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Jarrett Grace rebounds, returns to field against odds

| Thursday, November 12, 2015

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For many Notre Dame football players, the first game they play for the Irish will be the greatest memory of their college careers. But for graduate student linebacker Jarrett Grace — who missed a year and a half of action with a broken leg suffered in the 2013 season — it was all about his second “first game”: his first time back from two surgeries.

Grace had made the starting middle linebacker position his own for the Irish, replacing former All-American Manti Te’o and leading the team with 40 tackles in the opening six games. But then came the moment that was almost his last on the field for Notre Dame: an Arizona State lineman landed on Grace’s leg and fractured his tibula. Grace said he knew he needed to do whatever it took to return from the injury.

“That injury definitely was an eye-opening experience,” Grace said. “To be honest, it sucked. I think that anybody will tell you that getting hurt sucks, but you have to draw the positives out of it, and for me personally, it gives me some time to reflect and figure out what’s really important in my life. It gave me some time to just sit back and watch how people interact, watch things from a different perspective. So when I was able to return, I was able to bring a new kind of passion, I didn’t take anything for granted. Taking the field for the second time meant so much more to me.”

The injury was supposed to rule him out for the rest of the season, but it wasn’t supposed to keep him for 2014, too. Recovery took longer than expected though, and the Cincinnati native found himself needing further surgery. The linebacker was forced to watch from the sidelines. Grace said he knew his injury was serious but had no idea it would see him miss so much time.

“I knew it was bad,” Grace said. “If something keeps me on the ground, then generally it’s pretty bad. I wanted to try to walk it off, but that just clearly wasn’t happening. The doctors tell you one thing, that in six months you’ll be good and you’ll start running again, but then it kind of lingers, and I could feel it inside my body. I could tell it wasn’t right. Having to get that second surgery sucked, but I didn’t even expect that to be as much of a setback as it was.

“But things are going to happen the way they do. We don’t really have control over everything. I’m just extremely grateful to even play again because there was a lot of doubt about that.

“I’d like to say there wasn’t any doubt, but there was. I kept it in the very backmost part of my brain. Because when I had to go get that second surgery, and then when everyone said I would be able to go through camp and that wasn’t happening, it was a mental battle every single day. It was like, ‘Alright, Jarrett, if you think it’s not going to happen, then it’s not going to happen, so you’ve just got to attack it every single day.’ Then when I started making progress, I thought, ‘No, I’m not going to settle for not coming back, I need to come back. For myself and for everybody else, too.’”

After redshirting his freshman season, Grace made his debut for the Irish in the season opener at Aviva Stadium in Dublin in 2012. He said he’ll never forget the first time he stepped onto the field in a Notre Dame uniform.

“The first time I stepped onto the field in Notre Dame was in Ireland,” Grace said. “That was definitely a unique experience. There was only one other team at that point that could say that. I guess just to represent the Irish and to run out the tunnel for the first time with 80,000 people surrounding you is incredible. I don’t know what kind of adrenaline rushes other people get from doing other crazy thing, but that to me is the ultimate adrenaline rush, it’s the ultimate goosebump, bone-hilling exciting moment. It’s ingrained in my memory.”

After a strong year on special teams for the Irish in 2012, who made it to the BCS Championship Game, and half a season as a starter in 2013, Grace suffered his injury. But despite all the doubt, he returned to practice and then to the field for the Irish for the 2015 season. Grace said his excitement on his first game back, when Texas visited Notre Dame Stadium, almost got the better of him.

“Playing against Texas, that was crazy,” Grace said. “I was so jacked up for that, even more than my first game. I actually pulled my hamstring in that game, I was so excited. I was in great shape and hydrated and all of that, but I was so jacked up and excited to be back, I pulled my hammy. But it was a blast, it was a celebration on the field. Every single play, just celebrating my teammates. I’m eternally grateful to people for sticking with me, I’m thankful for God, just for being a rock for me when times were really dark.”

Grace’s contribution in 2015 wasn’t just occasional special teams plays, though. Against Navy, Irish head coach Brian Kelly elected to bring in Grace at strongside linebacker for the second half, a change that coincided with Notre Dame shutting down the Midshipmen’s triple-option attack.

“Playing versus Navy this year was an absolute blast because it was the first time I saw real action at linebacker in almost two years,” Grace said. “That was great for me, just because they trusted me, even though I had little experience — in fact I had zero experience at that spot really. Just two days before the game I took some snaps at that spot. So for everyone to believe in me meant the world for me. After the game [defensive coordinator Brian] VanGorder told me he was really proud of me, and that meant the world because it kind of felt like I was back out there and able to contribute to the team in a real, tangible way again, and I didn’t know if I’d ever have another chance to do that. That was huge.”

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

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