By Will Robinson
Mark Grieb never thought he would be a professional quarterback. Boy was he wrong.
After 13 seasons in the Arena Football League, 12 of which featured the former UC Davis standout leading the dominant San Jose SaberCats, Grieb retired in November as one of the league’s best players of all time. The incredible journey began more than 20 years ago on Toomey Field.
“It wasn’t until later (that) I truly, fully realized what Davis and the program were about,” the 38-year-old told The Enterprise. “I knew it was special when I came on my first recruiting visit. I just got the feeling that the coaches were genuine and that they had a history of success, and I liked it. From the moment I got there, it felt like a special place.”
Grieb was the second quarterback for recently retired UCD coach Bob Biggs, and as the signal-caller led Biggs to the first of his four NCAA Division II semifinal appearances.
Grieb’s astounding AFL success — three league championships and two MVP awards — puts him in rare company. Former New York Jet and first-round pick Ken O’Brien is regarded as the most successful Aggie QB with Grieb in the top group that also includes Mike Moroski — a Jim Sochor product who was an NFL journeyman for eight years and a longtime UCD assistant — and J.T. O’Sullivan, who played for 11 NFL teams in nine seasons through 2010 and is now in the CFL.
At UCD, Grieb had to work his way up from the now defunct freshman squad, a challenge he said that was key to his eventual success. A few years later, Grieb was a finalist for the 1996 Harlon Hill Trophy (the Division II equivalent of the Heisman), one of 10 Aggies in program history to be considered for the prestigious award.
The hard work he exhibited was a common thread between Grieb and his Aggie teammates.
“That was one thing, for me, that was really special about the environment; that people really wanted to be good could go and work at it,” Grieb said. “So you had a lot of people who were totally invested in it, and not so much because they had to be, because a lot of guys didn’t. But a lot of guys would spend their off-seasons working out on their own — it really was up to you how much you put in the program.”
Grieb and his teammates’ self-discipline paid dividends when the 1996 squad, ranked No. 17, was selected for the D-II playoffs, slotted to play the No. 1 Texas A&M Kingsville squad. UCD upset the Javelinas, 17-14, en route to making the NCAA semifinals.
Most, if not all, college students face the intimidating task of finding stable employment after graduation — and it’s even harder in professional football.
In the NFL, approximately 250 rookies are selected each season to fight for a spot on one of 32 franchises. With more than 10,000 Division I players, chances of reaching the NFL are already slim at a premier school. At a smaller one, like Davis? Basically zero. Only 16 UCD products since 1932 have made the NFL.
But Grieb wanted to play professionally, even if it was not at the game’s highest level. Though he received tryout invitations from the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs (at the time coached by Aggie alum Paul Hackett), Grieb’s NFL dreams were short-lived.
“I carried a chip on my shoulder because I was never the blue-chip guy, the prized recruit,” he said.
So, upon leaving UCD, Grieb’s future agent Leo Shveyd created a highlight tape and sent it to anyone who would accept it. The tape worked, as Grieb landed a job with the Anaheim Piranhas, a now-defunct AFL franchise.
It was a culture shock for the fresh-faced 23-year-old quarterback to be around players who did not promote the team concept Davis preached.
After a challenging season that was split between Anaheim and the Milwaukee Mustangs, Grieb almost left football. He enrolled at UCLA to study biology, destined to become a lab scientist.
But about two quarters into his studies in Westwood, his phone rang. It was Sochor, then the offensive coordinator for the Scottish Claymores, asking Grieb to be his QB. When Grieb said yes, the two former Aggies were together in the NFL Europe.
“I was curious what it would be like to play for this guy and get to know him,” Grieb said. “I wasn’t at all disappointed. I was so lucky to have done that because it changed the way I thought about the game, football, life. He was a great mentor for me — and still is to this day.”
“Having been on so many different teams in such a short amount of time and not being able to build up any continuity anywhere, I figured out pretty early you can’t be successful,” Grieb said of his early bouncing around. “I knew that I could be good if I played with a good coach.”
After his year in Scotland, the Oak Grove High graduate returned to his hometown of San Jose and joined the SaberCats. He remained there for the rest of his career, save a year with the Las Vegas Outlaws, a one-and-done XFL squad.
