"Steve Grogan has one thing you can't replace, and that's game savvy," tight end Eric Sievers said. "I have tremendous admiration for anyone who can play that long."
The 6-4, 210-pound Grogan seems to have been around forever. The current backup quarterback, rookie Tommy Hodson, was 8 years old when Grogan broke in with the Patriots, sharing time with Jim Plunkett.
"When I first started watching NFL games on TV, Steve was playing," said Hodson, who is being groomed as the Patriots' quarterback of the future. "He ran around a lot back then. I enjoyed watching him because he made things happen."
Grogan doesn't scramble as much anymore. Knee surgery and a chronic neck problem have taken their toll. Today, Grogan is a scarred and aged warrior, but he is the man the Patriots keep coming back to when the Easons and Fluties fade away.
So it is that Grogan will be the starter on Sunday when the struggling Patriots (1-6) take on the Eagles (3-4) at Veterans Stadium. He will be wearing the same bulky neck brace he wore last week when he returned to the lineup in a 27-10 loss to Buffalo.
Grogan underwent surgery in January 1989, to repair a herniated disc that was causing his throwing arm to go numb. The doctor who performed the operation warned Grogan he was risking permanent injury if he continued to play, yet here he is still running the New England offense.
Grogan started the first two games this season, then injured his neck and missed four weeks before returning last Sunday. The sight of Grogan in his oversized neck brace was so unsettling that several Buffalo defenders admitted they didn't go all-out against him for fear of inflicting serious injury.
Grogan said he was unaware of it at the time and only heard about the Bills' concern secondhand.
"I don't know if they did or didn't (ease up)," Grogan said yesterday. ''I've played against those guys for a long time, so we've got a lot of respect for each other.
"If they did that, I appreciate it. But after watching the films, it still looked like they were playing pretty hard to me."
Grogan points out the injury he suffered late in the 16-14 win over Indianapolis, Sept. 16, was unrelated to his disc surgery.
This time Grogan was dumped on his head by a Colts tackler and it caused the muscles in his upper back and shoulders to spasm. The disc, however, was unaffected.
"I had the surgery over a year ago," Grogan said, "and I played last season (seven games) with no problem. I've had a little soreness in the area around the operation, but it's nothing serious. It's not a life-threatening thing, certainly."
Grogan acknowledges, yes, his surgeon recommended that he retire, but Grogan visited four other orthopedic specialists, including Dr. Joseph Torg in Philadelphia, who felt he was taking no undue risk by continuing his NFL career.
"The problem the (surgeon) talked about was in my upper back, not my neck, and it was there for a couple years," Grogan said. "It never really bothered me.
"The other doctors saw the same thing, but they agreed the chances of worsening it (through reinjury) were pretty slim."
Ultimately, it was Grogan's call and he wanted to keep playing.
Grogan signed an agreement with the Patriots, acknowledging a full understanding of his condition and agreeing not to bring litigation against the team if he were disabled. It was a big story in the Boston press, a lot of well-intentioned people wringing their hands and asking, "Why?"
Why push it, Steve?
Why take the chance?
Why not retire to the farm with Robbi and the three boys?
After all, what does Grogan still have to prove? He holds all the Patriots' passing records. He even holds the team record for most touchdowns rushing in a season (12 in 1976). His high school stadium in Ottawa, Kan., has been renamed in his honor.
Why keep going, especially with a Patriots team that is rebuilding, and not particularly well?
The answer is obvious: Grogan still would rather play football than do anything else in life.
"We're having a difficult time right now," Grogan admitted yesterday. ''Hopefully, I can provide some leadership and advice to the younger guys.
"We've got a lot of new faces and new coaches. It just takes a while for everything to click. We'll get better. We've got some good ingredients here.
"I'll keep coming back until they take the uniform out of my locker, kick me in the rear end and tell me to get out."
Grogan has been forced to make concessions to the changes in pro football, most notably in the area of play-calling.
The former Kansas State star was the last NFL quarterback to call his own game in the huddle. Grogan took pride in the fact that he ran the offense, not some guy wearing a headset on the sideline.
"When Grogan plays, he's an offensive coordinator on the field," San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Fred Smerlas once said. "That gives them a big edge."
Grogan was such an astute play-caller that head coach Raymond Berry asked him to keep running the offense even after Eason replaced him as the No. 1 quarterback in 1985.
That meant Grogan wasn't just signaling in the plays, he was calling them. It was a unique setup and it worked well until 1987 when Eason was injured and Grogan was forced back into the lineup.
Last season, the Patriots sent in plays to all their quarterbacks, including Grogan. They are using the same system this year under new head coach Rod Rust, although Grogan does a lot of checking off at the line.
Grogan was ranked among the AFC's leading passers this season before he was injured. The Patriots were 1-1 at the time and the one loss was by 27-24, against Miami. The Pats looked as though they might compete for a playoff spot in the wide-open AFC.
But once Grogan went down and Wilson took over, the offense went to pieces. The Patriots have not scored more than one offensive touchdown in any game since the opener.
Grogan didn't perform any miracles when he returned last Sunday - he was 15-for-31 passing for 180 yards - but he did cut down on the turnovers and he provided some spark.
"Steve isn't a rah-rah guy, but he leads by example," said Hodson, who dresses alongside Grogan in the locker room. "Everyone in here respects him and follows his lead.
"I'm just trying to make it through one year. To think he's played 16 . . . wow, that's something."
Steve Grogan is one of 15 players on the New England roster who lost to Buddy Ryan and the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX in January 1986 . . . This will be Grogan's fourth career start against the Eagles. He is 2-1, with both wins coming in Foxboro . . . The Patriots never have won a regular-season game in Philadelphia, having lost on three previous trips.