By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star
CHICAGO | The phone rings in Bloomington, Ind., and the unmistakable voice of a mother answers.
"Grossmans," she says brightly.
You ask for Dan Grossman, the father of Good Rex and Bad Rex and every Rex in between. Maureen Grossman hands the phone to her husband, knowing full well whatís about to happen.
Dan is mad. So flaming mad, you can feel the fire coming through your cell phone. He hasnít talked to reporters for months, and he doesnít really feel like talking to you, either. Yet, three days before Rex will quarterback the Bears in the NFC championship game, he canít keep his angst inside any longer.
If you want to know how hard this season has been on 26-year-old Rex Grossman, all you need to do is listen.
"Iíve been so irritated and so frustrated," Dan says. "This has been one of the greatest years Iíve ever had, and at the same time one of the most awful."
Danís fatherly instincts have kicked in. Itís time to protect his son.
"Let me give you some numbers," he says. "You got a pencil?"
"Do you know how many full seasons Rex has played?"
"This is his first one. He has 3,193 yards, 23 touchdowns, 20 interceptions and six fumbles lost. He has a 73.9 QB rating. He has a 13-3 win-loss record. Which one of those numbers should you use to evaluate a QB?"
"Thatís right. Is that the way heís been judged this year?"
"Brett Favreís first full season: 3,303 yards, 19 touchdowns, 24 interceptions, 14 fumbles, 72.2 QB rating, 9-7 record. Rex had 26 turnovers, and they call him a Ďturnover machine.í Favre had 38."
What Dan doesnít say is that Favre had 13 starts the year before. But Dan has clearly done his homework. He goes from Favre to John Elway to Steve Young to Troy Aikman to Joe Theismann to Peyton Manning to Drew Brees to Phil Simms. Grossmanís numbers this year are either comparable to or better than each example.
"Iím not saying Rex is as good as any of these Hall of Famers," Dan says. "But you have to compare apples to apples, so you compare how they did their first full season."
John Jurkovic, a host on Chicagoís popular Mac, Jurko and Harry Show on ESPN Radio, is one of Grossmanís most vocal critics. He says he compares apples to apples, too. He just chooses a different apple: Cowboys first-year starting quarterback Tony Romo.
The argument that Grossman should be compared to rookies "might be the dumbest thing Iíve ever heard," Jurkovic says. "It drives me absolutely crazy. Compare this guy to someone in a similar situation, whoís been in the league but hasnít played. Compare him to Romo. Thatís the legitimate comparison."
Of course, Rex Grossman loses. Thatís the way Chicago likes it.
How could Rex have known what he was getting into when the Bears called his name as the 22nd overall selection in the 2003 draft? He had made it through Steve Spurrierís mind games and short leash at Florida, so being a quarterback in Chicago surely couldnít be any worse than that, right?
"Thereís a lot of pressure at Florida, a lot of criticism," says Dan, a former quarterback at Indiana. "But Florida was a tricycle race, and this is the Indy 500."
Thing is, this isnít just about Rex Grossman. Itís about 50 years of bad to mediocre quarterbacking and Chicagoans seeing Rex as the next failure. Itís about the 20 different starting quarterbacks the Bears have had since Brett Favre started his first game in Green Bay in 1992.
"Itís the toughest job in town," says Rob Janas, a Bears fan and comedian at Second City, Chicagoís famed improv theater. "It would be easier to be a garbage man. We just have this weird relationship with quarterbacks. Itís one of those things where we love to hate the guy."
Says Jurko, a former defensive tackle with three NFL teams, "Thereís a lot of bad quarterbacks out there, and they all seem to find their way into a Bears uniform."
Jim Harbaugh, Erik Kramer and Jim Miller were respectable, at least, but none had staying power.
"The toughest thing about being a Bears quarterback is the wind," Harbaugh says. "The wind swirls in that place. You could throw the ball 15 yards and watch it go up, down, sideways."
But wait, a Bears fan would respond, isnít there wind in Green Bay, too? It always seems to go back to Favre. Grossman this year and Kramer in 1995 are the only Bears quarterbacks in the Favre era to start 16 games.
So this is the culture Rex Grossman was dropped into back in 2003. He didnít know it then, but he had a predetermined fate with Bears fans.
"A lot of people are disappointed if Rex doesnít suck," says Harry Teinowitz, the lone Rex supporter on the afternoon drive with Dan McNeil and Jurko. "I believe there were Bears fans who were upset when Grossman threw a perfect bomb to Bernard Berrian last week. People wait for Rex to fail instead of cheering him to succeed."
Mac, Jurko and Harry are molders of public opinion in Chicago. They fueled the Grossman-Brian Griese debate before the season started by making a well-publicized bet.
