Sept. 30, 2015
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
Although the hard-hitting six-foot-two, 253-pound linebacker from Cincinnati, Ohio marched the University of Notre Dame football team to many a victory across the 2011-13 campaigns, loyal son Jarrett Grace proves that tenderness is just as essential to Fighting Irish identity as toughness.
This, in a world where super-star athletes often seem to consider themselves exempt from embracing humility, kindness or gratitude.
But Jarrett Grace shines – even brighter than his helmet.
He names his mother, Monica, as his hero and lifelong inspiration.
“I consistently saw her relying on prayer to get through whatever was going on in our lives,” Grace says. “I’m the youngest of five kids. We never went on a family vacation, ever. Reflecting back on her incredible strength, raising all us kids while our dad was working so hard, going to school herself and then working as a third-shift nurse, and still having enough left over to give to others – it’s so special to realize the love she has always had and the faith that made it possible.
“It caused me to want to explore my faith for myself: to read scripture, to be engaged during Mass, to mirror the sacrifice Christ made for us in order to give us life. I saw my mother do and live all of that.”
Three weeks ago, Grace ran out of the tunnel with his teammates to the roar of the crowd at Notre Dame Stadium in the home opener against Texas. Even though he graduated in May with a degree in management consulting from the Mendoza College of Business and is now nearly halfway through the one-year MBA program, the butterflies and nervous energy on that day rivaled what he had experienced before his very first collegiate game, years ago.
Grace had not taken the field since October 5, 2013, in a game against Arizona State when he suffered a catastrophic injury that had every potential to end his football career permanently.
“I had been having a pretty good season,” he recounts, “I was figuring out how to be a leader on the defense, and felt like I was coming into my own when it was all taken away. It was crushing and I didn’t even understand the full impact at that time of what I’d be facing. I just figured, `I’m young, I’ll heal, I’m gonna bounce back.’ I thought worst case scenario I’d miss the rest of that season but I’d be back for spring ball and pick up where I had left off, but for me personally it was much harder than that.”
Even though he was hitting a lot of the recovery benchmarks throughout the months following the injury, Grace knew that he was pushing himself beyond a level of pain and exertion with which he felt comfortable.
“It wasn’t necessarily fear on my part, because I definitely wanted to be back playing as soon as possible, but honestly, I was scared,” he confides. “The rehab wasn’t going how I thought it would; 2013-14 was the coldest, snowiest winter on record and even just getting around campus was a major struggle; my roommate Ben Councell had torn his ACL right around the same time so there were many times when we were both feeling pretty down, in our little dorm room; my spirituality and my faith were challenged.”
For years now, Grace’s favorite scripture passage has been Luke 12:22-34. Jesus tells his disciples that “humanity is God’s most beautiful creation, so why should we get caught up in all the small stuff?” he paraphrases. Grace admits that he has “very high anxiety,” which reminds him frequently to “go to those verses to re-center myself and get back to what’s really important.
“I have had some really personal, intimate moments of faith where I’ve felt an extreme connection with God, in times where I was on the verge of having some doubts. Things have been hard, I’ve struggled but I’ve never doubted; I have never been without the presence of God in my life. Maybe I have been the one who wasn’t open or receptive to what God was trying to show me, but God has never turned away from me or failed to provide exactly what I’ve needed at each moment. That faith flourishes in me.
“Those moments and the choices I make in them define how my walk with Christ will be shaped for the rest of my life,” Grace says with wisdom born of experience. “I’ve learned through those moments how to be open and to keep faith in the solution instead of turning the problem into some excuse for doubt or blaming God. I describe those moments as `God-incidences’ rather than coincidences,” another grace inherited from his mother.
Returning to the field was never a guarantee, given (and even despite) major surgeries, a bone graft, months of arduous physical rehabilitation and nearly unbearable pain.
“I just kept pointing up to the sky after every play with this huge smile on my face saying, `Thank you so much, thank you God for letting me be here right now,” he shares in reference to the Texas game. “I don’t take any of it for granted and I don’t let a moment slip by without being grateful.”
Of the journey against seemingly insurmountable odds he says, “I’m so used to trusting in a process, especially in football where everything is so lined out… same thing with academics: you do the work and you expect a certain result. I felt like I was giving all I had to rehab; I was praying; I was going to class, doing everything I was supposed to, but it wasn’t working out the way I wanted it to overall. I had to accept that my plan isn’t necessarily God’s plan. Just because it wasn’t going my way didn’t mean God had it out for me or was punishing me or teaching me a lesson or anything.
“Pain is God letting you know you’re alive,” Grace says. “I don’t want to feel numb ever; the ability to feel is a gift, every day. I want to be in tune with my body and my emotions.”
Along the way, he also remained in tune with Notre Dame football, taking the initiative to gain a whole new skillset.
“I love this team and wanted to do everything I could to help, even though I couldn’t play. These are more than just my teammates: these are my brothers and I have such a close bond with them,” he says with sincerity.
He started doing dummy signaling for the first couple games of the 2014 season, until the position coaches were confident in his ability. “There was so much pressure!” says with a laugh. “I gained a new perspective through that role. From the field you have a certain level of understanding but to hear another level of detail on the headset – they’re keeping count of so many different things all at once and the detail is so much finer than what we get on the field. It actually made it even more exciting, to hear their excitement when a call would turn out really well.”
Though not without pain and strife, things seem to be turning out really well also for Grace.
“I think the greatest outcome of what I’ve been through in the last two years is that I am an incredibly thankful person,” he reflects. “I love to encourage others who are struggling, to let them know there’s always another way, if you feel like your way has been taken from you or blocked for a time. You always still have something to give and to contribute, you just have to be open to God’s leading you through doors you may not have seen before.”
Not that every door demands anguish in order to recognize or walk through it.
Growing up, Grace wanted to be a veterinarian or a medical doctor and envisioned his educational path accordingly.
“Once I got here, though, to Notre Dame, I realized the business school was just way too good an opportunity to pass up so I made that switch early on and I’ve never regretted it. I’m still interested in landing a position with a consulting firm, getting my foot in the door and learning whatever they need to teach me.
“The standard by which I judge myself is the degree to which I am truly, genuinely caring for others, wanting their best, going the extra mile for them, being in tune with what’s going on in their lives and making myself available to pick others up if they’re down or struggling. That’s how I measure success and that’s how I live my life.
“I want to do so many things – once I get a job I still want to develop myself, pick up hobbies and volunteer. If I could make a career out of putting smiles on people’s faces, loving the heck out of `em, pouring into them and letting everybody know how important they are, no matter who they are, that’d be my dream come true. That desire and purpose comes straight from what I’ve observed in my mom, in my dad, in my older brother Joseph.
“He and his friends used to kick my butt all the time to try to toughen me up but I just look at him now, the way he’s done things and worked so hard, he’s married and has a baby girl on the way. To follow in the footsteps of my family members and ultimately of Christ, that’s my best and highest purpose.”