Gross plays like there's no tomorrow

He stands as tall as the Statue of Liberty, a skyscraper of a man at 6ft 9in and 19st.

He stands as tall as the Statue of Liberty, a skyscraper of a man at 6ft 9in and 19st.

That he can utilise such an imposing stature in sport is obvious but as an American his choice is rather eye-opening.

Not American football or basketball, both of which dominated his early life, but rugby union - a sport Luke Gross had never even heard of 10 years ago.

Now, having just celebrated his 35th birthday, he is America's most capped player ever with 63 internationals in his locker and a Newcastle Falcon who has just been told by Rob Andrew he is to stay on next season.

Gross had a year's contract with another year's option but such has been his impact at Kingston Park that retirement has been put back a further 12 months which delights the Yankee lock.

Since Gross left his own shores - "I was the first person in our family to have a passport" - he's been a globetrotter playing in Italy and Wales as well as England. He's been in the small continental towns and with the big name clubs, playing where rugby is a religion and where it's an afterthought.

A country boy from the Indiana farming community, he first played rugby for the Cincinnati Wolfhounds travelling on to Harlequins in London, Rovigo 50 miles south of Venice, Rome itself, Llanelli in Wales, and Rotherham criss- crossing the continent of Europe before landing in Newcastle.

This is his last port of call before eventually going back to West Wales to live out his life, not the States. His wife of one year Sarah is the influence here!

Luke's impact with the Falcons can be described as explosive as much as impressive. Because early on in an important Heineken Cup match on his return to Wales, Gross was sent off and received a four-week ban - for brawling with a mate!

"Goughie (Ian Gough) is a good pal," laughed Gross. "I'd played against him when we faced Wales and we would go out on the beer together. He's a nice boy.

"But this is rugby and in rugby anything goes. Both of us knew that and both knew the other would hold nothing back on the field.

"I play rugby on the edge. Most do. And against the Dragons I lost it. Goughie gave me one on the side of the ruck and that was it. Things get into your head and you lose it.

"It was a silly thing because I could really have hurt him. It was stupid, street fighting. But when he swung at me he knew what to expect back."

Gross was red-carded by Irish referee Donal Courtney while Gough received a yellow card and a split lip.

"I'd like to think the split lip came from one of my punches," chortled Luke. "But, no, I deserved a red card. Of course there are no grudges. Really, I'm not a fighter. I prefer making up!"

The man before me is amiable, charming and extremely courteous - a very warm character - but the sheer mountain of his size and a cauliflower ear bares testament to his capabilities in Newport.

He lives by the motto: "Play like there is no tomorrow."

Gross loves the North East as a place and Falcons as a club - the perfect swan song.

"The area is fabulous," he told me. "We've been up to Bamburgh and I can't believe how clean and white the beaches are. Sarah has fallen in love with it all - she's a dentist and has found a surgery in Tynemouth.

"When I retire from playing at the end of next season, we'll probably stay in Newcastle for another couple of years before going to live in West Wales where we'll not be far from all her family. As for the Falcons, they are the most professional club I've been associated with from the infrastructure to the staff and the ambitions. If we could lift something either this season or next it would be the perfect ending to my career."

A sporting tapestry that began in America where Luke played Division One basketball for Indiana State University and Marshall University and later appeared for Team Reebok.

One of his big heroes is another former Indiana State Sycamore, NBA legend Larry Bird.

"He comes from my type of background and came to train with us following surgery," explained Gross. "It was a huge thrill. The thing about Larry is he was never the best athlete. What he did was get the absolute most out of what he had."

Rugby arrived unexpectedly in his life when he rented a house and sub-let it to students. Five rugby players turned up and badgered the big guy to try their sport.

"I hadn't even seen a game never mind knew the rules," he smiled. "I was 24 but I eventually gave it a bash and loved it. Playing in all that mud up to my knees and fighting like a wildcat then going for a drink with the lads afterwards. It was perfect. However, turning my love into a job was very different and very difficult at first."

The final ambition of an extremely happy wanderer is "to be a good dad." He and Sarah have deliberately shelved that one until retirement stops him traipsing round the world.

Gross joined the Falcons from Rotherham, an unexpected rescue act desperately required.

"We didn't win a solitary match last season," recalled Luke. "I'd only signed for one year because if Rotherham didn't stay up they couldn't afford me.

"However, I've never known a group of individuals turn into a bunch of brothers like those lads. The total lack of success drains you, of course. It was only my wife and the boys who kept me going. The jump from the first division to the Premiership is a huge one and far too big for a club like Rotherham."

Gross could have gone to France but that was a bad move for Sarah and her career as a dentist, so Luke quickly scotched that idea. He was even contemplating playing part-time with Rotherham when Rob Andrew moved in.

"It was too good an opportunity to miss," admitted the big American. "I was back on centre stage."

A thoroughly unscripted career has reached a glorious conclusion.

"I've been honoured and been lucky," said Gross. "Ten years ago rugby didn't mean a thing to me. I was well into my 20s before I picked up a rugby ball and if Dick Best, the coach of Harlequins at the time, hadn't spotted me a whole professional career could have passed me by."

Green grass of a new homeland

When Luke Gross signed for Welsh club Llanelli he found a wife, a famous best friend, his American captain and a beautiful country which eventually will become his permanent home.