Grieb credits SaberCats coach Terry Malley, who joined as offensive coordinator shortly after the quarterback’s arrival, for launching his AFL career.
“I knew after he took over I had a chance to be on a special team — and I was right,” Grieb said, laughing.
With San Jose, Grieb posted some of the league’s best all-time numbers and helped the franchise become an AFL power.
After two consecutive, crushing defeats in the AFL semifinals, Grieb led the 2002 SaberCats to ArenaBowl XVI, where they would face the Arizona Rattlers.
But in the first championship game of his career, Grieb couldn’t play. He had broken his collarbone against the same Arizona squad a few weeks prior, relegating him to the bench to watch his team crush the Rattlers to win its first ever ArenaBowl.
“It was tough for me to sit there, but I was happy for my teammates, and I knew that I was a big part of what happened that season,” Grieb said.
After another semifinal loss the next year, Grieb finally returned to ArenaBowl XVIII. San Jose again faced Arizona, beating the Rattlers, 69-62, in what is considered to be one of the AFL’s all-time greatest games. The victory gave Grieb his second of three rings and the first of his two ArenaBowl MVP awards, solidifying him as a star.
“You always wonder how good you are, and what you’re capable of, if you’re going to be good enough to win a championship and help your team,” Grieb said. “On that day, it was one of my best days ever, and it was in the biggest game I had played in up to that point.”
Grieb would win his final ArenaBowl in 2007 and appear in another in 2008, losing to the Philadelphia Soul.
After that season, the AFL suspended play for two seasons. Knowing that a football playing career holds an expiration date, Grieb looked to the future, moving his family to Southern California so Mark’s wife, Erin, could attend medical school at UC Irvine.
“When the league folded, I resigned myself to the idea that I was done,” Grieb said. “It was difficult to come to that because it was such a huge part of my life. I loved it dearly, and I didn’t like it ending that way.”
But the SaberCats called again upon the league’s reinstatement in 2010, asking Grieb to return. Though Erin was still enrolled at Irvine, she encouraged her husband to finish his career.
“She said, ‘You should go play. You’re not gonna be able to play forever,’ ” he remembered. “So that’s what I did.”
Grieb and his twin daughters, Ava and Madeline, 9, moved back to San Jose. Erin visited every other weekend until she completed school and acquired her residency at an Oakland hospital.
After two more years, Grieb officially hung up his cleats.
Now, he teaches chemistry at Leland High in San Jose. Grieb earned his credential during the league’s suspension and a master’s degree from Stanford between seasons in the early 2000s.
But he wants to coach.
“I started calling around, talking to people. I want to get into college coaching,” Grieb said. “I’m not sure where it’s gonna be, but somewhere.”
During his studies in Palo Alto, a few NFL teams contacted him. The Chiefs and Grieb even negotiated a contract, albeit not guaranteeing a training camp spot.
Famously, star quarterback Kurt Warner moved from AFL stud to Super Bowl MVP. But Warner is a one-in-a-million story. Grieb decided to stay in school and with the AFL.
“Like anybody, I wanted to play in the NFL,” he said. “But I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad I stayed where I was because I was able to really play. I didn’t think that the NFL would give me an opportunity.
“I thought to myself, ‘You know, it would be really great if there was just somewhere to play football, make a good living, and do what I love to do.’ It wasn’t about making about millions of dollars, which I don’t think anyone would turn down. I just really wanted to play football. I love it, and I still love it.”
Notes: Grieb’s younger brother, Mike, was a tight end at UCLA in the late 1990s. He compared the two experiences: “(UCLA) is a great program, but it really was like a job for him, to a certain extent: Wake up at 6 in the morning every day, go work out, go to class — the whole thing — and then study at night. These workouts were mandatory. I played because I loved it.”… Grieb credits coach Biggs with teaching him to understand complex offenses and reading defenses. “He was just a master of watching tape and finding structural weaknesses in a defense and exploiting it.”
— Will Robinson is a 2009 Da Vinci High graduate and a senior at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is a senior sports editor of Neon Tommy, an all-online USC newspaper.