Tea With Gruden

Notes from a surprise visit.

I drop two of my sons at elementary school every morning at about 8:20 a.m., then circle back home a mile away. The first minutes after I walk back through the door are usually the most peaceful of the day, but today, just after kicking on slippers and refilling a coffee cup, there was a knock on the door.

I craned my neck to look outside. A puffy white guy in a hoodie was standing on the landing of my front step, tapping his foot on the ground like a nervous adolescent. His face was obscured; he mumbled something.

“What’s that?” I said.

“It’s Jon Gruden!” he shouted, looking around. “Can I come in?”

It was him! Same straw hair, same psycho half-smile, same exaggerated eyebrow-raise. What was he doing at my house? He was already opening the door and rushing past by the time I decided to let him in.

“Is there a place I can sit?” he said, exhaling as he tore off his jumper. “Like that you can’t see from the road?”

“Yeah, sure. Over by the kitchen there,” I said. “Uh, you want some coffee? Or tea?”

“Tea? That’s for faggots!

Was he serious? I bent over to look, but he got up from his chair, went to the window, and looked through the blinds toward the road.

I shrugged, looked in the fridge, and found two Rolling Rock bottles in the back. They were old and tasted mildewy. He returned to his seat and we nursed them in uncomfortable silence.

“You know I read your book once?” I said finally. “Do You Love Football? The one you wrote with that guy from Buffalo with the serial killer eyes — Vic something?”

“Carucci.”

“Vic Carucci, exactly. Anyway, I was on acid when I read it. I was covering the John Kerry campaign and got bored and dosed during a speech. We were at a school in Jackson, Mississippi. I don’t remember what Kerry was talking about, because I was so glued to your book. There was a part where you talked about all the hours you spent practicing drawing circles. It was the most amazingly insane thing I’d ever read. I laughed so hard, they ended up asking me to leave! So I went outside, sat under a tree, and really focused on it, like it was the Bible. Seriously, it was like a religious experience.”

I took a sip of Rolling Rock, which now tasted good. “You know what, I think I still have that copy here, hang on. Maybe you can sign it!”

“Hey—”

“This will just take a second!” I shouted. “Yeah, here it is. Here’s the part that blew my mind.” I cleared my throat and read:

You want to present yourself properly and professionally, which means being able to draw nice, round circles. Some people might think this is funny, but I’m serious when I say I’m one of the best there is at drawing perfect circles. I got that way by drawing hundreds of them, thousands of them.

“I must have read that passage like a hundred times. Look, I spent the rest of the day drawing circles in the margins, do you see that?” I showed him. “The other thing about that day is that I was wearing a Viking costume.”

“I fucking hate the Vikings,” Gruden said.

“Really?”

“Yeah. You get up there with Tirico, and every time, he’s like, ‘If you get in the red zone against a Mike Zimmer defense, you better come away with points.’ Like we’re talking about the ‘86 Bears! Well, I’ll tell ya. Zimmer can run that goddamn double A gap blitz all he wants, but I’ll hit him right back with Spider 2 Y Banana, wham, right up his ass for six. The center takes one ‘backer, Jacobs stones the other, and either the fullback’s wide open or Waller’s standing by himself in the end zone. Even Carr doesn’t miss that.”

“Spider 2 Y Banana?”

“Yeah. The key is, the primary is always the fullback.” He looked up and noticed a whiteboard on my wall, which my wife and I use to teach our kids reading and writing. The last lesson had been silent E, so the board was filled with words like CAKE and CARE and DARE and FREEZE. He grabbed the eraser, wiped the words all off without a thought, and started diagramming the play.

“This is actually Green Right Slot Spider 2 Y Banana, which means the Z shifts inside.” He started drawing Xs and Os, filling the room with squeaking sounds, then took a swig and winced. “How old is this beer?”

“Eight months?”

“It tastes like shit. You know I used to work at Hooters?”

“I think I did know that. It’s in the book.”

“Two months. I tell you, man, I did everything there. Shucked oysters. Shook wings. Mopped floors. Wiped tables. Changed kegs. And looked at a lot of tits. This was Tampa, Florida, son. You think they don’t know how to make tits in Tampa, Florida?”

“Um…”

“Boy, those were the days,” he said, drinking again. Then he looked up. “Hey, you don’t know, do you?”

“Know what?”

“Know what? Know about me.”

“What about you?”

“What about me?” he laughed, slapping his thigh. “Don’t you have the Internet?”

“Of course we have the Internet. I’ve just been off for a few days — writing this long piece about Konstantin Kilimnik.”

“About what?” he roared.

“It’s a Russia thing. Never mind. It’s not important.”

“What the everlasting hell is a — a what? A clam neck?” He slapped his thigh again. “Man, that’s rich.”

I was already scrolling Twitter.

“Wow,” I said. “Did you really say DeMaurice Smith had lips like Michelin tires?”

“Well, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“How else can you mean it?” I scrolled some more. “Oh, man. Shannon Sharpe even compared you to John Wayne. No bouncing back from that.”

“Sharpe? Hell, I coached his brother in Green Bay. Incredible receiver. Incredible voice. When he talked it was like he had loudspeakers in his shoulder pads, like standing in a Mötley Crüe concert! His splits were always too wide, though.”

A silence fell over the room. He looked at me with curiosity for the first time.

“So, you were writing about something?”

“It’s nothing, honestly, I just lost me temper in an argument and — coach, what are you doing here?”

“Yeah, that happens,” he said. “Reminds of this time I went to visit my brother’s locker room. Washington Football Team, Redskins, whatever. Smith’s his quarterback at the time, he’s already like sixty years old, and he’s trying to tell me how to run the West Coast offense. Me! I said, ‘Alex, a Jon Gruden West Coast scheme is the best—”

According to Wikipedia,” Alexa said, interrupting, “John Daniel Gruden is an American former professional ice hockey defenseman and assistant coach of the New York Islanders. He previously served as the head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs and inaugural head coach of the Flint Firebirds of the Ontario Hockey League…”

Gruden stared over at the circling blue light of Alexa with horror.

“What the hell, I’m already off Wikipedia?”

“That was fast,” I thought.

He held his forearm up. It was starting to blur. “Oh, my God. I can see through my arm!”

“Well, you did write some crazy shit.”

“But I apologized!”

“Since when does that matter? Also, what does ‘I never had a blade of racism in me’ mean?”

“You know, like a blade of grass!” He was watching his hand fall away like a sand sculpture. “For Christ’s sake, hide me!”

“It won’t help. That’s not how this works.”

“Come on, I’m disappearing! We’re burnin’ daylight, man!” He started running around the house, pulling at closet doors. Bottle in hand, I followed slowly behind, lost sight of him, then heard him calling out from my bedroom. “How about in here? Hey, what the hell? What kind of man only has three suit jackets?”

“Take it or leave it.”

“I’ll take it, I’ll take it!”

There were nesting sounds behind the closet door. I went back to the kitchen, wiped the counter, put the empties outside. Then returned to my room and knocked. “Still there?”

“I think so,” a faint voice answered.

Throwing the door open, I could still see him for a second in outline, like Wonder Woman’s Superfriends plane, crouching in my shirt-rack. Then, in a flash, he was gone. The shirts fell back into place. All that was left was a voice.

“Is this forever?”

“I’d put your over-under at nine years.”

“Jesus.”

“Work on your Os,” I said, tossing in a pad and paper. Then closed the door and heard him scribbling, scribbling, scribbling, until I couldn’t hear him anymore.