Notre Dame LB Jarrett Grace shaped by memorable Senior Days

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Jarrett Grace felt love, not pain.

It was Nov. 22, 2014, Notre Dame football’s Senior Day, and the determined linebacker stood on two legs — one strong, the other splintered — and hugged head coach Brian Kelly in the shadows of the north end zone. He hadn’t played a football game in more than a year, and there was no guarantee of another in his future.

It would have been easy, in the moment, to be wrecked by a stinging sadness — to see the future that was stolen, to be consumed by what could have been. Before his right leg shattered in four places, he was a starting linebacker for Notre Dame.

Now, a memory. A relic. A bystander in blue.

Still, Grace held out hope. Though his recovery had been jagged, stunted by a failed surgery following the injury on Oct. 5, 2013, the former All-Ohio linebacker continued a painful rehab. He took plodding steps forward, pushing for another year.

He was eligible to return in 2015 — that is, if the coaches wanted him.

Outside the north tunnel, with nearly 81,000 fans serenading the passing seniors, Kelly shook Grace’s hand, posed for a picture and uttered the magic words.

“Let’s do this again next year.”

“I don’t know if that was official, but I ran out to my parents and I told them that,” a smiling Grace recalled.

The running, in itself, was an accomplishment. Grace passed the 10, the 20, the 30, clapping his hands and pointing to the heavens, his every step met with a smattering of applause.

“A linebacker, No. 59, Jarrett Grace, from Cincinnati…,” the public address announcer boomed.

Suddenly, Grace wasn’t injured. His future was bright, and his heart was full.

“In my mind I knew my body didn’t feel great last year, but I wasn’t going to let people see me limp, especially running out when everybody was looking at you,” he said. “I had too much pride for that. And to be honest, I didn’t feel any pain then at all. I was so happy and elated, shaking coach Kelly’s hand.

“Seeing that picture, seeing my parents — I had to be strong in that moment, because I had so many people lifting me up. All these experiences and memories were swelling inside of me. I ran as fast as I could.”

Senior Day 2012

Grace would like to address an embarrassing bit of eternity.

Specifically, it’s a photo — and not a flattering one, for some. In it, linebacker Manti Te’o is leaving the field in the waning moments of his final home game inside Notre Dame Stadium, a 38-0 shutout of overmatched Wake Forest. It’s Nov. 17th, 2012, and Grace is the next man in.

“I was able to sub out Manti and give him a big chest bump and a big hug, and tell him I loved him,” Grace said. “That was great, to send those guys out the right way. They handled business, and then we went out there and kicked some butt some more.

“I think that’s the best thing you can give to your seniors, to show them how much you love them and that you’re ready.”

When he looks at the photo, though, Grace doesn’t see the love, or the passing of a torch, or a Heisman candidate and his protégé in the throes of a magical season.

He sees a lie. A deception. A less-than-flattering mirage.

“I think Manti out-jumped me big-time,” Grace said with a laugh. “There’s this picture of us out there where he doesn’t have a helmet on and I do. I can jump much higher than him, but I was afraid my helmet was going to hit him in the face.

“So I was like, ‘All right, Manti. You’ve got this one. It’s going to be a great picture for many years.’”

Chest bumps aside, that game — and that day — taught Grace and his fellow youngsters a valuable lesson. As Notre Dame was taking care of business, fellow undefeateds Kansas State and Oregon dropped the ball.

The Irish players that witnessed their mistake won’t let this team repeat it.

“There’s going to be teams out there that’ll fall apart at the end of the year,” Grace said. “A lot of times they’ll just get consumed with so much that’s going on and lose focus on their own objective. For us, that’s beating Wake Forest this Saturday.

“We were lucky (to get to the national championship game in 2012). We were fortunate that year that the pieces fell in the right manner. But at the same time, if we didn’t handle business, none of that would have been possible.”

Senior Day 2015

Saturday’s festivities promise to fill Grace’s heart, and empty his wallet.

“To be honest, I’ve got 20-something people coming,” Grace said with a laugh. “I had to buy some tickets just because I couldn’t trade with my teammates for enough, so I had to buy some. It’s going to be great. We’re going to have a nice tailgate and really soak it in.”

Those 20-something people aren’t just coming to see Grace shake Kelly’s hand, smile for a photo and trot triumphantly onto the field. Just as he has all season, Notre Dame’s seasoned leader will contribute to the cause.

“Just to even make it back was really my goal,” said Grace, who has made 10 tackles this season. “I didn’t know what capacity I would even play, if at all, just because I didn’t know how my body was going to hold up. But I’ve been able to play in every single game and contribute. I am more than happy with that.

“At the same time, I’m preparing for any situation each and every week. Every guy has to be ready. That’s really been my role this year and I’ve embraced it and enjoyed every second of it.”

If it’s possible, his teammates and coaches may have enjoyed it even more.

“When we reflect back on Jarrett Grace’s time here, we’ll say he impacted our program not only on the field but off the field in terms of his commitment, his resolve, his love for Notre Dame and wanting to get back on the field,” Kelly said. “For those that were out there when he was struggling through this injury and limping every day in stretch lines and trying to work through it, we remember what he looked like, and it’s a pretty inspirational story for all those players and coaches and staff members that have been part of this.”

Added graduate student safety and captain Matthias Farley: “I was his roommate last year. To see him battle back from everything, no one worked harder in his rehab. We’d be sitting there watching TV and he’d be doing something to rehabilitate his leg.

“I’d say he has the most respect out of anybody.”

And so, before AP Poll No. 6 Notre Dame meets Wake Forest on Saturday, Grace will run through a familiar routine. “A linebacker, No. 59, Jarrett Grace, from Cincinnati…”

Then, after the smoke clears and the tears dry, he’ll take the field and play.

“I’ve tried not to think about it too much, because when I do, to be honest, it brings a tear to my eye just thinking about how privileged I’ve been to represent and be a part of this university for five years now,” Grace said. “I’m going to try not to get overwhelmed, because we have a game to play afterwards.

“But I think when it’s all said and done and the dust settles, I’m just going to sit there and say, ‘Wow, I am so lucky and so blessed that I have been able to share in all these great memories for all these years.’ I’m probably going to hang out there and maybe pitch a tent.”

Senior Day 2016

Maybe, it isn’t over just yet.

Considering that he missed 20 consecutive games with injury, plus the year he sat out as a freshman in 2011, Grace would be a prime candidate to be granted a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA.

It’s a likelihood that nags at him, flickering like a bright light in the distance.

“That’s something we’re going to pursue after the year,” the graduate student linebacker said on Wednesday. “That’s something that’s always been in the back of my mind, but we’ll get to it when the time comes. Right now I just want to get good grades in the classroom and give it all I’ve got for Wake Forest.”

For now, Grace is content to shake Kelly’s hand, meet his parents at midfield, beat Wake Forest and chase that elusive national championship.

But, when the time comes, would he be interested in another Senior Day?

“Definitely, definitely,” he said, squeezing the life out of an empty Gatorade bottle, swaying excitedly from side to side. “I feel like a lot of time has been taken away from me, and I’ve still got a lot more to offer to Notre Dame and my teammates.”

mvorel@sbtinfo.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Jarrett Grace (59) points up as he runs off the field during the Notre Dame-Texas NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Linebacker Jarrett Grace (59) Saturday, August 15, 2015, at the Notre Dame football practice at Labar Practice Complex. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ
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)