Mac and Jurko each bet Harry $200 with 10-to-1 odds that Grossman would not start all 16 games for the Bears. McNeil even started a "Dump Rex" Web site. But the producers of the show soon shut it down.
Rex came out of the gate hot, leading the Bears to a 5-0 record, which included three games with a QB rating of more than 100. The Bears offense was the surprise of the league, averaging 31 points per game. Grossmanís critics started to worry. Was the guy actually going to be good?
Then came that Monday night in Arizona. Grossman threw four interceptions, but the Bears won 24-23 on three defensive and special-teams touchdowns. It was a win, but still, "Bad Rex" had been introduced to a national audience.
"After the Arizona game, we had no choice but to talk about Rex," Jurko says. "You talk about how great your defense is and how bad your quarterback is."
After that game, Good Rex and Bad Rex played musical chairs, and the noise around Grossman grew with each day. He stopped watching ESPN, stopped reading the sports section, stopped listening to the radio.
"I think that if you listen to too many peopleís opinions," Grossman says, "it can be distracting. Iíve tried to limit that distraction as much as possible."
But, still, he couldnít avoid it. Bears fans made it clear how they felt about him several times this year by booing him off the field. Everything came to a head during the last game of the regular season. Grossman threw three interceptions and had a 0.0 quarterback rating in a 26-7 loss to Favre and the Packers.
"He was devastated first of all by not having a good game," Grossmanís father says, "but second of all by the press, the media attacking him."
Grossman supporters everywhere cringed when they heard what he said after the game. Rex earnestly told a reporter that he didnít play well because the game was meaningless -- the Bears had already clinched home-field advantage -- and it was New Yearís Eve.
"Iím like, ĎShut up, Rex,í " Harry says. "As a Rex supporter all year, it feels like ... Iíve been rooting for the independent against the Republican and Democrat. Heís been very frustrating to watch, and on top of that, heís said things off the field that frustrate you more."
But Grossman has survived. He started all 16 games and became the third Bears quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns. As usual, Jurko has an answer ready for that.
"I want to compare him to franchise quarterbacks that have led their teams to the playoffs and compete," Jurko says, "not chopped liver in the city of Chicago. I donít want him to be the best QB in Bears history. I want him to be the best QB in NFL history."
Yes, the expectations are high here. Itís possible Jurko and Mac are just bitter. They both recently paid Harry $2,000 each because Grossman made it the whole year. Jurko paid Harry in nickels and dimes, and Mac paid him in ones and fives.
There may have never been a more polarizing figure in Chicago sports history than Rex. But, says Second City comedian Joe Canale, Chicago sports fans are not so different from their quarterback. They live on the extreme.
"Chicago is a lot like Grossman," Canale says. "Itís never in the middle, itís, ĎOh, theyíre the worst,í or, ĎWeíre going to the Super Bowl.í At 3-0, people were talking Super Bowl. If they were 0-3, theyíd be talking about drafting Brady Quinn. Everybody is ready to jump off a cliff here."
Rex Grossman is tired, and you can finally see it on Wednesday. He just led the Bears offense to 27 points in an exhilarating, overtime playoff victory, and the guy in the front row wants to know if heís had any fun this year.
"Why wouldnít I have fun?" Grossman says, shaking his head. "Yeah, Iíve had fun. I think itís obvious. I am not sure I have to explain why this is fun. All the scrutiny or whatever, itís part of my responsibility as a quarterback to deal with that."
Rex wears his cap bill down so you can barely see his eyes. It almost seems as if heís holding back what he really wants to say. So his dad will speak for him.
"Heís the mentally toughest kid Iíve known in my life," he says. "Thatís how heís gotten through this. But it gets old even for a person that buoyant. It still gets you. Iím trying to get him through it."
The saddest thing for Dan is that he feels Rex should be the toast of the town. But Rex doesnít show his face much these days around Chicago.
"He really likes Chicago, but Iím going to tell you what," Dan says. "Itís not a place he can embrace and love. Yet in two games, we might win the Super Bowl. It ought to be one of the most fun years of his life."
Dan told Rex that heíd support him if he decided not to show up at his scheduled news conference on Friday.
"Well," Rex said, "I gotta go."
And he did, strutting into the downtown Marriott with his head held high. From head to toe, he looked the part of the confident NFL quarterback, wearing a suit and tie topped off with a sharp purple sweater vest.
He arrived at the lectern, and, after an awkward pause, quipped, "I donít have a speech prepared or anything." Everybody laughed.
"Rex," a reporter asked, "have you been treated fairly this year?"
"No," Grossman responded. "In some cases, yes. In some cases, no."
If only his father could have been there. Heíd have taken them all on.
"Iím going to get the last laugh," Dan Grossman says. "Because he will be a great NFL quarterback. Heíll be a Hall of Fame quarterback. He has that Ďití factor. He will do it."