ND's Grace recalls dark times on road back, looks ahead

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND —Jarrett Grace’s first reaction when his right leg shattered in four places the night of Oct. 5, 2013, was walking off the injury and re-entering the game.

The ominous big picture at which seemingly everyone else at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, was gaping that night finally started to sink in as the Notre Dame linebacker’s teammates cascaded in his direction with condolences and promises to upend 22nd-ranked Arizona State.

For him.

The Irish kept their word, holding off the Sun Devils in a Shamrock Series scorefest, 37-34, with the man Grace had displaced as a starter earlier in that season, fifth-year senior Dan Fox, stepping in and providing seven tackles, a fumble recovery and a fourth-quarter pick-6.

Surgery would follow the next morning for Grace, left behind in Texas with only a team doctor and a football administrator, because he wasn’t fit enough to fly home. When the 6-foot-3, 253-pound then-junior finally could, he was given a four- to six-month recovery window.

It was a cruel mirage, until now.

“I’ve never really been a guy that’s thought like that,” Grace said Friday when pressed if he knew the injury was career-threatening in the early stages. “I put a smile on my face and just grind. That’s who I am.

“But when you see the X-rays, it’s, ‘Oh that thing’s shattered.’ I had to get a rod in there. And they’re telling me about this surgery, and they’re hammering that thing in. The doctor is telling me, ‘You can try to walk on it.’

“And I tried to a couple of days after the surgery. And I’m like, ‘Holy Cow, this doesn’t feel as good as you say it should.’ Blood’s like coming out of my stitches. I’m trying to shower. I’m yelling to my mom. So she’s bathing me in my bed, actually. I couldn’t do anything for myself.”

Saturday, a little more than 18 months after that first, failed surgery, the man who replaced Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o after graduation will face significant contact, live X’s and O’s and another incremental benchmark in a recovery Irish head coach Brian Kelly stubbornly refused to give up on.

For most of the rest of the ND players, practice No. 12 of 15 this spring figures to be a relatively inconsequential scrimmage, and likely vanilla-ed down, because it’s open to the media.

With a team returning 18 starters from an 8-5 season, there aren’t a plethora of compelling position battles, at least at the top of the depth chart. One of the few there is — the quarterback duel between fifth-year senior-to-be Everett Golson and junior Malik Zaire — may provide some minor revelations Saturday, but definitely not a conclusion.

That will come in August.

Thus, the most intriguing chess piece at the moment is Grace, now a fifth-year senior-to-be himself, and suddenly with a football future again. Should he continue to accelerate his comeback to his 2013 playing level or beyond, he doesn’t just give Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder depth, but real options.

Like the possibility of moving junior weakside linebacker Jaylon Smith back to his outside position, where he was playing and dominating as a freshman the night Grace went down.

“When you’re sitting out, you can go one of two directions,” Grace said. “You can either sit there and feel sorry for yourself, or you can be involved.

“For me, that was taking mental reps, being in the playbook, so I could be another set of eyes. But if I wouldn’t have done that, I don’t think I could have been prepared for this spring now. That was really valuable and that’s something coach VanGorder talks about all the time, being in the playbook.

“I was just doing what I was expected to do and just following the protocol, and it’s paying off for me now.”

No one knows what his ceiling looks like anymore, which is a good thing. The next step beyond Saturday in determining that won’t unfurl until summer.

“That’s when you just really hone in on your explosion and your speed work, your power,” said Grace, a former star at Cincinnati public school power Colerain. “So for me, that’s going to be the point where I can really turn it up and see like, ‘What all do I really have?’

“(The leg) felt good during the winter. I feel great out on the field now, but (summer) is definitely going to be an opportunity for me to push myself to the limit and have the guys push me and I’ll push them. I think that’s going to be the next big piece.”

The past 18 months have been full of significant pieces of progress, but also setbacks.

“I didn’t always believe in myself,” Grace said of the early stages of recovery when the prognosis didn’t match the progress he was supposed to be making. “I guess there was doubt, because when you look at it, it looked terrible. And you feel terrible.

“So that can compound itself, and then you’re getting depressed, because you’re not doing the thing you love, which really drives you, which you’re passionate about.

“So I went through some times when I wasn’t myself. I didn’t feel very good. I wasn’t sure what was going to turn out of this. Sometimes (all) I wanted was to be able to walk again, just for my future health and for the sake of when I have children someday.”

The first turning point turned out to be a second surgery, last spring. Doctors removed the old rod, took a piece of Grace’s hip and used that and a new rod for new hope.

An anti-gravitational treadmill, on which Grace was putting only 40 to 50 percent of his body weight on the leg as he ran, gave him the opportunity late last summer to push himself and try to be ready for the 2014 season.

But the leg pushed back. It wasn’t ready for a quantum improvement. And so he kept grinding for months with only subtle improvement until one day during winter workouts, without warning, the turning point finally happened.

“I don’t know what it was, but one day we started doing some testing — vertical jump,” he said. “I went from having a 13-inch vertical in November to a 30-inch vertical. I’m like, ‘Holy Cow.’ That was kind of a psychological boost, because I can do this again. It just started clicking, running fast and started being explosive.”

“When you see the light of day, you start falling back on what got you to be the person you were in the first place. You rely on your faith, your family, your support system, and then you realize it’s not that bad. I’m in a good position.

“I’m being taken care of at Notre Dame right now, and I started being happy again and smiling again, and I was able to be around my teammates a little bit more. That was kind of refreshing.”

The play that’s come along with that happiness has been more than refreshing to Kelly. It’s inspirational. And for now, it’s real and it’s, at times, spectacular.

“If God blessed me with these abilities, I need to pursue it,” Grace said. “I need to give it my best effort, so that was selfish of me to ever think I couldn’t do it.”

The future swirls with tantalizing possibilities, the prospect of petitioning the NCAA for a sixth season in 2016 among them. But for now, he’s too busy absorbing the moment to even consider, say, something as impending as what the August depth chart will look like at linebacker.

“It’s just pure joy and excitement,” he said of his thought process. “Just to even be out there, just to even have that opportunity. For so long I was just standing there, watching guys play. Whatever my role is, come this season, I’m just going to embrace that and give it all I’ve got.

“This is a new chance for me. For me to give anything less than full effort and excitement, that’s not what Notre Dame deserves. That’s not what my teammates deserve. They supported me for so long. I want to give that back to them.”

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Notre Dame's Jarrett Grace lays on the field at AT&T Stadium Oct. 5, 2013, after suffering four fractures in his right leg in a win over Arizona State. Eighteen months later, Grace is back in the mix to be a factor at middle linebacker. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)