Gardocki flips to other side

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> Chris Gardocki reached an NFL milestone last Sunday, but he didn't give his 1,000th career punt a second thought. Or a first.

"Once you start the game," said the Steelers' punter, "you seem to forget everything, no matter what, even your last punt, or how many punts you've had in the game. You don't even think about it until after the game."

Gardocki remained completely focused on the cause, as he will be this Sunday when his old teammates, the Cleveland Browns, visit Heinz Field. But there was a time, not too long ago, when Gardocki was anything but focused, when he lost his poise and flipped his lid, among other things.

"Funny how everybody remembers it," Gardocki said of the infamous incident. "That's part of it when you're in the game. If you've ever played this game you'd understand that on Sunday."

Gardocki wasn't pleased the topic had been broached, but admitted to being in the wrong that September day in 2000, when he flipped an obscene gesture at Steelers coach Bill Cowher and the rest of the bench.

Gardocki had just been hit again after punting to the Steelers. He was playing for the Browns and, sensing a fake punt, the Steelers left their base defense on the field. Linebacker Joey Porter, who'd hit Gardocki after his first punt, leveled him again and this time knocked the wind out of him. With medical personnel tending to him, Gardocki reached around the group and flashed the gesture.

The Browns beat the Steelers that day, 23-20, and the two teams traded remarks about the incident the following week through the media.

Four years later, Cowher led the Steelers to Gardocki's free-agent doorstep. He signed with the Steelers for a $1.1 million bonus and a $760,000 first-year salary on a five-year deal. The Steelers then cut Josh Miller.

Yesterday, Gardocki was asked if perhaps he'd earned Cowher's respect that particular day in 2000.

"I don't know about that," Gardocki said. "There are things you regret when you do stuff on the field, when you do something stupid like that. When I'm in a ball game, when you're in this league on Sunday, you're really into the ball game and trying to focus on what you're doing. That's stuff that will happen. It's over with."

Gardocki will face the Browns for the first time since leaving as a free agent last March. He spent five years in Cleveland and went through 11 "Steeler weeks" in the rivalry.

"Obviously it's huge," he said. "When I was playing in Chicago, the Green Bay week was huge. And obviously in Cleveland, this week and the Baltimore week were the two huge weeks, the Steelers especially just because it's such close proximity.

"Even from the very first game we played in '99, playing against the Steelers was up there. The media talked about it, but as a player every week's a big week for you. You don't know how long this is going to last so every Sunday's a big week. But obviously with the Browns coming to town it's a huge week. It's a division game, and whenever you play a division game it's huge no matter who you're playing, but especially the Browns."

The Steelers are 7-3 in the regular season against the Browns since they re-entered the league in 1999. The Steelers also won the playoff meeting between the teams in 2002. That win was the sixth in a row by the Steelers, but the streak was stopped on a Sunday night in Pittsburgh last September when the Browns won, 33-13.

"I don't think you ever sense anything like that happening, especially in the NFL, you know, winning a game like that," Gardocki said. "But it seemed like once we got ahead everything started to snowball and everything went our way last year when we came here on that Sunday night."

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