Gradkowski faces his childhood team

Published 7:09 am Friday, December 26, 2008

Bruce Gradkowski wouldn’t admit to it, but somewhere buried in a dresser drawer or basement box is a Terrible Towel he used to wave at Steelers games.

Gradkowski is going home to Pittsburgh on a business trip that won’t mix in any pleasure. With Ken Dorsey to miss Cleveland’s season finale against the Steelers because of a concussion, Gradkowski, a fourth-stringer waived by Tampa Bay and St. Louis earlier this season, will make his first NFL start since 2006 on Sunday.

‘‘This should be a nice Christmas present,’’ he said Wednesday.

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Sure. As long as he survives it.

Gradkowski, signed by the Browns on Dec. 2, is taking over an offense that hasn’t scored a touchdown in five games and will be facing the league’s No. 1 ranked defense. It’s unlikely the Steelers, who have won 10 straight over the Browns, will show him any pity so Gradkowski might want to make sure the insurance premiums are paid up.

It’s a daunting task, but Gradkowski feels he’s up to it.

‘‘I’m looking forward to it,’’ he said. ‘‘I grew up in Pittsburgh so I know about the rivalry and I always said I’d love to play against the Steelers. I think it’s especially even more awesome playing against them in a Browns uniform. You couldn’t ask for much more, being here four weeks and getting the start against the best defense in the league.’’

Gradkowski has played as a pro in Pittsburgh before. As a rookie with the Buccaneers in 2006, he threw three interceptions in a 20-3 loss to the Steelers, who sacked the local high school legend five times. Gradkowski finished 20-of-34 for 175 yards and went 3-8 as a starter.

The 25-year-old was out of football when the Browns called him earlier this month. They had just lost Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson to season-ending injuries and were in need of a backup to Dorsey. Now, Gradkowski will be the 13th quarterback to start a game for the Browns since 1999.

‘‘He’s a pretty heady quarterback,’’ Browns coach Romeo Crennel said. ‘‘I think he’s really excited to be able to start again in the NFL and see what he can do.’’

Because of Dorsey’s injury, the Browns had hoped to use return specialist Joshua Cribbs in an expanded role at quarterback on Sunday. But Cribbs, who has lined up in the shotgun several times this season, injured his right ankle while running a pass pattern during Wednesday’s practice.

Dorsey was placed on injured reserve and the Browns signed Richard Bartel from the practice squad to be his backup.

Gradkowski played at Seton-La Salle High School, where he passed for 30 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards as a senior. He set a conference record, surpassing Hall of Fame quarterbacks George Blanda, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Dan Marino — all of whom got their starts in Western Pennsylvania, the cradle of QBs.

Gradkowski attended Steelers game as a kid, but he quickly muttered a ‘‘no comment’’ when he was asked about whether he owned a Terrible Towel.

In the years that have passed, his loyalty to the gold and black has waned.

‘‘When I was younger I was a Steelers fan, but as I got older, I knew this was kind of what I wanted to do and I kind of grew away from it and I was just a football fan in general,’’ he said. ‘‘But I still have a lot of cousins that are huge diehards and I told them before I was even with a team I’d love to come back and play the Steelers.’’

He’s getting another crack in what may very well be Crennel’s final game with Cleveland. The embattled coach is 0-7 since taking over the Browns in 2005, a record that will certainly stand out when owner Randy Lerner reviews his coach’s body of work in the coming days. Crennel is the only full-time coach never to beat Pittsburgh and the Browns have lost 10 straight and 23 of 26 to the Steelers.

Gradkowski has been here long, but long enough to know about the Browns’ futility in a rivalry that’s grown more and more lopsided each season.

‘‘There’s a rumor going around about it, but I’m not quite sure of the stat,’’ he said. ‘‘But I know it’s going to be tough. Anytime you play the Steelers: great organization, and always great players. We just have to work hard this week and play hard.’’