Editor’s Note: A version of this story originally appeared for The Observer on Nov. 20, 2014.
To put it simply, the 2014 season did not unfold the way linebacker Jarrett Grace planned for his senior year.
After sitting his freshman campaign and seeing mostly special teams action his sophomore season, the Cincinnati native began to come into his own last season, filling the void left by All-American Manti Te’o. Grace saw the field in every game to start the season, making his first start in the win over Michigan State on Sept. 21, 2013, and proceeding to start the following two games against Oklahoma and Arizona State as well. By the time the Arizona State game rolled around, Grace was tied for the team lead with 40 tackles.
“I was definitely feeling good, getting into a groove,” the 6-foot-2.5, 253-pounder said. “It builds your confidence when you have success, when you’re able to fly around.
“That was the big thing for me, if I was able to fly around, that was my game, and that means I was confident and relaxed out there. … Just get to play ball, use your instincts, that’s huge if you can do that.”
Then came a Sun Devil run around the right edge and an offensive lineman landing on Grace’s right leg.
“Surreal,” Grace said of the moment. “You go from being confident in your abilities, feeling good — school was going good, too, that was a huge part of it. Everything in life just seemed to be falling in all the right places.”
Grace’s tibia fractured in four places and he was carted off the field to a local hospital where he underwent surgery while the rest of the team flew back to South Bend.
“I was confined to a hospital room for a month,” Grace said. “I actually had to experience my 21st birthday in Texas, all alone, so that was pretty [unfortunate]. Then being this guy who’s limping to every class for almost a year. Your confidence kind of goes down the drain, but you find those times, you find those people who bring you back up. You rely on your faith and things that lift you up, and know that there’s so much more to life than just being a good football player.”
Six years younger than his older brother, Grace said he was always trying to do what his brother did. That meant strapping on the football pads when he was four and playing peewee football for the Northside KFC Rebels and the Colerain Little Cards.
“I didn’t know anything,” Grace said with a laugh. “I was always the kid who did too many jumping jacks.”
Grace played for Colerain High School when he was first looked at by then-Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly. When Kelly moved to Notre Dame, Grace came with him.
“Leaving Cincinnati was hard just because, being from a big, German-Catholic family, family is really important to you. You want to be there,” Grace said. “Cincinnati was having a lot of success … setting records at the school, and I was like, ‘Wow. I could be a part of that.’
“But Notre Dame is just different. People are going to say that you. Everyone knows that. … It’s a decision that goes beyond just the fun you have playing football — which is great, but I was thinking more about the relationships that I could build that would really just transform my life over the long-term.
“And the challenges that Notre Dame presents as well. Academics, stretch my mind, stretch my thinking and then the faith aspect to that as well. … The diversity of thought. Meeting people from different countries, different coasts. People who had different life experiences than I had, being able to talk with them. I really became a whole, rounded person.”
Grace needed that spirit during rehab. The expectation at the time of his injury was that he would probably miss the rest of the season but be ready to return at the start of this year.
Instead the severity of the injury, and subsequent surgeries and procedures, have kept him off the field all year.
That would usually dampen a player’s attitude — usually.
Yet Grace is still always one of the first at practice and last to leave, and he said he tries to bring a positive atmosphere wherever he goes as he focuses on leading the growth of the young Irish linebacker core.
“I definitely had a totally new role this year,” Grace said. “I was able to ‘see’ a lot more out there, and [senior linebacker] Joe [Schmidt] just really stepped into the spotlight this year. Honestly, anyone who knows Joe wasn’t surprised by that because he’s always been diligent, prepared. He’s really intelligent.
“At the same time, with [sophomore linebacker] Jaylon [Smith], all these guys, I just try to take what coach says during the meetings or what our install is and be able to really watch that because it’s harder for them out there. They’re actually doing the work, running around, so I can just try and remember those fine details and pull them over to the side and say this, or after practice try to share what I saw with them — really in any way I can just to help out.”
While it might have been a setback for this season, Grace said his leg is on a the road to a full recovery.
“It’s doing fantastic,” Grace said. “I had some X-rays this past week. The bones look great, so that’s one part of the puzzle. Just working on the muscular and the nerves part of it, just get those on board and cooperating. So it looks optimistic.”
With at least one more year of eligibility remaining, Grace said he will be playing football again in the future.
“Obviously, the coaching staff decides who they’re going to bring back, but I’m definitely going to play some more football in my future,” he said. “And I’m going to play some good football. That’s my mindset.”