April 15, 2015
As Jarrett Grace lay on the turf of AT&T Stadium in Dallas, the fierce linebacker did something he had never done before in his football career at the University of Notre Dame. He tapped his gold helmet.
On that October night in 2013, as the Fighting Irish battled a rugged Arizona State team, Grace suffered a devastating injury. His tibia and fibula in his right leg were broken in multiple places. Tissue in his leg was torn.
"I knew instantly that it wasn't good," Grace said. "I heard a loud snap."
At Notre Dame, a player only taps his helmet if he needs a breather.
"I never tap my helmet," Grace said. "I never get tired from football. It's too much fun.
"My initial thought when I got hurt was I need a breather, but I could feel the bones pressing against my leg. I knew it was broken, but I was also thinking, 'Maybe I can walk it off' and come back and play. Then I realized I couldn't get up." Even though excruciating pain swept through Grace, he focused on his teammates, who would go on to upset Arizona State.
"The medical staff came out on the field and said, 'Yeah, it's broken,' and they snapped it back in place," Grace said. "They were talking about getting x-rays, and saying I might need surgery because they could tell it was a bad break, but I was thinking about Arizona State being in the red zone. I was thinking I need to help my team."
What was supposed to be perhaps a four-month recovery became a prolonged ordeal that stretched into 18 months. Grace fought through the pain of medical setbacks, and after missing all of the 2014 season, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound senior-to-be will be on the field for the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday.
"The journey isn't over. I'm going to keep working on things and do as much as I can. I'll listen to my body and listen to the trainers, but I can play. That's the big thing. Being cleared to play football again, that was the last big hurdle. I'll take care of the little things as they come up."
Notre Dame is looking forward to the forceful play Grace brings to the Irish. Before his injury in 2013, Grace punished enemy offenses, making 17 unassisted tackles and 24 assisted tackles in seven games.
Getting back on the field has been a blessing for Grace.
"Luckily, I've been able to make it through my injury," Grace said. "Looking back, I'm so thankful for all the little things, and especially to be on that field again. The return to normalcy for me is so exciting. I just have raw energy, and I have such happiness.
"I like having bruises now. I didn't have bruises for a year and a half. I bruised big time the first practice back. I was covered with bruises, but it was good. It was nice. My skin is getting tough again. I'll take bruises from football anytime." Grace said he got back in his football beast mode quickly, but was hit with more challenges early in 2015 spring practice.
"I get one week under my belt," Grace said. "I'm feeling great. I'm flying around. I'm feeling like my old self ... and then, boom. I get a concussion. Then, I get sick. I couldn't believe it. But I'm feeling great again, and I'm rolling with the punches."
Getting back was an odyssey that would have tested the strongest of heart.
Former Notre Dame linebacker Ben Councell, Grace's roommate, said that Grace never let on the depth of pain he fought on a daily basis after the bones in his leg were shattered.
"Jarrett was in so much pain for probably a year," Councell said. "He wouldn't say anything, but you could see it in his eyes. You'd see it in his walk. But he never complained. That was amazing.
"Right after his second surgery, I went into the hospital, and I walked in, and he was writhing in pain. The pain medication wasn't working. His eyes were rolling around. I said, 'Did you say anything to the nurse?' And he said, 'They told the medication would work.' But the meds hadn't worked all day. They had to switch it. But he's that kind of guy, who bites the bullet, and fights through it." Grace was in the hospital for nearly a month after the injury, due to medical complications.
"I never felt sorry for myself," Grace said. "I never sat there and said, 'I can't do this.' Sure, I had my doubts. To me, coming back was the only choice I had, of putting all of my effort into this journey. I don't know if it's the way I'm wired, the way I'm raised ... I think part of it would be my faith. The way I view it, God gives us all different gifts. I was blessed athletically. For me not to pursue that until it's final end ... I'd be selling myself short, and I'd be selling my faith short.
"If I can get back on the field and share my story in the way that God blessed me, that's a driving factor. The support I've received from my friends and family, and Notre Dame, has been remarkable."
Notre Dame trainer Rob Hunt said that Grace was a profile of courage and determination during his marathon rehab.
"Jarrett had such a severe injury," Hunt said. "The best-case scenario would have been difficult for anybody. His injury and rehab was a little bit more complex than that, but he did a great job with it. For as long as a process as it's been, and as difficult as it's been, I don't know of anyone who could have done it better than Jarrett. He handled the emotional and psychological piece probably better than anyone. His positive outlook and his commitment to his teammates and to coming back never wavered. If he doubted himself, he didn't express it.
"There were some dark days ... actually, there were some dark weeks, some dark months. There were opportunities for him to have quite a bit of doubt, quite a few questions as to whether he would make it back. Each day, he came in, worked hard, put his deposit in the bank, helped his deposit grow. They were small ones at the beginning, but got bigger, and continued to grow. As things got harder, he attacked it even harder. You never had to push Jarrett. There isn't anyone who pushes Jarrett more than he pushes himself."
