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We all make mistakes. Some of them are real beauts, and they have consequences that spread out around us like nasty rumors.
And some of them seem trivial, and some of them really are trivial … except to the people who decide they’re monumental.
In sports terms, rookies are more inclined to make mistakes than are veterans, and in the NFL some of those rookie mistakes have nothing to do with missing a block or dropping a pass.
A Rookie's Responsibilities
In 2003, Jordan Gross was such an NFL rookie. The Carolina Panthers made him the eighth overall pick in the draft, quite a distinction for an offensive lineman. When Gross and his wife came to Carolina, they didn’t know what to expect.
"Here we go, to this world we’ve never been into and this place we’ve never visited," Gross says. "I kinda had my guard up a little bit. I had this idea that nobody was going to be able to pick on me or haze me or take advantage of me."
Obviously Gross had heard that NFL veterans were inclined to give rookies a hard time. As it turned out, he was OK with that, within limits. The veteran linemen wanted him to order Mexican food for them? No problem. Except there was always a problem.
"They had to have this black salsa," Gross recalls. "And I would always stress to the order: 'I need the black salsa.' Every time. And they would forget it at least 65 percent of the time. And when they forgot the black salsa, you would’ve thought that I’d fumbled the football on the 2-yard line going in for the game winning score, 'cause all hell would erupt. 'Ah, come on, rookie. You can’t tell a rookie anything!' I would get so mad, because I’d confirm it, but nobody had any sympathy or pity for me. Because I forgot the black salsa."
"Were you taking all this as, 'Oh, this is good fun. I’m just becoming one of the lads?'" I ask.
"I don’t think I ever said, 'I'm one of the lads,' but I know what you mean. Yeah, I did. I knew that all of those types of things were rookie responsibilities," Gross says. "Other guys were laying out towels. So I said, 'Hey, this is all part of it.'"
Even in 2003, Mexican food for the offensive line, with or without black salsa, wasn’t going to make much of a dent in a rookie’s salary.
Drawing The Line
But that’s not all the veterans wanted. Or at least that’s not all left tackle and two-time Pro Bowler Todd Steussie wanted. He’d been in the league since 1994, and with the Panthers since 2001, and by late afternoon, he would get tired. He wanted a cappuccino machine in the room reserved for meetings of the offensive linemen, and he wanted it right away, and he wanted the rookie to take care of it.
"That’s when I said, 'I draw the line here. This is unnecessary, and I’m not going to let any veteran take advantage of me,'” Gross says.
Except that’s not exactly the way he put it when he was face-to-face with Todd Steussie, 6-foot-5, 310 pounds:
"I told him, 'Uhh, let me think about it,'" Gross says. "And that made him mad, because he wanted an immediate, 'Yes.'”
The dispute might have ended in one of two ways: Todd Steussie might have shrugged off that particular rookie’s stubborn resistance and picked on somebody else. Or, Jordan Gross might have decided that better coffee all around wasn’t such a bad idea, and he might have bought the coffee machine.
"They'd say, 'Ah, come on, rookie. You can’t tell a rookie anything!' I would get so mad because I’d confirm it, but nobody had any sympathy or pity for me, because I forgot the black salsa."
The Great Cappuccino Machine Conundrum split the offensive line right down the middle. Some of the veterans sided with Steussie, figuring that rookies should shut up and do what they were told. Some of them, including 10-year veteran tackle Kevin Donnalley, felt Gross was right to tell Steussie that he’d gone too far. So how did it work out?
"Well, it got worked out by me never buying the cappuccino machine," Gross says. "Todd being mad for weeks and weeks and weeks that I didn’t do it, and Kevin earning a whole lot of respect from me for backing me up."
"Well, that’s all fine and good, but you tore the team apart," I say.
"I did," he says with a laugh. "I tore the lads apart. I did."
The Curse Of The Cappuccino Machine
The offensive line must work as a unit. Quarterbacks understand that better than anybody, since if the members of the line in front of them don’t cooperate, quarterbacks end up on their… backs. Or their bellies.
