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Jordan Gross, the former Carolina Panthers offensive tackle who was so good he earned a spot in the team’s Hall of Honor, made a rare appearance at an NFL game Sunday.
Gross sat in the team’s radio booth in Seattle, and called the one game all season that he will broadcast for the Panthers in 2023. He’s too busy to do any more of them, since he now serves as head coach of his old high school football team — the Fruitland Grizzlies — and runs his family’s 70-acre farm.
In rural Idaho, Gross has cobbled together an unusual post-NFL life befitting one of the Panthers’ most unusual success stories. Gross, the team’s first-round draft choice in 2003, came from a place where basically no NFL players come from. Fruitland (population 6,500) is named after the apple orchards that surround the community. Not far from Oregon, Fruitland is a farming and hunting community, and Gross must arrange his team’s practice schedules carefully.
“It’s kind of like ‘once upon a time’ in Fruitland,” Gross said. “Our first week of training camp happened to be the same week as the county fair. I had 12 or 15 kids showing animals at the fair so I had to set the practice schedule around the showtimes for the sale. And I don’t have any meetings on Saturdays, because so many of the kids and their parents go hunting. It’s kind of like I could do it, but there would be a ton of pushback.”
Gross and I caught up in Seattle in the press box of the Seahawks’ stadium, and he looked around at all the NFL accessories and shook his head with a grin. “It’s a funny dynamic because I’m here at the Panthers-Seahawks game with all this hoopla and professionalism,” he said. “But two days ago, on Friday night, it was homecoming and I’m making sure the batteries are charged on our headsets. I helped line the field and all that stuff.”
A salary of many zeroes
Gross made millions in the NFL and protected Cam Newton’s blindside at left tackle for the early part of Newton’s career. Now his salary still has a bunch of zeroes attached to it — in fact, it’s all zeroes. Gross is entitled to a $3,600 stipend to be the head coach, but he instead passes along that money to his assistant coaches.
“I never thought it was in the cards for me to be a head football coach,” Gross said. “But it’s kind of been put in front of me, and I think it’s for a reason. I kind of call what I’m doing now a time of service.”
About now you may be thinking, yeah, OK, what’s the catch? Gross probably has a kid on the team, right? And the kid probably is the star quarterback?
No and no. Gross and his wife, Dana, have three children. The oldest, Teddy, is a high school senior who plays tennis at the school and is interested in film. He helps his dad out with some of the video for the high school football team and hopes to go to California to study the film business. “Teddy did get elected homecoming king Friday,” Gross said, “so that was cool.”
Daughter Rainey is a ninth-grader and a tennis player (Dana Gross is an assistant coach for the women’s tennis team at Fruitland). And son Boone — named in part for the North Carolina mountain town — is seven years old and loves contact sports.
“And so that puts me on a 10-year plan of doing this,” Gross said, chuckling at the thought of coaching Boone at Fruitland a decade from now, when Gross would hypothetically be the grizzled coach of the Grizzlies. “Now anything could happen. I could get fired. I could get run out of town. But I also could see myself doing it in 10 years because why not? We’re there anyway.”
‘We’re kind of like the Panthers’
This is actually Gross’s second season as the team’s head coach and before that he worked for two years as an assistant. In his first year as the head coach, in 2022 with a senior-heavy group, the team went 5-6, winning a playoff game before bowing out. The school has 550 students in grades 9-12 and plays in the third-largest of Idaho’s six football classifications. Gross said he has a total of 58 players in the varsity and junior varsity combined. This year’s varsity team, however, is young and taking its lumps.
“Our record right now, because we’re in a rebuild, is 0-5,” Gross said. “We’re kind of like the Panthers, honestly. We’ve got a freshman at quarterback on the varsity. We’ve got a pretty solid defense. We’ve got some young receivers. We’re going to get it right and get the mojo back, but it’s going to take some time.”
Fruitland’s Friday night lights
Friday night high school football remains big in Fruitland, though, win or lose. There’s a “kind of famous band,” as Gross said, and hamburgers at the concession stand and, in a town of 6,500, sometimes up to 1,500 people at the game.
“It’s a small town,” Gross said. “Kids are throwing the football behind the bleachers, just the same as it was when my wife and I were there.”
