Former Ohio State and Denver Broncos linebacker learned lessons from legendary Woody Hayes Champion’s Gradishar giving back
By Ryan Buck
Champion native and football great Randy Gradishar’s support for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton is an annual topic of discussion preceding every vote and announcement the week of the Super Bowl.
One of the NFL’s all-time leading tacklers and consistently great linebackers, his peers and football insiders are very vocal in his support and the voices, both in number and in volume, grow every year he is not invited to Canton as one of two senior inductees.
Gradishar, however, will never be seen waiting to learn his fate.
“I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it,” he said. “I believe if it’s meant to be, it’s going to happen and the Lord will let me know.”
Gradishar has other important things to worry about.
Since his retirement from the Dever Broncos in 1983, the 1970 Champion graduate has lived in the Denver area and remained close to the team.
He presided over the Denver Broncos Youth Foundation for over a decade immediately following his playing career.
“I worked with a lot of organizations in Colorado and the Denver metro area,” Gradishar said.
The Promise Keepers ministry is another pursuit of his and he has built a career with the Phil Long Car Dealerships across Colorado, where he has 16-year tenure.
“Through working with them, I’ve had opportunities to be involved with the community and particularly the military.”
In 2004, 2005 and 2007, Gradishar traveled to the Middle East to support and entertain deployed personnel. He has traveled to Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Over several trips per summer, Gradishar hosts 170 wounded veterans from Fort Carson, Colo., at Broncos Training Camp.
His passion for life never ceased once he retired from football. Perhaps it only intensified.
“Certainly in athletics, the competitiveness has always been there,” he said. “It’s about the life you’re living and the character you develop whether in class, off the field, or in your church. I want to be a winner, a leader, a champion.
“That drives who I am as a person. I don’t have it all figured out, but competition, even after athletics, it drives you. It never really leaves you.”
Along with his family, he traced this lifelong attitude to a man that once called Gradishar the best linebacker to ever play for him.
“I try to pay forward,” Gradishar said of the late Woody Hayes, his legendary coach at Ohio State. “I didn’t understand what that was all about at first, but I learned. It was about character and what you do within your community where you live. It’s what he taught us players about. He taught us how to conduct ourselves on and off the field.”
On the field, he became one of the Buckeyes’ greatest players while earning his coach’s praise.
“It’s certainly a great honor to have Coach Hayes say that about me,” Gradishar said. “It’s very meaningful.”
Though he was an exceptional two-sport athlete at Champion, timing and setting almost thwarted his eventual success. He wasn’t heavily recruited until late into his senior year.
“I never had dreams or aspirations of college or pro football even though I watched the Cleveland Browns and the Indians occasionally,” said Gradishar, who didn’t play football until ninth grade, the first year it was offered in the Champion schools. “It was just something that I did.”
His football coach, Al Carrino, sent his game film to every school he could find. Soon, however, coaches from schools of all sizes and prominence made their way into the Champion High gymnasium to watch Gradishar play basketball.
His simple goal upon entering Ohio State, to graduate in four years, led him to Denver where he led the Broncos’ “Orange Crush” defense.
As for his hometown, family and professional obligations don’t facilitate his return to visit family and friends very often, but Champion and Trumbull County are always close to his heart.
When he enlightens acquaintances of his upbringing, he first locates its vicinity then, “I like to say I’m from Champion. I’m proud that I’m an old Buckeye and I come from a small township.”