With about six minutes to go Friday, the Flyers up on VCU by 26 and the UD Arena crowd rocking out over the unexpected bounty it had been given on this snowy, icy, otherwise foul night, the players at the end of the Dayton bench started to go through some clandestine contortions.
They leaned back in their chairs, then nonchalantly stretched out their legs. They matter of factly twisted one way in their seats, then the other and occasionally one would raise a knee or dip a shoulder blade.
“Yeah, it’s funny but me and the other walk-ons had talked about it beforehand,” Joey Gruden said. “We’ve got to stretch, but we can’t do it too noticeably. We got to be discreet. So we try to stretch out a bit and get warmed up without anybody really seeing it too much.”
With the huge lead and victory assured, Gruden and the other three non-scholarship players on the roster figured there was a good chance some of them might get the nod from coach Anthony Grant and be sent into the game.
“The younger guys will say to me, ‘I’m so nervous!’… Just so nervous!’” Gruden smiled. “And I’m like, ‘Just calm down. You’ll be fine.’”
But as Gruden knows, that’s easier said than done when your chances are so few and the crowd is so big.
But Friday night, with just over three minutes to go, the Red Scare student section began its usual chant: “Joey…Joey…Joey.”
A senior guard who graduated in December, Gruden is a four-year walk-on with a famous last name, but an everyman resume.
His dad, Jay, is the head coach of the Washington Redskins. His grandfather, Jim, was a Flyers assistant football coach in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s,
And his Uncle Jon was a walk-on on quarterback for the Flyers football team, who then coached Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl crown, has been a popular ESPN broadcaster and just a few days ago signed a $100 million contract to coach the Oakland Raiders.
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But for the UD crowd – especially the students – Joey is embraced because he’s one of them.
He’s just 6-feet-2 and when he first came to UD he was a typical student, unnoticed going to class, playing intramural football, basketball and volleyball and watching Flyers games from that same Red Scare section in the Arena.
“I remember sitting there wishing I was down there with those guys playing” he remembered Saturday afternoon.
And even though he is now on the basketball team, he gets no scholarship and does not live with those players who do. Instead he has single apartment in a complex across Brown Street.
Even though he gets little playing time and in his first three and a half seasons had not made a field goal, he’s been a key member of the scout team that has prepared the UD starters for the glorious success they’ve had the past three seasons, as well as the record-setting performance they’d have against VCU Friday night.
And with 2:07 left against Rams, Grant sent Gruden and fellow walk-on, Jack Westerfield, into the game.
A little more than a half minute later, Gruden got the first steal of his career and the crowd cheered. Then the ball came to him on the offensive end of the court and the starters on the bench all yelled for him to shed his usual reluctance and shoot.
He did, but the three-point attempt rattled off the rim.
And then with just over 30 seconds left it happened.
‘Shoot it, shoot it’
Gruden was set up along the sideline – right in front of Grant who was seated on the Flyers’ bench – when Xeyrius Williams passed him the ball.
As VCU’s 6-foot-7 Khris Lane closed in with an arm extended, the Flyers’ players, a couple standing directly behind Joey — again screamed for him to shoot.
“I head the whole gym yelling,” he laughed later on. “I heard Darrell (Davis) in my ear yellin’ Shoot it! Shoot it! Shoot it!’ And I did.
“It felt good and I knew it was in right away.”
The three pointer snapped the net cords and UD Arena erupted.
Here’s Joey Gruden’s first career 3. pic.twitter.com/Ox7MGZzL37— David Jablonski (@DavidPJablonski) January 13, 2018
The players on the bench – especially Davis, Trey Landers and Jordan Pierce – hopped up and down like popping popcon kernels. Fans sprung from their seats, arms extended to signal a three.
As Gruden headed up the court, he was met by 6-foot-7 teammate Matej Svoboda, who leaped and gave him a glancing chest bump.
“He almost knocked me over,” Gruden laughed.
And as he set up for defense at the far end of the court, you saw him nod and smile.
“I just felt like a big weight had been lifted off my chest,” he said Saturday afternoon. “I finally had banged one in.”
When the game ended in a 106-79 victory for the Flyers, Gruden was mobbed as he returned to the bench. Landers wrapped his arms around him and lifted him. Davis ruffled his hair and Williams patted him on the back.
On this night of program records – most points ever in first half (66), most points in a game in 21 years – and big shots by several players, there was no a more glorious exclamation point than Gruden’s three.
Immediately afterward his phone filled with messages – “the most I’ve ever had,” he’d admit – from friends, former players and his parents.
They were at a restaurant or something and they went crazy celebrating,” he grinned. “They sent me a video of it.”
No one though was happier for him than his teammates, a point Grant noted in his post-game comments.
Davis talked about it, too:
“Joey comes to practice every day, works hard, does everything we do and more because he gets us ready. Everything he does is for us. He always puts us before himself. That’s why this was so good. Finally he got something ….and we loved it.”
Football or basketball?
When he was just five, Joey fell off a monkey bars and shattered his left arm. Doctors hit an artery when they did the first surgery and had to operate again.
As a result his left arm is permanently crooked and its reach is about eight inches shorter than the right.
By will and grit and a lot of work in the weight room, he overcame much of that and became a three sport start at Cincinnati’s Sycamore High School, one of the three high schools he attended as his family moved along with his dad’s football jobs as a Tampa Bay and Cincinnati Bengals assistant before taking over the Redskins.
Although he had a few NCAA Division III offers to play football and one – at Ohio Northern – for basketball, he chose to go to UD.
He was offered a preferred walk-on spot with the football team, but opted instead to try out for basketball.
There were only two walk-on spots available for that 2013-14 season and he didn’t get one. So he spent the year as an average student. In fact, his intramural team was called the Average Joe’s.
A year later he got one of the walk-on berths and since then has played the final minute or so in 20 of the 118 games he’s been with the team.
As a sophomore, he got a rebound and last season he hit two free throws and had an assist. He had shot four times in his career and missed them all.
And yet, even though he knew he’d graduate midseason this year, he never thought about not going out for the team again.
“It was an easy decision,” he said. “I love the team. I love the program. I love our fans. I love everything about Dayton basketball.
“Yeah, it is a lot of work – more than most people realize and walk-ons don’t get any money for it – but it’s about more than that. It’s about being a part of the program, being a part of something special.
“And then comes a moment like tonight and it makes it all well worth it.”