Fiesta Bowl significance runs deeper for Jarrett Grace than his Ohio roots

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — On the very top of Jarrett Grace’s to-do list earlier this week, ahead of the frantic Christmas-shopping catch-up, was a phone call to longtime friend and current University of Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden.

Notre Dame's graduate senior linebacker and evolving comeback story, Grace wanted a nuanced scouting report on seventh-ranked Ohio State (11-1), No. 8 ND’s Jan. 1 BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl opponent in Glendale, Ariz.

Bolden — whose team on Nov. 28 got pummeled by Ohio State, 42-13, the week after the Buckeyes played themselves out of the College Football Playoff — also wanted something in return.

“He said, ‘You’ve got to get this one. Do it for me,’ ” Grace recounted. “ ‘Let’s get this together.’ ”

And why not? They used to get in fights with one another growing up and playing in the public basketball leagues in suburban Cincinnati, that is when they mixed a little too much football into their respective hoops games. They moved past those tussles as if nothing ever happened.

They starred together at linebacker, playing for Bolden’s uncle, Tom Bolden, at Cincinnati public school powerhouse Colerain High. Joe’s father (and Tom’s brother) Dan was and remains the school's athletic director.

Grace and Joe Bolden both were met with a largely tepid recruiting response, one year apart, from the Buckeyes, though Ohio State made a late push for Grace — one of 10 scholarship players on the current Irish roster from Ohio — after he had already committed to Notre Dame.

To this day, all around them are reminders of the path they didn’t follow.

That includes Grace’s childhood neighbors, Connor and Spencer Smith, who went from Colerain to the Ohio State football program. Their dad, Joe Smith, was an academic All-American and four-year letter-winner at OSU, missing seeing action for iconic Buckeye coach Woody Hayes by a season.

Even closer to home, in a figurative sense, Grace’s parents are friends of Ohio State cornerbacks/special teams coach Kerry Coombs, one of four former assistants of ND head coach Brian Kelly who are now part of Buckeye head coach Urban Meyer’s staff.

They all went to high school and graduated together at Colerain (in 1979), years before Coombs would build his high school alma mater into a public school football counterpunch to Cincinnati’s renowned Greater Catholic League (Moeller, Elder, St. Xavier, etc.), named by MaxPreps a few years ago as the top high school football league in the nation.

Coombs was the only one of the four ex-Kelly assistants at OSU among Tim Hinton, Ed Warinner and Tony Alford who wasn’t pirated directly from Kelly’s ND staff.

Kelly had hired Coombs from Colerain shortly after taking the Cincinnati job after the 2006 season, and Coombs stayed on with new UC coach Butch Jones until Meyer hired him away when he unretired to coach the Buckeyes in 2012.

Coombs, who coached Grace’s older brother at Colerain and whose son Brayden grew up with Grace, tried to recruit Grace to UC. Hinton, incidentally, was the Notre Dame assistant charged with getting Grace not to reconsider his verbal commitment and get involved with OSU.

The intertwining relationships, however, haven’t blurred in Grace’s mind a more momentous bottom line for him and Notre Dame (10-2).

“It’s a statement game,” he said. “Notre Dame in the past hasn’t necessarily played their best in these big-time games, so that’s our motivation now.

“It’s to put Notre Dame back on the map and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to be contending at the very top of the polls, each and every year for a long time to come.’ ”

Grace’s own personal big picture isn’t quite so distinct.

The 6-foot-3, 253-pounder is 12 games and 17 tackles into a comeback from a career-threatening injury, his right leg shattering in four places on Oct. 5, 2013 in a 37-34 win over Arizona State at Arlington, Texas.

So serious was the injury that he had to undergo surgery in the Dallas area before he could fly home. His first look at the X-rays made him shudder. Bleeding from his post-surgery stitches had a similar effect.

A second surgery months later, intermittent recovery plateaus and a stubborn limp were all constant reminders that reality might not ever match up with the hopes Grace kept replaying in his head. But roughly a year ago, a series of physical breakthroughs unfurled.

And on Sept. 5, against Texas, the man once tasked with succeeding unanimous All-America middle linebacker Manti Te’o in 2013 was back.

“Physically, I am better,” Grace assessed when asked how he measures up to the 2013, pre-injury version of himself. “I feel so much stronger, faster, everything. When I’m on the field, I feel great. I don’t even think about (the injury) at all.”

Nor does he ponder the what-ifs anymore, though they overtook him briefly during scattered moments of his climb back.

“You have this dream world of how things work out,” he said. “But replaying that situation, if I got hurt or if I didn’t get hurt, Notre Dame was the No. 1 choice regardless. And I’ve told this to people before, that it (the injury) actually made my choice even more sound.

“Just to have that support with everyone rallying around me. It’s like, wow, I don’t know what I was doing when I was 18 years old, but this was great foresight to make a decision like this. So no regrets about that for now.”

Most of Grace’s tackles this season have come either on special teams or as a short-yardage/goal-line specialist, though he was instrumental in ND’s 41-24 pull-away from Navy on Oct. 10.

Grace was inserted in the lineup at outside linebacker, a position he only began practicing earlier that week, after halftime and he made five tackles over the final two quarters and helped neutralize the Midshipmen’s fullbacks.

Navy’s total yardage before Grace came into the game was 245, with 21 points on the scoreboard. With Grace, those numbers were 95 yards and three points.

Why he wasn’t able to parlay that performance into a larger role on the field may have had to do with the coaching staff just being unsure whether Grace’s lateral movement could come back as consistently as his straight-ahead speed did.

That he refused to ever go through the motions or ever complain about a limited role reflects in part why he is such a dynamic locker room influence and why no one is ruling out one of those twisted scenarios in which Grace will find a way to be a factor in the Fiesta Bowl, in what turns out to be his final college game.

Grace initially was encouraged to petition to the NCAA for a sixth year, and was all set to do so. But when he met with ND’s compliance staff, he was told he played in (three) too many games in 2013 to even apply.

“As much as that stinks, it hasn’t affected me,” he said. “It’s out of my hands. I control what I can control.”

Just one more time, he’d like to help control Notre Dame’s destiny.

“This is going to be sweet,” Grace said. “Incredible venue against (a team) I watched all the time growing up. It’s going to be, hopefully, the best game of my career. It’s my last go-round. I’m going to be on point and leave it all out there.”

But whatever happens, the long, crooked, testing road back was worth it for Grace.

“Just to take the field and these memories I’ve made this year,” he said. “You can’t place a value on that. What else would I have been doing? Would I have been working? Just kind of twiddling my thumbs, missing Notre Dame?

“I am totally glad I made this return and am part of this amazing team and that we have one last time to take the field together.”

Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace (59) points to the sky on Sept. 5 against Texas after returning to action for the first time, a season and a half after suffering a career-threatening leg injury. His final college game comes Jan. 1 against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)