The Grosses also have a small farm in Idaho where he has been growing organic vegetables, although he has cut back on that some recently. At the moment, most of his farming involves renting his land for other people’s cattle to graze on for about half the year and then taking care of those cattle on a temporary basis.
“We’ve got 75 head (of cattle) on 70 acres,” Gross said. “We’ve got two different ranchers around us looking for land to rent. So they bring the cattle to us around May 1. We rotate them and water them and move them all around the pastures. And then around October 1, we say: ‘Come get them.’ I’d call it a profitable hobby. It’s not like a career or anything.”
11 years, 9 missed Panthers games
The Panthers inducted Gross into their Hall of Honor in 2019, on the same day they put in three other Carolina greats: wide receiver Steve Smith, quarterback Jake Delhomme and tight end Wesley Walls.
Gross played his entire 11-year career at Carolina, starting from the very beginning in 2003, when his rookie year coincided with the Panthers’ first Super Bowl appearance. He was remarkably durable, missing only nine games total in those 11 years. Of the 167 regular-season games he played for Carolina, Gross started every single one of them, making the Pro Bowl three times. He once attributed some of that longevity to his old-school workout regimen, which included pull-ups and pushups. He protected the blindside for all sorts of QBs at Carolina. The stars, the likable-has-beens and the never-really-weres. Gross blocked not only for Delhomme and Newton, but also for Vinny Testaverde, David Carr, Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen.
When Gross retired following the 2013 season, his close friend, center Ryan Kalil, surprised him by leading a barbershop quartet that sang a modified version “Happy Trails” at the farewell press conference. Sample lyric:
Happy Trails to You
Until we meet again
Happy Trails to you
You’ll be missed on third-and-10.
And he has been missed on third-and-10. Since both Gross and Kalil left, the Panthers have generally struggled on the offensive line. This season has been no exception. Carolina’s offensive line false-started seven times in the game Gross called on Sunday (the special teams also did so once, bringing the total to eight). That was such a preposterous number of false starts that the Seahawks made a gleeful video about it.
As for Idaho, Gross never really got his home state out of his system. Although he certainly could have made a life in Charlotte and taken advantage of his name, he and his wife decided to raise their three kids back in their Idaho hometown.
Gross has been retired a decade now, and the 305-pound offensive lineman he once was is now a man who weighs substantially less than that. In 2014, Gross told The Charlotte Observer he had lost 70 pounds in the seven months since he had retired and was down to 235 pounds.
He purposely kept his weight up as a player to deal with similarly-sized players on the defensive line by eating calorie- and carbohydrate-laden foods like pancakes and entire pizzas and chugging specially made smoothies. Since retirement, he has kept up an active lifestyle and returned to eating leaner foods.
Gross keeps up a loose connection with the Panthers and plans to come to Carolina’s home game against Houston on Oct. 29 because defensive end Julius Peppers and wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, two of Gross’s former teammates, are being inducted into the Hall of Honor.
When the magic happens
Gross will occasionally call in a favor when needed. Recently, one of the Fruitland players needed a new helmet in matte black, sized XL. There is a football helmet shortage for many programs nowadays, Gross said, and so he didn’t have another one in that size. He called Don Toner, the Panthers’ equipment manager, and asked if he could buy one of Carolina’s black helmets.
Toner instead sent an XL helmet to Fruitland for free, and the high school kid was properly impressed. Gross coached his player to send a handwritten thank-you note in return, counseling the player that such notes nowadays are rare enough to make an impression.
“I definitely try not to abuse my relationship with the team,” Gross said. “But every once in a while, something like that can happen.”
The Panthers lost the game Gross broadcast on Sunday, of course, falling 37-27 to Seattle to drop to 0-3. So football wins have been few and far between for Gross in 2023, but he’s philosophical about it.
“We had the Cardiac Cats (in 2003) and we were heralded as a really good team, but we still didn’t win the Super Bowl,” Gross said. “We got second place. But we still had a lot of guys at the right time. It’s just such magic when it works, right?
“And it’s the same story again and again in football, everywhere you go: at the University of Utah (where Gross went to college), at Colorado, with the Carolina Panthers. It’s ‘if we just had that receiver. If we just could stay healthy. If their starting QB rolls an ankle.’ And that’s why we love it. None of us know what’s going to happen, or when the magic is going to show up, one more time.”