To attempt to understand Jarrett Grace’s journey over the last 550 days, you have to know about the ripped stitches and the blood.
You have to know about that first failed walk attempt on his shattered lower left leg, one held together by a rod then, and today, by a healed bone, determination and faith.
And you have to understand that when a recovering athlete offers he values every rep he gets in a spring practice, he means it, because in this case, that athlete’s mother is no longer tasked with bathing him in a hospital bed since he’s unable to do so himself.
To say Jarrett Grace “broke his leg” on Oct. 5, 2013 against Arizona State in Cowboys Stadium is akin to referring to a car that careens off a cliff as “being in an accident.”
Despite extreme pain, Grace initially viewed the injury as he had any past inconvenience between the lines -- he needed to “walk it off.”
“Our mindset at that time was if you’re winded or you’re tired, you tap your helmet and you come out. That was the first time I had ever tapped my helmet,” said Grace. “I thought, ‘I’m going to have to walk this one off.’ Then I couldn’t really get up, so that was kind of interesting and different for me. At the same time, even though I was sitting there, I was thinking I’d be good the next week.”
Not the next week. Not the next year.
THE NOTRE DAME FAMILY
“I couldn’t fly back with the team because the injury was so severe,” said Grace. “I had to have surgery in the morning. That was tough.
“When I woke up, my mom and sister were there. That’s a testament to Notre Dame, the class act they always have. They reached out to my parents, asked ‘How can we help to get you down here?’
“For me, that was a part of my life where I tapped into that Notre Dame love, that community, in a way I didn’t ever want to, I guess. I never wanted to be on the receiving end of that. I’m eternally grateful that they took care of my family, looking after my needs. Having them there was great to support me. I had to stay down there for a few days before I could fly back.”
Grace is in the process of paying back that act of kindness the only way he knows how.
“Whatever my role is, I’m going to embrace it and give it all I’ve got,” said Grace, now broaching the stage of full recovery. “Because this is like a new chance, a new opportunity, and for me to give anything less, that’s not what Notre Dame deserves, that’s not what my teammates deserve, because they’ve supported me for so long.
“I’m going to give that back to them.”
A SECOND SURGERY, A SECOND CHANCE
Grace has yet to play an official snap for second-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense. And he hasn’t battled between the lines on a fall Saturday with at least 15 of the defense’s projected top 22 competitors.
A graduate school hopeful, Grace isn’t young, but he feels new.
“To me it is all pure joy and excitement, just to be out there and have that opportunity,” he said. “Trying to soak it all in again because for so long I was just watching these guys play. A lot of them are young so they never had the chance to play with me so I’m trying to show them the way it needs to be done with effort, excitement, and enthusiasm out there.”
Being out there only recently became an option.
“During these winter workouts, something just clicked,” said Grace. “I had been grinding and grinding for so long with the trainers and the weight room. I don’t know what it was, but there was one day we started doing some testing, vertical jump, and I was like, ‘I’m kind of like back to myself!’
“Because I went from having a 13-inch vertical back in November to like a 30-inch vertical in February. That was a psychological boost as well, ‘I can do this again.’ Things just started clicking. I was running fast and got explosive.”
Asked if he felt back to his pre-injury abilities, Grace offered, “I feel really close. For me, I don’t know if I’d ever say yes to that question. I think of myself as being some guy that’s always been really athletic, even if that never was the case,” he joked. “I don’t know if I can ever say yes to that question, but I am feeling pretty good.”
Nothing about Grace’s rehab and recovery was ahead of schedule from a physical standpoint. Mentally, however, the former Colerain High School (Cincinnati) standout proved superhuman in his efforts.
“When you’re sitting out, you can go in one of two directions,” said Grace. “You can sit there and feel sorry for yourself, or you can be involved. For me (being involved) was taking mental reps, being in the playbook so I could be another set of eyes. And if I wouldn’t have done that, I don’t think I’d have been prepared for the spring as I am now.
“That’s something Coach VanGorder talks about, being in the playbook all the time. I was just doing what I was expected to do, following the protocol and it’s paying off for me now.”
IT’S ALWAYS DARKEST BEFORE IT’S LIGHT
At the outset of spring practice 2014, Grace walked with the aid of a crutch. Weeks later, Grace had a second surgery, and thereafter his renewed road to recovery began.
Despite his best efforts to get on the field last fall, it wasn’t until Music City Bowl preparations were made last December that Grace received a chance to re-acclimate to live action.
“Kind of,” Grace said laughing at the mini-milestone. “They threw me in there in a couple of 7-on-7 drills. I hadn’t taken any reps at all. ‘Let’s just see what you can do?’ I kind of hobbled around. It was fun. That was exciting for me.”
It’s more exciting now because he’s in the thick of what will be a summer, August camp, and likely season-long competition for playing time among a trio of middle linebackers: Grace, future star Nyles Morgan, and 2014 team MVP Joe Schmidt, Notre Dame’s recovering middle linebacker du jour.
“I value every rep I get,” said Grace. “We talk about getting a dollar for a dollar. I’m trying to get two dollars for every dollar out there. I’ve had a lot of mental reps, but now it’s time to put that into practice.”
That approach is admittedly a long way from the dark days of winter 2014, when progress, even minor, proved elusive.
“You get depressed because you’re not doing the thing you love, what really drives you, what you’re passionate about,” Grace said. “So I went through some times where I wasn’t myself. Where I didn’t feel very good. I wasn’t sure what was going to come out of this. Sometimes I just wanted to be able to walk again for my future health, for if I have children one day, you know? That’s what I was worried about.
“You see the light of day and you just get back to what got you to be the person you were in the first place. You rely on your faith, your family, your support system and you realize it’s not that bad. I could be so much worse off. I’m in a good position. I was being taken care of by Notre Dame. I started smiling again, being happy again, being around my teammates a little bit more.
“That started the process of getting back in the rehab room, every day, twice a day, just grinding, and being like, ‘I’m going to do this. No matter what’s in my way, I’m going to do this, because that’s what I’m supposed to do.’
“God blessed me with these abilities, I need to pursue that. I need to give it my best effort. That was selfish for me to think I could never do it.”
Selfish isn’t the first word that comes to mind, but Grace’s classmate Matthias Farley found a more apt-term to describe teammate’s journey.
“Jarrett’s my roommate, he’s one of my very close friends,” said Farley. “To see him out here and getting to compete again is awesome. He’s grinded to get back where he is.