Raiders persuade Wisniewski to return

Rich Gannon can sleep a little easier at night. Jon Gruden can now move the Raiders' training camp schedule forward as originally planned. And offensive line coach Bill Callahan doesn't have to worry about finding a new left guard until 2002.

That was the situation after Steve Wisniewski, Oakland's eight-time Pro Bowl guard, opted to put off retirement for one final NFL season. Wisniewski, 34, joined his teammates in Napa after sitting out the first seven days of training camp while contemplating his future.

In doing so, Wisniewski agreed to what amounts to a farewell tour. After what will be his 13th year of professional football, Wisniewski will make the 2001 season his last in the NFL.

"They left the door open for me to come back, and let's just say they very aggressively recruited me to come back and I felt that the best way to show my thanks and respect to Mr. Davis and the whole Raider organization was to give them one more year,'' said Wisniewski. "I don't think they need my help, to be honest with you. I think they have plenty of good leaders here and plenty of good lineman. But they seem to think I will lend something to the team, so I am going to give them one more season.''

By convincing Wisniewski to stick around for another year the Raiders averted what could have been a serious crisis on their offensive line. Wisniewski has started every game since the last game in 1991, a span of 145 regular-season games. Widely considered one of the game's top offensive linemen for most of his career, Wisniewski is coming off a season when the Raiders won their first division title in a decade and Wiz earned his team-record-tying eighth Pro Bowl bid.

The Raiders' serious Super Bowl aspirations would have had a kink thrown into them if Wisniewski had chosen to step away. The two men Oakland was looking at as possible replacements - second-year man Nate Parks and fifth-year vet Tony Hutson - have [fewer than eight] starts between them.

Having Wisniewski around means the Raiders can put off rebuilding plans at left guard, and instead turn their attention back to trying to get to New Orleans for Super Bowl XXXVI.

"I'm excited about having all of the pieces of the puzzle together,'' said center Barret Robbins, who has started alongside Wisniewski for the past five seasons. "Just his presence in the huddle was awesome.''

Quarterback Rich Gannon, who had been quite vocal in his hopes of luring Wisniewski away from retirement, was equally pleased. "I'm thrilled. It's awesome. I cant overstate it any other way,'' Gannon said. "The thing is he wants to be here and he wants to be in the weight room. That's contagious and refreshing to have him here.''

Wisniewski has flirted with the idea of retiring ever since the end of the 1999 season. At that time, Gruden convinced the veteran to return for what became the Raiders' most successful season in Wisniewski's NFL career.

Though Oakland finished just one game shy of the Super Bowl, Wisniewski once again debated stepping away from football. He attended both of the off-season mini-camps but following the mandatory camp in June, Wisniewski informed team officials of his desire to step away.

But leaving the game wasn't as easy as Wisniewski thought it would be. Gruden, Raiders owner Al Davis and senior assistant Bruce Allen kept in contact with Wisniewski and his agent, Marvin Demoff, in the weeks leading up to the training camp.

Once camp began without Wisniewski, his teammates phoned him in earnest, checking on his father's condition and repeating their urge for him to return to the team.

"We had players calling him coming off the field, before they got on the field. Guys were taking a break to use the restroom, and using the pay phone back there,'' Gruden said. "You know, this football team really wanted Steve Wisniewski, and by God they got him.''

It wasn't easy. Wisniewski is a fiercely religious man who had been attending a seminary in Southern California when training camp opened. His father had been felled by a stroke, so when the Raiders held their first two-a-day practices in the wine country, understandably football was the last thing on Wisniewski's mind.

Throughout the week Wisniewski consulted friends and advisors. He admired the way Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders had retired while at the top of his game, never pausing to look back in regret.

On the day before he announced his decision to return, Wisniewski was still at odds over what to do. Though he had indicated to the Raiders that he would indeed come back for a final year, he remained indecisive.

"Football doesn't define me as a man. My faith and God and my family define me,'' Wisniewski said. "So I am very fortunate for my job and my experience with the Raiders, but I look forward to exciting times when I retire. I never wanted to be a player that hung around too long. I am enrolled in seminary, and when football is done I am going to seek employment in a pastoral sense … in one of the East Bay churches. I am looking forward to life after football.''

Fortunately for the Raiders Wisniewski has agreed to postpone his post-football life for one more year.

When asked what Wisniewski's return meant to the team, Allen smiled. " He's Steve Wisniewski. That says it all right there, the player and the person. I think Napoleon Kaufman said it best when he said he could have sworn the guy behind the patch (on the Raider logo) was Steve Wisniewski.''

Throughout his NFL career he has remained a very private person. He keeps no mementos of his football achievements in his house. He draws a very distinct line between his personal and professional lives, refusing to allow one to cross over to the other.

How ironic it was, then, after Wisniewski shocked his teammates by walking into the locker room and joining them in getting ready for their annual Fan Day appearance. He was introduced with the Raiders' starting offense, and greeted by a 40-second standing ovation from an overflow crowd of 7,000 people at Napa's Memorial Stadium.

"It was very heart-warming,'' Wisniewski said. "The fans are tremendous. They have always been so encouraging to me, and my teammates as well are very encouraging.''

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