Originally created 01/26/00

Work of art nearly complete



ATLANTA -- Mike Gruttadauria started work back in training camp on a mural depicting the members of the St. Louis offensive line. Much like the team that will appear in Sunday's Super Bowl XXXIV against Tennessee, the drawing has been a work in progress.

An hour here, an hour there, Gruttadauria slowly has transformed the white piece of paper into a colorful work of art. A player here, a player there, the Rams have done the same thing with their football team.

"I agree we came out of nowhere, but this team has been long in the making," the starting center said. "The addition of (guard) Adam Timmerman and (running back) Marshall Faulk has helped us finish the equation. I don't think they're the only reason we're here. A lot of guys made it possible."

Gruttadauria, like so many of his teammates, is one of the least-likely candidates to qualify for a Super Bowl appearance.

Quarterback Kurt Warner's resume included stints in NFL Europe, Arena Football League and in a grocery store as a clerk in the past five years. Safety Devon Bush played four unassuming seasons in Atlanta before being cut in the off-season.

Wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim is only 5-foot-10, 178 pounds, and receiver Tony Horne is smaller at 5-9, 173. Timmerman, with a degree in agriculture in hand from South Dakota State, figured his afternoons would be spent plowing corn and soybeans, not making blocks in the National Football League.

The Rams center played only one year of high school football, then he only got one football offer from colleges. His nomadic family hadn't put down their roots until he reached eighth grade. By then, his father had worked in real estate in South Florida and in a tire recycling company in California.

"I've lived in so many different areas, I never got involved in organized sports," he said. "I never played Little League. We moved around so much, I never made friends. My brother (Mark) was my best friend. We played football in the streets. Our Super Bowl was one (housing) development against another."

This time, the developments roost inside the TWA Dome in St. Louis and the Adelphia Coliseum in Nashville. And the stakes are considerably higher than just bragging rights.

"We've slowly put this team together," Gruttadauria said. "I think we've finally got all the pieces here."

Like so many of his teammates, the Rams center beat lottery-type odds to make his life in football. He arrived at the University of Central Florida as a 215-pound tight end. A year later, he was a 225-pound center.

"Every year, I tried to gain 10 or 15 pounds," he said. "It was hard. I ate a lot of junk food late at night, a lot of ice cream and apple pie. I'd go to Wendy's and get two or three hamburgers. I'd keep them in my freezer and have them for lunch."

Although he weighed 265 pounds after his senior season, professional scouts weren't impressed -- especially since most offensive linemen weigh 300 pounds and can run like deer.

Then Gruttadauria figured out a quick way to gain enough pounds to at least earn a free-agent invitation to the Dallas Cowboys' training camp four years ago: tape barbell weights to his back and thighs.

"I thought I needed to weigh a little more so I slipped weight in my sweat pants," he said. "I went through the height-weight portion of the workout and I was heavy. Then I was lighter for the running part. I taped a 5-pound free weight to my lower back with duct tape. I sometimes taped a 2 1/2 -pound weight to my thigh. I shouldn't be telling this because some of the seniors coming out of college using this technique might get busted. It worked for me. I only weighed 265 coming out of college and being 270 seemed heavy."

Gruttadauria, now a four-year veteran in the NFL, will weigh 297 pounds at kickoff Sunday inside the Georgia Dome.

A day later, he plans to forget about his weight and pick up his colored pencils to finish the drawing of his teammates from the offensive line. The work has progressed through 20 weeks of regular-season and playoff games. And much like Sunday's finale, Gruttadauria can envision the completed project.

"I want to do something with my art once I retire," he said. "I sold a couple of things while I was in college, just to make some money. I think the most money I ever made was $50, but that's a lot to a college kid.

"My art is something I've always liked. But because of the season we've had, I haven't had a lot of time to work on it much. I've got torn ligaments in my hands. I only have two fingers that work in my right hand and three fingers that work in my left hand. I worry about that sometimes."

Gruttadauria, who's started every game for St. Louis this year, created a series of Christmas cards to benefit a local charity two months ago. The 12-card set sold out in only a week.

"When I retire, I want a pottery wheel and an easel -- all the things where I can be creative," Gruttadauria said.

Nothing, however, is likely to capture the timely passion that's gone into his current work -- both on the drawing board and on the football field.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@mindspring.com.