Notebook: Can Notre Dame LB Jarrett Grace complete remarkable recovery?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Tom Bolden still hasn’t seen his former star linebacker in person since Jarrett Grace’s long comeback from four fractures in his right leg became more real than hopeful.

But the Notre Dame linebacker has inundated Bolden, his high school coach at Cincinnati Colerain, with videos of his progress.

“I see him in his rehab and on those specialized treadmills they have there,” Bolden said. “I’ll be honest with you, when he didn’t come back last September, I questioned whether it was one of those things that was meant to be.

“What I never let go of is that if there’s anything Jarrett can control, in terms of getting back and what he needed to do to get there, he’d take care of it. If his doctors and trainers say, ‘You have to do this twice a day,’ well then Jarrett’s doing it three times a day.

“He’s just that type of kid. And now, I can’t wait to see what’s next.”

Neither can Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, whose Irish kick off spring practice next Wednesday, with the 6-foot-4, 253-pound former starting middle linebacker as the roster’s biggest wild card.

As recently as five months ago the senior was a strong candidate to finish his career as a medical hardship. Earlier this month, though, Kelly was crowing about how good Grace was looking in the team’s winter workouts.

It will have been 17 months, two surgeries and a few backward steps since Grace took snaps this meaningful. Grace suffered the injury Oct. 5, 2013, in a Shamrock Series victory over Arizona State in Arlington, Texas, six games into that season and shortly after ascending to the starting position.

Before that, the former three-star recruit was All-American Manti Te’o’s largely untapped and unknown understudy.

“I’m not sure a lot of people could have done what he has to this point,” Bolden said. “Their mind would have quit on them. And I’m sure it tested Jarrett’s faith at some point, but his faith is strong. He’s got great supports around him. And he’s smart. All that’s going to help him.”

If Grace does come all the way back, 2015 would represent his fifth year at Notre Dame and he’d be a strong candidate to be awarded a sixth year from the NCAA, in 2016, if it came to that.

Last year’s starting middle linebacker, fifth-year senior-to-be Joe Schmidt, was the team’s MVP, despite missing the team’s final 5½ games of the season. And he’s coming back from an injury himself, a broken fibula.

Schmidt’s replacement, sophomore-to-be Nyles Morgan, survived some early shellshock last November filling in for Schmidt and actually made a freshman All-America team.

Early enrolled freshman Te’von Coney, who has impressed Kelly in winter workouts, and sophomore-to-be Greer Martini, Jaylon Smith’s backup at the other inside linebacker spot, add to the depth inside to the point Kelly could move Smith back outside — where he played as a freshman and where the junior-to-be is expected to play in the pros.

So far Kelly is downplaying that possibility, but at least it may finally be an option grounded in reality, given Grace’s progress.

The turning point for him came in December, when Grace used an antigravity treadmill that helped him relearn a proper foot strike.

“When I talked to Jarrett during this process, he’d say, ‘the good Lord gives his toughest tasks to his toughest soldiers’,” Bolden said. “And that was his mind-set, even when the first rod didn’t take and they had to take it out and put in another one.

“I’m sure they told him his chances weren’t good at that point. And I’m sure he didn’t believe them. It looks like Jarrett was right.”

Real world for Lombard

Christian Lombard had gone so far as to pick out an agent following Notre Dame’s 31-28 Music City Bowl upset of LSU on Dec. 30.

The former Irish offensive lineman never signed, though, and hasn’t regretted it since.

So instead of auditioning for NFL scouts at ND’s Pro Day on March 31, the three-year starter and one of the jewels of Kelly’s first Notre Dame recruiting classes (2010) will be selling medical equipment to hospitals that day, just as he has been doing the past couple of weeks.

A painful back injury — a ruptured disc, per Lombard’s father, Greg, that ND’s starting right tackle tolerated through November and then sidelined him for the bowl game — gave him enough pause to change his mind about pursuing a pro football career.

“He had been chasing that dream for so long and worked so hard,” Greg Lombard said of Christian, whose 31 career starts included all 13 during ND’s title-game run in 2012. “It’s behind him for good now. I feel bad for him.

“But he feels great. He’s very happy. He made a decision that he didn’t want to worry about being crippled when he got older and not being able to walk and not being able to play with his children someday.

“The doctors could have put him back together again, but he said, ‘It’s not worth the risk. I’m not going to do it.’ ”

That decision allowed Christian to defer a second surgery. The Palatine (Ill.) Fremd High School product underwent back surgery on Oct. 23, 2013, for a herniated disc that ended that season seven games in.

“He may eventually have that second surgery, but for now he’s able to avoid it,” Greg Lombard said. “He lost feeling in his leg. He had trouble pushing off. He just kept gutting it out, never complained about it — just kept fighting and did his best.”

Christian Lombard is one of only four starters among ND’s starting 22 who don’t return for the 2015 season. Two of the others, tight end Ben Koyack and cornerback Cody Riggs, are expected to be among ND’s participants at the school’s Pro Day. Center Matt Hegarty is transferring.

“Christian’s situation definitely exemplifies why kids make a 40-year decision when they pick Notre Dame,” Greg Lombard said. “It certainly makes it well worth it. He recognized that early on. He’s been very happy with his decision, very much at peace with it. He’s probably handled it better than I have."

Happy ending

It appears a large piece of Notre Dame history will be preserved after all.

CBSSports.com columnist Dennis Dodd recently brought to light that former NCAA statistician Steve Boda wanted to give to Notre Dame a vast collection of records when he died nearly four months ago at age 90. In fact, it was in his will.

Financial complications made that a difficult wish to fulfill, but Salt Lake City attorney and ND Law School grad Barry Toone this week stepped in and made it happen.

Per Dodd, Toone bought the collection for just over $11,000 on eBay after the financially strapped Boda sold the collection on consignment for $3,000. Toone said he intends to donate the files to Notre Dame.

“I was just frustrated frankly (by) the school and the lack of what I felt any kind of genuine response to this guy's life,” Toone told Dodd. “It seems like he threw everything into this. To be honest, it was kind of an emotional knee-jerk reaction on my part.”

Boda began charting Notre Dame games off the radio in 1933 while living in an Indiana orphanage.

“It was one of those moments where you read (the story) and you think, ‘How can this possibly be under the radar like this?' ” Toone said.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace last played against Arizona State on Saturday, October 5, 2013, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)