For whatever reason, the disagreement over rookie protocol as it applies to requests from veterans didn’t prevent the Panthers from having a terrific season… up to a point. In fact, they made it all the way to the Super Bowl, and then the Curse of the Unpurchased Cappuccino Machine kicked in, and Carolina lost the game by three points.
It might be an exaggeration to say the Panthers lost because Jordan Gross didn’t buy the cappuccino machine. But maybe not, because, well, would his team have been champs if he’d done what he was asked to do?
"Well, of course. Of course we would’ve won," Gross says with a laugh. "But the way it was now, there was disgruntled veterans that were lacking in energy, and it was just enough to lose by three points to the Patriots."
Jordan Gross: 'The Barista'
It took Gross a couple of years to come to that conclusion. In the immediate aftermath of his team’s loss in Super Bowl XXXVIII, he remained proud that he’d stood up to Todd Steussie. But by his third year with Carolina, Gross had begun to change his mind.
"Well, in my third year, we had our son. And then in my sixth year, we had our daughter. And I’d come home, and there was soccer after practice, there were school activities, there were things like that. I was getting older. I got into my 30s. Well, pretty soon, I said, 'Man, we do need some coffee in here.'
"It was almost like I was trying to make up for what I did wrong. I should’ve done it. So I tried to make up for it by buying the nicest Keurig coffee machine on the market, and I would keep that baby stocked. I bought shelves, lattes, seasonal coffees. This time of year, I would have pumpkin spice. I had hot chocolate. I had decaf. Half caf. Extra caf. Breakfast blend. I had tea."
"This story is just a perfect example of how when you come into the league, you think things are one way. If you have the good fortune of sticking around for 10 or 12 years, you get to see it from the other side."
No wonder his teammates began calling Gross, “The Barista.” He even memorized their orders. But Todd Steussie was no longer his teammate. Actually, Jordan had taken his position on the offensive line, and Steussie had moved on to play for Tampa Bay. Two years later, he would play for the Rams. And perhaps he’d never have known that his demand had paid off, at least for those who came after him, if we didn't ask Gross to give Steussie a call...
JG: "Todd Steussie, this is a voice from the past, Jordan Gross."
TS: "Hey. How’s it going? You sound much more mature."
JG: "When I was a rookie, you asked me to buy a cappuccino machine. Do you remember that?"
TS: "I remember roughly something about you not doing what I told you to do, but I don't remember exactly."
JG: "In an effort to make it right, I became the barista of the offensive line room — filled our room with coffee and creamers. And I wanted to take this opportunity, Todd Steussie, to tell you in front of everybody in the radio world, that I am sorry that I did not do that, and I was wrong."
TS: "Well, I appreciate that. Better late than never. I mean, most people would think I'd be bitter about you taking my job or something, but, no, that wasn't it."
JG: "You were more mad about the coffee."
TS: "Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I got another job somewhere else. There were a lot of life lessons that I learned from moving on to different places and different opportunities, but there were no life lessons learned from the cappuccino machine. I was just bitter. So, I accept your apology and I'll take your name off of my revenge list. [laughs]"
JG: "Thank you very much."
TS: "Let’s keep in touch, bud."
"Jordan, what do you think? How do you think that went?" I ask.
"It felt good to just admit my wrongdoings," Gross says. "This story is just a perfect example of how when you come into the league, you think things are one way. And if you have the good fortune of sticking around for 10 or 12 years, you get to see it from the other side. And, if you can share that knowledge and find a way to coexist, then that’s when you have really good teams. Because the old guys take care of the young, and the young guys bring in a little extra spark and energy."
Lesson learned. And, as it turned out, lesson passed on. Jordan Gross is the proud author of a modest volume titled "The Rookie Handbook." It's a humorous guide to surviving Year 1 in the NFL. And it advises rookies to select a good agent and tells them where they can buy fake jewelry that looks real, thereby managing to hang on to some of their money. Gross plans to take a little time off from promoting the book to send a cappuccino machine to Todd Steussie.
"I probably better get online right now and start doing some review searches on which one is the best one for him," he says.
It’s far too late to make up for having sabotaged his team’s effort in the Super Bowl, but if the rest of the 2003 Panthers are listening, I wonder how many of them will also be expecting a delivery?
This segment aired on October 8, 2016.
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