Ex-NFL player helping UD student-athletes make own transition

After being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2012, Gino Gradkowski spent seven seasons in the NFL. (Delaware sports information photo)

NEWARK — Technically, Gino Gradkowski isn’t an athlete any more.

But this is a guy who says he started playing football when he was 4 years old.

The 31-year-old former Delaware and NFL offensive lineman says sports will always be some part of his life.

“I continue to work out,” said Gradkowski. “I’ve already dropped about 50 pounds. I’ve lost my ‘O’ line weight, which is nice. My knees are happy about that.

Gino Gradkowski

“I come from a very competitive family. We’ve very sport oriented. I’ll always pick up a basketball when I get the chance and shoot around. Or I’ve got a hockey net at home. I like to mess around with hockey and play that.”

After a lifetime of being a football player — capped off by a seven-year NFL career — Gradkowski’s transition to the real world was pretty simple.

He knows, though, that it’s not always that straight forward.

In a world where so many levels of athletes are expected to play year-round, sports give young people structure and motivation and goals. When those athletic careers are over, however, they have to find a new identity.

Now Gradkowski’s job is to help college athletes transition into their post-athletic career lives. A few months ago, the University of Delaware hired him as an Assistant Director for Student Services Leadership. The office, which is part of UD’s athletics department, is run by Jenn Judy.

The starting center on the Blue Hens’ 2010 FCS national runnerup team, Gradkowski has returned to UD in the student services department. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

Ironically, the job itself is helping Gradkowski himself transition out of being a football player.

“It’s funny, you spend your whole life playing a game,” he said. “I feel like I just graduated from college basically and now I’m entering the real world.

“It’s been great. There’s been so many people who I work with now that are helping me with this transition, as well.”

Gradkowski was the starting center on the Blue Hens’ 2010 squad, which reached the NCAA Division I FCS national championship game.

A fourth-round draft pick of Baltimore in 2012, he was a member of the Ravens’ Super Bowl championship squad in his rookie season.

After three seasons with Baltimore, Gradkowski was also on the rosters of the Broncos, Falcons, Jets and Panthers. He was last in the NFL in 2018 after rejoining Denver.

Gradkowski played in a total of 60 NFL games, with 20 starts.

Now married with a seven-month-old daughter, Gradkowski says he was lucky. With his older brother, Bruce, also playing in the NFL, Gino had a pretty good idea of what life would be like when he stopped playing.

“I’ve been fortunate my whole life, really, to have an older brother who had gone through everything that I’m going to go through eventually,” said Gradkowski, who also has a number of cousins who played college sports. “To be able to learn from him and his transition — he did a great job with it. Just to have friends and mentors that I can lean on. … to be able to reach out to those guys — we’re all going through things together. It helps to have people to discuss that stuff with.”

Of course, most UD athletes won’t have professional careers. But that doesn’t mean they won’t face their own set of issues after being involved in sports for a large chunk of their lives.

With so much structure as an athlete, Gradkowski said sometimes the first thing student-athletes need to do is start thinking for themselves. As a college student-athlete, somebody is always checking on your grades or your conditioning, etc.

“I think self-accountability is such an important piece,” said Gradkowski. “As athletes you’re used to being pushed by a strength coach or a position coach or having that schedule. You have to practice good habits while you’re in your sport so, when you’re out, you can hold yourself accountable to do the things that you need to do.”

The coronavirus pandemic has added a new layer to student-athletes’ lives, as well. For instance, spring-sports seniors now have to decide whether to move ahead with their lives or come back for an extra year of school.

“I really just have the passion to help younger athletes start to consider their life after sports and to consider how their sport is preparing them for that,” said Gradkowski. “They can grow and develop the skills that they need, not just in their sport, but outside as well. That was important for me. … I love being back (on campus).”

With school closed right now, Gradkowski is still learning about the individual issues that college student-athletes are dealing with these days.

But he’s looking forward to growing into the job as he starts another chapter in his own post-athletic life. Gradkowski knows there will be times when he has to look no further than himself to find an example of what he’s talking about.

“I think I’m a good example of, even if your passion and your desire is to make it professionally in your sport, there’s still a life after that,” he said. “You have to consider that.

“I would never tell anyone not to follow their dreams 100 percent because that’s what I did. I believe that that’s what everyone should do. But you definitely have to keep in mind that there’s going to be a time when you’re not going to be able to use your sport for having all the wonderful things that come with sports.

“You’re going to have to start to consider all the gifts that you’re creating and building now and how they’re going to help you after.”