At the time, it seemed like the great injustice of an otherwise satisfying NFL career – Paul Gruber breaking his leg in the 1999 regular-season finale and missing the Buccaneers’ thrilling run through the playoffs to the cusp of the Super Bowl.
The injury to Gruber during a 31-15 division-clinching win at Chicago was big from a pure Xs and Os standpoint, as he had been the team’s ultra-dependable left tackle for years. But the emotion after the game in the visiting locker room at Soldier Field was much more personal; so many of Gruber’s teammates were devastated that he wouldn’t get to participate in the fruits of so many years of his labor.
Gruber joined the Buccaneers in 1988, right in the middle of a 15-year franchise playoff drought. As such, while he was individually recognized as one of the league’s best at his position, he didn’t get to taste the playoffs until his 10th season. The Bucs won a Wild Card spot in 1997 and beat the Detroit Lions to start the postseason but bowed out the next week at Green Bay. It was in 1999 that Gruber finally enjoyed a division title, and with the Bucs earning a first-round bye, hopes were even higher than two years earlier.
Instead, Pete Pierson would play left tackle in the ’99 playoffs, and do an admirable job of it. But according to the one remaining Buccaneer who was Gruber’s teammate in 1999, Ronde Barber, the longtime O-Line stalwart had an impact on team’s fortunes that January as well.
“He was always encouraging,” said Barber. “He’s one of those guys you wanted to win it for, just like some of the other guys who got hurt along the way during our Super Bowl run [three years later]. He reminded me a lot of those guys.”
The Buccaneers beat Washington with a thrilling comeback in the divisional round and then went to St. Louis as huge underdogs against “The Greatest Show on Turf.” Tampa Bay’s amazing defense was up to the task, and the visitors actually had a 6-5 late in the fourth quarter before a Ricky Proehl touchdown sent the Rams to the Super Bowl.
Gruber retired before the Bucs’ 2000 season, meaning the 1999 finale in Chicago was his final NFL game. According to one of his teammates at the time, it wasn’t the last time he would help his team win, however. On Sunday, Gruber will become the fourth person inducted into the franchise’s Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium.