Former Notre Dame LB Jarrett Grace's career, like his leg, gets reconstructed

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Jarrett Grace’s life has come full circle.

Just look at his right leg.

Or, rather, look inside of it. The former Notre Dame linebacker’s leg — which was shattered in four places during a win over Arizona State on Oct. 5, 2013 — is held together by a series of meticulously placed rods and screws.

At least one says “Stryker” on it.

Back then, Grace’s future was fused into his flesh.

“After my second surgery (on the broken leg) they pulled out this metal nail that said ‘Stryker’ on it,” Grace recalled on Sunday. “I’m like, ‘What the heck is this, and why is there a hefty price tag on it?’ That led me to do a little research on the field of medical device sales, which I had no idea about. That was the first seed that was planted.”

Grace decided to learn more about the company that was so literally invested in his leg. During one summer late in his career at Notre Dame, the 6-foot-3, 253-pound linebacker attended a facility tour and panel at the Kalamazoo, Mich., headquarters of the Stryker Corporation, one of the world’s foremost medical device and equipment manufacturing companies. Eventually, his leg healed, and after missing 20 consecutive games in 2013 and 2014, Grace played all 13 games, making 26 tackles, in 2015.

After signing with the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent in May 2016, the Cincinnati native was later released in fall camp. Shortly prior to that, his mother, Monica Grace, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It was tough leaving home. When I was released, it sucked, but it was for the best,” Grace said. “I was able to do a lot of good at home. I was able to be with my family, help drive my mom around and prepare meals and just be there for her to comfort her and fill the void of things she isn’t able to do when she’s going through surgeries and radiation and different things like that. It was a huge blessing for me to be home.

“I realized, ‘Hey, I’m OK without football, because my priorities and my values are in things greater than that. They’re in my family. They’re in my faith. As much as I love football and it’s a huge part of me, it doesn’t define me.’ ”

But what does define Jarrett Grace? And what did the future hold? While he was helping out at home, the former Colerain High School standout also worked at Ignition APG, an athletic performance facility in Cincinnati. He helped others improve, and in turn, he did the same. Grace pondered a return to football.

But his heart aligned more with his leg.

“I probably was in the best physical shape of my life this past February in terms of how I could test — run, jump, lift, all these things,” Grace said. “So it wasn’t really a question of, ‘Do I have the ability to do this?’

“I was just thinking long term. What is going to bring me happiness? What is going to allow me to do the good that I need to have that happiness? I did a lot of soul-searching and praying, and Stryker was always in the back of my mind.”

Grace earned an interview, and in late June, he got the job. The former Irish linebacker moved to Fort Wayne, where he works as a sales representative in Stryker’s reconstruction and trauma divisions. His products help repair hips, knees, joints — you name it. Essentially, he serves as a consultant for physicians and surgery technicians, providing expertise as to when and how Stryker’s products should be used.

No, it isn’t football.

But the sport’s discipline still serves dividends nonetheless.

“I have found what has helped me out thus far has been football — just the rigors of being a student-athlete at Notre Dame,” Grace said. “My schedule so far is tough. The day-to-day is hard. You have a lot on your plate. There’s a lot to learn. It can be very overwhelming. The more I learn, I realize the less I know.

“It’s kind of like showing up to fall camp as a freshman. ‘Holy cow. This is a whirlwind.’ But over those five years I’ve been able to develop the tools to have a plan to cope and find those small victories, find a light at the end of the tunnel and keep going.”

Grace may see the light, but in football terms, he’s still an eager freshman.

“These reps need to know every detail of the surgery,” Grace said. “They have to add value to the room, and a lot of people don’t even know that exists. They assume this physician who has trained for many, many years and is incredibly intelligent knows everything. Well, you can’t know everything.”

When it comes to Stryker’s devices, Grace has to; that’s his challenge. And considering that his Notre Dame degrees come in management consulting and finance, the Irish alum has plenty still to learn.

But, given his prior experience, Grace is uniquely suited to understand both his products and the patients they’re designed to support.

“I went through it. I literally have a Stryker product in me right now,” Grace said. “To know that there are things out there being made to help people get back to not just live a normal life but excel in whatever they want to do, and me being a testament to that, it gives me a little bit extra conviction and passion for what I’m doing.

“It’s cool, because I always want to be in a position where I feel like I’m helping someone. I have to have that touch point where what I’m doing is making a difference. Heck, it literally made a difference for me — because without this product, without a sales rep in there helping the physician, I might not have been able to return to the game or have the health that I do now.

“I absolutely love it. I really do. I love what I’m doing.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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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