Warner, and my father was coaching his team, so they let me play," Gradkowski said. "I would suit up, full pads and everything.

"They would put some guys in that didn’t play much near the end of the game, and that’s when I would play. I really didn’t (know the game), but I loved putting the pads on, and I loved running around on the field at practice, hitting the dummies."

Gradkowski said that football was always a part of his family life. "I’m one of nine grandsons on my mom’s side, and eight of us played college football."

So playing as a four-year-old, even just sparingly at the end of games, was great for young Gino.

"They made me a free safety," he said. "That’s the only time I didn’t play either offensive line or defensive line."

Once he got older, Gradkowski played both lines in high school at Seton LaSalle High in Mt. Lebanon, PA, just outside of Pittsburgh.

Gradkowski started his college playing career at West Virginia University, but eventually transferred to the University of Delaware. The Blue Hens' guard/center was drafted in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft (98th overall) by the Baltimore Ravens. His brother, Bruce, had been drafted at quarterback in 2006 by Tampa Bay.

In his rookie season, Gradkowski won a Super Bowl when Baltimore beat San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII.

"I had some veteran guys on the team who reminded me over and over it’s not this easy," Gradkowski said. "You’re not going to win a Super Bowl every year. My brother played 11 years and I don’t think he ever got past the first round."

Sure enough, Gradkowski's only other postseason appearance ended in the Divisional Round in 2015 at the hands of the New England Patriots. But he still put together a successful career, playing three years for the Ravens and a year each for the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, and Denver Broncos.  

After Gradkowski retired from the NFL in 2018, he decided he wanted to stay around the game. He started as an intern in the University of Delaware’s athletic program, and he later became a full-time employee in the leadership development and character development programs.

"I try to help the players build the character skills, to not only be better football players, but be better men and be more prepared for their transition out of the game," Gradkowski said. "I’m so happy that football was a big part of our family and became a big part of my life.

"As a football player, learning how to work with other people effectively is very important. It puts young men in an uncomfortable situation at times, stretching them out of their comfort zone. And you have to get used to that, because as you get older you face things in life that aren’t comfortable, and you have to learn how to deal with those situations. Through playing youth football, I learned that when you put that time in and work hard, good things happen."

Photo: AP/Gene J. Puskar


  • NFL Players and Legends
  • Youth Football