Grace went through hundreds of treatments and put in massive hours of grueling rehab sessions.
"There were a lot of people who had a lot of doubts about Jarrett," Hunt said. "I never talked to him about it. I wasn't going to do it, I wasn't going to say it. The moment you put that seed in there, there's a chance it will grow into truth. That's not fair to the kid who wants to exhaust every last option to get back to the thing he loves to do.
"There's no doubt Jarrett made an impact on the other players, on the coaches, with the way he dealt with his rehab," Hunt said. "He just kept grinding and kept pushing. He wasn't going to stop."
Irish linebacker Joe Schmidt, who went through his own rehab for a broken ankle during an impact 2014 season, said that Grace has been an inspiration for the Irish.
"I think that Jarrett's got a really unique skill set on the field, and also off the field," Schmidt said. "On the field, he's incredibly passionate in the way that he plays. He's a non-stop motor guy, which is something that I really appreciate. I love playing around somebody like that. He's a good communicator, and he's very, very smart. He's a great football player, and he's a huge body as well. Off the field, he's always been a consistent, everyday leader.
"I'm just really excited about all of the potential that he has for next season," Schmidt said. "He's going to help bring us together. He's part of the leadership team that I'm really excited about."
Schmidt said that Grace has been a commanding presence this spring, clearly driven to be part of a championship effort by the Irish.
"Just to face that much adversity and to still be competitive and not have lost his edge is incredible," Schmidt said of Grace. "I know, to a certain extent, what he went through, and what he's still going through. I couldn't have more respect for anyone.
"Jarrett has always been incredibly passionate and driven in what he does on the field and off of the field, and that permeates throughout the team. When I think about guys that I'd want to go to battle with, that I'd walk to war with, Jarrett is one of the first names that comes to mind every time. I trust him completely. His attitude gets inside of everybody else and helps them. Jarrett elevates the level of everyone around him."
Councell said that Grace is an anchor in a sport that builds around courage.
"A guy like Jarrett is the kind you want in your football program," Councell said. "He leads by example, day-in and day-out. Ever since his freshman year, when it's a tough time, summer workouts, guys are running in bad heat, they're down, talking crap, he's always the guy who says, 'Let's go. We've got this.' He's always at the head of the pack. He doesn't say much. You know it's hard for him, too, but he's got that extra something.
"Even the coaches say, Jarrett is one of those guys who pushes through hardships. There are a lot of guys, it's a facade they're trying to put on, but it's who Jarrett is, in everything."
While he was rehabbing, Grace still contributed to the Irish effort last season. He helped coach younger players. He helped everybody help learn a new defensive system. He helped encourage anybody wearing blue and gold.
"I was able to learn a lot," Grace said. "This experience forced me to be a student of the game. We had a whole new system I had to learn. I really found myself honing in on what the coaches had to say. When you're playing, sometimes to get so laser-focused on one thing, you don't hear everything. I was able to take the coaching a different way, I was able to watch film a different way. All the pieces came together, and that's helped my transition back to the field."
Grace was a sponge, soaking up knowledge about football because of a sideline perspective. He also gained perspective on life.
"My eyes are now open to so many things that make Notre Dame special," Grace said. "It happened in a way that I wouldn't want to happen again, or happen to anybody else, but you just see that people here really care about you so much, and they want to see you succeed, and they are willing to go the extra mile for you. The people at Notre Dame do so much, and care so much for the student-athletes. We have a great culture here. If we can foster that culture and make everyone realize they made the right decision to come here, and that way they can put all of their efforts in a positive direction and work towards all of their goals and aspirations, and not worry about the stressers in life.
"I couldn't ask to be at a better school. My teachers were so understanding. They'd bring work to me. They spent time with me. They were so great. I was finally able to get to a few classes after a month."
"My appreciation of life is different now," Grace continued. "I don't want to say that I took things for granted, but when you're not walking for a significantly long time, and then you're able to walk again, you can stop and appreciate the littlest things. That took me a while to do. I was definitely frustrated for along time, with myself, with the process, even with my faith, I was thinking, 'Why is this happening to me? I'm doing the right things. I'm being faithful.' That's tough when things don't go the right way. You question yourself. You question everything. That was hard for me."
Now, Grace is savoring every minute on the football field, and he's looking forward to being the one dishing out the bruises.
"The hunger is there when you sit out that long," Grace said. "I'm not going to let a minute go by when I'm giving my full effort. That's going to be a lot of fun playing Texas. Whatever my role is, I want to pursue it with all I have. It's all about Notre Dame. My journey has been all about how great Notre Dame has been to me, and I just want to give back.
"What I'm going to bring Notre Dame is a big, physical player, somebody who will be relentless, somebody who will take care of all of the little things off of the field, someone who will hold everybody accountable.
"Notre Dame football has a standard. It needs to be played a certain way. I'm bringing a great teammate, somebody who is going to play the game the right way. When the season is over, we're going to look back, and there will be no regrets."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent