Tampa Bay quarterback Brian Griese hoped for a strong performance when he found out he'd be starting against his former team in the Bears' home opener, but the game he delivered far exceeded his greatest expectations.
"Sure, I was a little nervous returning to Soldier Field," Griese said in the locker room after the game. "But I was also really excited, as well. It was an opportunity perhaps for some vindication, and definitely a chance to prove that I could still play this game at a relatively high level."
Griese not only played impressively throughout, with 407 passing yards on 67 attempts, but he also was key in a late fourth-quarter, 79-yard scoring drive that opened the door to an eventual 27-24 overtime win.
"Really, I was just happy to help the team get things done out there," he said. "I wasn't on the field thinking of ways I could get my revenge on any members of the Bears organization. Many of the players in Chicago remain my close friends. I was just trying to do my job with the help and support of an impressive group of Bucs players."
Griese's former Bears teammate, tight end John Gilmore, now also with Griese in Tampa Bay, agreed.
"It wasn't anything personal at all," Gilmore said. "I certainly wasn't sitting at home trying to figure out all the terrible things I could do to the Bears when I had the opportunity to return to Soldier Field. I just wanted to go out there and give the best effort I was capable of. The fact that things turned out so well for this team is just icing on the cake."
Although both Gilmore and Griese had only good things to say about the Bears on the field, both were somewhat reluctant to endorse the front office behind Chicago's team.
"I was surprised to hear I was gone," Griese said. "I'd been working hard. I guess any player who is traded will say the same thing. It was at the time somewhat of a disappointment, but life goes on. I immediately started to learn the new system in Tampa Bay so I could make as positive an impact as possible with the new team."
Gilmore was similarly philosophical about being released by the Bears after six strong seasons.
"Maybe it was just time for a change," he said. "Was I not contributing? It's hard to know for sure exactly what happened. But things turned out fine in the long run. I know that the Bucs' system was one that immediately felt comfortable to me. My talents seem to be a good fit, and it's a situation where I think I'll be able to contribute sooner rather than later."
Griese and Gilmore have already combined for a touchdown against Atlanta in Week 2. Did working together for the Bears lessen the learning curve at Tampa Bay?
"Probably, but only to a minor extent," Gilmore replied. "Of course I was familiar with the way Brian played, and the reverse would be true, as well. So I guess that would be somewhat of an advantage. But remember, we both had to acclimate to a different system, new coaches, players we didn't know well. That can take time and energy until you reach the point where you fit in."
For Griese, who had played with the Bucs earlier in his career, the transition may have been easier.
"I'd say that was the case," he said. "It wasn't a completely unfamiliar situation for me. In a way, I felt that I was coming home. But having worked with John before, that definitely was an advantage. He was someone I knew well. I understood his abilities and felt our timing was good. The fact that it was successful during my first start last week is a demonstration of that point."
One other advantage that both Griese and Gilmore enjoyed Sunday was a thorough knowledge of the Bears defense.
"Yes, of course it was something I understood," Gilmore said. "After all, I watched them or practiced against them for six years. Also, the Bucs' defensive scheme is very similar to the Bears. I knew more or less what I'd be dealing with well before coming back to Soldier Field for this game."
But in Griese's mind, knowing the Bears so well had disadvantages as well
"Remember, that kind of knowledge goes both ways," he said. "I may have known Lance [Briggs] or Brian [Urlacher] or Hunter [Hillenmeyer] well enough to anticipate what they'd do, but they knew just that much about me. We'd seen each other play so many times that there weren't that any surprises left on either side of the ball."
And although the win made Griese and Gilmore happy to revisit Soldier Field, how was the overall experience?
"I loved it," Gilmore said. "[I] spent a lot of time before and after the game talking to old friends, just catching up. The reception from the fans was great, as well. Chicago will always be a part of me, and I enjoyed being here."
"Kyle Orton is a close friend, so it was good to see him again," he said. "The same is true for the other players from the Bears. You can't just throw away friendships you've made because you're in a different city and on a different team. Being in Chicago taught me a lot, and it's something I'll never forget. That experience helped make me the player you see today."
Beth Gorr has been covering the Chicago Bears for eight years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.
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