After his sojourn in Italy, Gross wanted to return to Britain and luckily Roma had played Llanelli in the Heineken Cup and they came in for him.

"I wanted to get back to where English was the first language and ended up in an area where they love their rugby. It was great. I played with Scott Quinnell, who is a top person and came to my wedding. And with my American captain Dave Hodges.

"Wales is a small country but it's truly beautiful. I lived in a nice house on the top of a hill. It was perfect."

He also found a wife, though sadly Luke's dad was barred from flying over for the wedding.

"I met Sarah on a night out with the boys in Cardiff and she took advantage of me," laughed Gross. "We got married a year ago when I was playing for Rotherham.

"My mam, brother and sister came over but my dad was told by his doctor that flying was too much of a risk. He had blockages in his legs and the sudden changes in pressure could have been fatal. It was terrible, really, but I'd rather have dad alive and we can visit him in the States."

Getting crossed lines in Italian mix-up

Moving to Italy had its drawbacks as well as its delights, not least because English was no longer the No 1 language.

That fact produced what Luke Gross freely admits was the most embarrassing moment of his career.

"I'd joined Rivigo in 1998 after two years with the Quins," he explained. "And I didn't know any Italian.

"I was in a maul and couldn't understand what our No 9 was saying - break off or score. All I could see was a white line and I dived over it and grounded the ball. It was only as I looked up that I saw the white posts in the distance and thought: what the hell was that. Suddenly I realised - I was on the 22-metre line!"

Gross went from playing in a small town to living in Rome.

"Rivigo was a great town, the people were tremendous. It would be a lovely place to raise babies.

"The rugby was just like back home in the States. We performed as a team and had a great spirit.

"I went to Roma because I wanted a greater challenge. They had got in a top radio station as sponsors and were recruiting eight or nine new players. Their intention was to win the Italian Cup and we did it in front of about 25,000 people - Roma's first triumph in 50 years no less. They had a couple of good players and an excellent coach - I guess the standard was about first division level over here."

Rugby in an emerging country held less restrictions than on this green and pleasant land.

"I learned skiing, scuba diving and snorkeling in Italy," said Gross. "At the Falcons there is a clause in my contract forbidding any participation in dangerous sports but the Italians didn't mind.

"When the Six Nations was taking place we got three days off and headed for the mountains. At first I spent all my time on my backside soaking wet but I learned to ski. As for scuba diving when I played in Rome we had an ex-military type who used to be in the Italian special forces and he took me a couple of times."

Page 2: Happy to be taken for a bus ride

Happy to be taken for a bus ride

Ask Luke Gross his greatest claim to fame over here and he'll quickly reply: "Being on the back of London buses."

He chortles at the thought. "A few folk have said I've a face like the back of a bus. Well, here I really had.

"Harlequins ran an advertising campaign and put a poster on London transport showing Jason Leonard lifting me at a line-out. It was good fun."

The big break for an American giant with little rugby pedigree came when the famous Quins offered him a trial in London in the autumn of 1996.

Even though he broke his thumb in that game, Gross was taken aboard what was to become a fabulous merry-go-round.

His height, strength, mobility and hands were worth a gamble.

"I could run, jump and be aggressive," explained Luke. "They are things you can't teach. All the rest can surface with a good coach. And Dick Best was certainly that."

Best had seen Gross play for America and decided that he could work on the big, raw-boned newcomer.

"I arrived on my first trip to Europe in dungarees and wearing a quizzical look. I'd never been further than crossing the US borders to Canada and Mexico. Neither had my family. Folk don't realise that 20% of Americans haven't got a passport - and those who have live mainly on the east and west coasts. There isn't much for us in the middle!"

Even though Luke required surgery on his thumb, he received a contract and stayed at Quins for two years. However, he hated London and that's why he went off to play in Italy.

"London is a great place to visit but not to live," he said. "I thought all of England was like London, which is why I went abroad!"

US call-up was no joke

The guy from Decatur in Indiana has stood steadfast like a mighty oak in the middle of the American lineout on 63 occasions.

Luke Gross was first capped in January 1996 against Ireland and went on to play in two Rugby World Cup finals which brought the highlight and low point of a varied career.

"My biggest disappointment was us failing in the 1999 World Cup but at least that was wiped out when we went to Australia in 2003," he said.

"We beat Japan in a group match and were overjoyed. We focused especially on them because we knew it was a match we could win. We were much more physical than Japan and it told on them.

"However, it wasn't the best we played. That was against France, but of course they had world-class players and we had only five pros. The rest of the boys had taken time off work to play in the World Cup."

When Gross was first called up for national service he thought the phone call from US coach Jack Clark was his mates taking the mick.

He told a startled Clark not to be so immature and hung up. Eventually, convinced the call was genuine, he was told to fly to Los Angeles for a trial.

R you from Bros

Luke Gross is only a letter away from being a famous pop star. And consequently he was mistaken for one on a flight from America to England.

He caused a flutter of excitement when the word got round that Luke Goss, one half of the famous Bros band, was on board.

"I was with a couple of mates and we were fortunate enough to get upgraded on the plane," Luke explained. "Halfway through the flight a flustered attendant came rushing up and said to me: `We hear that Luke Goss is on the plane. Can you tell me which one is him?'

"It was very embarrassing that it was me she asked. I had to tell her it was all a mistake and it was me who had caused the panic. She was very disappointed."

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