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Sacco Sez: How the Broncos came to draft Randy Gradishar

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Without any question, Denver Broncos Ring of Famer Randy Gradishar is one of the greatest linebackers ever to play pro football.

And as we approach the 2020 NFL Draft, I thought we might look back at some of the greatest players we have ever drafted, and this week we will focus on Gradishar.

The poster boy for character, leadership, faith and family values, it just seems perfect that Gradishar is from Champion, Ohio.

No town name could fit him any better.

Everything about Gradishar's story would seem corny, if it were not true.

The All-American boy, he was raised in Champion before matriculating to Ohio State.

He remembers his recruitment with an unusual anecdote.

"It was after school, and I was stacking shelves in my dad's store when someone from the school called for me," Gradishar said. "They asked if I could come back to school, as Woody Hayes wanted to visit with me."

Gradishar's response was, "Who's Woody Hayes?"

"The head coach at Ohio State," came the reply.

So Randy went back to school and visited with Woody Hayes, went to Ohio State and was later and repeatedly described by Hayes as "The greatest linebacker I ever coached."

Gradishar was a three-year starter for the Buckeyes and was named to every All-America team following his senior season, as well as being an academic All-American.

But just being from a place called Champion did not give Gradishar a free pass to greatness.

"I've always looked at athletics as basic fundamentals," says Gradishar. "And basic fundamentals means a lot of things — whether it's running sprints, whether it's lifting weights, whether it's playing in a game, whether it's practicing. For 17 years of my life, it always me down to basic fundamentals."

His 10-year career as a Bronco is well known and defined by success: 1978 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, the Broncos' all-time leader in tackles (2,049, counting assists, as counted by longtime defensive coordinator Joe Collier), seven Pro Bowls, and the leader of the Orange Crush defense.

What went into creating a player of Gradishar's caliber?

He explains, "There is the God-given talent that people have, and the rest of it is work. Then you get involved with the word 'commitment' — committed to being the best I can be. I wanted to be a winner; I wanted to be a leader. I didn't want to be a follower."

Young Gradishar was a coach's dream. 

But he had had a couple of injuries with the Buckeyes, nothing that ever kept him out of a game, perhaps more a tribute to Gradishar's toughness and competitive instinct than anything. It was a different era. Players played, especially the great ones.

There was no national combine then, and each team mostly focused on their own scouting and medical evaluations.

For whatever reason, whatever the thought process might have been, it was quietly known in the back rooms that both the Baltimore Colts and Detroit Lions failed Gradishar's physical.

Ralston knew the background, but he was completely undeterred.

An obvious first-round draft choice when Denver's turn came, the young Gradishar embodied the virtues of team-first ball and Ralson wanted his combination of talent and mindset.

Ralston said simply, "Gradishar was not a player you could pass up."

Randy came to Denver and immediately became an integral piece of the puzzle as the Broncos grew from a laughingstock team to a respectable one, to a very good one that eventually reached the Super Bowl in a 1977 dream season.

And because Gradishar was no less than a great player, he was a starter, an all-star and the league's defensive MVP in 1978.

I have spent more hours talking with Randy than perhaps any other player, and I know his values were what drove him, and that value system gave him a perspective for beyond wins and losses.   

How he was raised and where he was raised combined to set him up for greatness. 

Randy Gradishar certainly was one of the finest first-round draft choices in Denver Broncos history.

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