Taken for Granted
How a Professional Athlete still not Getting his Proper Due Changed My World
I was watching a SportsCenter special last Monday afternoon. I think it was about Brett Favre. I’m not sure though, because I wasn’t paying complete attention. The thing about Brett Favre, and I think Brett Favre would agree that this is, in fact, the thing about Brett Favre is this: Brett Favre.
If I could have been any more succinct about the thing about Brett Favre being Brett Favre, I would have. (Note: Given the media climate of today, I would be remiss if I didn’t also bring up Brett Favre, but don’t let that sway you from fully understanding what I’m trying to get at here, which is Brett Favre.) I wasn’t even mad at everything relating to the SportsCenter special being Brett Favre, or something relating to Brett Favre, despite a lack of actual news surrounding Brett Favre–at least not at first. Now, when I was in Elementary school, Brett Favre played for the Green Bay Packers. That sentence is the beginning of my lazy segue to the next section of this piece, the part filled with real importance. None of which relates to Brett Favre for a while, which I guess makes it inherently less important than Brett Favre, but I digress.
When I was in 5th grade, I fell in love with the game of basketball. I had only started playing the sport a year earlier, but I fell hard for it. On the playground of West Nyack Elementary school, a 6th grader named Nate Satterfield brought “Rucker Jr.” to recess. Nate would dribble the ball between his legs super fast, and he would take on ten kids at a time, weaving around us like we were human traffic cones set in motion. Nate even talked a better game than he played. His “you’re momma’s so fat” verbal dexterity was only superseded in coolness by his ability to spit saliva lasers out of a gap in his teeth.
When Nate and his class graduated elementary school in June of ’94–a month that I like to refer to as the “Vernon Maxwell, O.J. Simpson and E-Honda spectacular”–the playground suddenly belonged to my friends and I. Talent-wise, a big pond shrunk and I became one of the bigger fish, if not the biggest. This was probably the worst thing that could have ever happened to my game. Before we graduated the next year, we all had to vote on superlatives for our classmates to receive. I won “Best Basketball Player”. Compounding things, I won a shooting contest that spring that led to me receiving a gold medal at graduation. I thought I was kind of a big deal. I wasn’t.
I had a friend in my 6th grade class named Pierre, who had transferred in from neighboring Bardonia Elementary school. Pierre would say funny things like, “if you love that basketball so much, why don’t you marry it?”, and at my birthday party that spring, he farted so prolifically in our guest room that we had to evacuate for a good 15 minutes after coating the room with a thick mist of orange scent. I think four simultaneous games of Magic the Gathering had to be halted.
The one thing Pierre tried to remind me was that, though I had a modicum of talent for the game of basketball, I wasn’t all that I thought I was. He once told me something along the lines of, “You think you’re slick but Ryan Grant would whip your ass.” Grant had been a classmate of Pierre’s at Bardonia, and like Keyser Soze in a film that came out right around then, something of a myth on our playground.
In 7th grade, I was cut from my middle school team. I didn’t see it as a big deal. The team was loaded and I hadn’t grown any. I used the available free time to play for a PAL team from a nearby town. I was the only white kid on the team and embraced a spot up shooter role with the zeal of a kid that didn’t realize playing into a stereotype wouldn’t get him anywhere down the road. The next year, with Satterfield and host of other talented kids gone, Grant inherited a Felix V. Festa Middle School (South) team that wasn’t nearly as good as the stacked one from the year before.
Despite maintaining the appearance of a confused 11 year old, my jumper earned me a spot on the team. We were the adolescent equivalent of those late 80′s Bulls teams, the ones that featured a supporting cast that just couldn’t keep up with MJ. We even had an young over-matched coach with an Irish name (Sullivan, if I remember correctly). I think we finished around .500, but memories are foggy. All that noted, I can safely say I know what it’s like to be a white Brad Sellers.
Not only was Ryan Grant ‘s game light years ahead of the rest of us, his work ethic appeared to already be that of an incredibly motivated college kid. When we would drop down for pushups, 11 moody young teens would struggle through the process, looking across at each other, forlorn grimaces covering our faces as our elbows jutted out in opposite directions. Grant would ask for more pushups, his mint Reebok Questions, AI cornrows and steely glare almost daring one of us to bring half as much intensity and heart as he did.
I’m not sure if I had more than a conversation or two with him during that season, or if, even today, he has any idea who the hell I am. I guess that’s what happens to shy, metal-mouthed youngsters: they excel at fading into the background until they emerge with something of value to contribute to society later in life.
Grant went to play football at Don Bosco prep the following year while I, perhaps due to a rep gained for being too tentative with a shot I should have had more confidence in, was cut from the Freshman team at Clarkstown South. The next year Grant returned to South, presumably to try and feed an insatiable hoops jones, and I disappeared to private school, in search of teachers that cared more and a chance to develop my game at my own rate. Grant’s sophomore year on the court at South paled in comparison to his exploits as a running back and he returned to Bosco for his last two years and hit the gridiron hard. USA Today named him New Jersey’s prep player of the year after his senior season. He landed at Norte Dame and shared a backfield with Julius Jones, a glitzier running back that started out with the Dallas Cowboys and now plays for the Seattle Seahawks.
To most that were unaware, Grant’s path to the NFL success seems like it was some sort of fairy tale. It wasn’t, even though it reads like one. Grant signed as an undrafted free agent with the Giants and played on the practice squad in ’05. Before the ’06 season began a gruesome injury sustained at a night club nearly ended his career.
As the New York Times told it last January:
During the off-season in early 2006, someone bumped into Grant at the nightclub. When he wobbled and reached back to brace himself, his left hand went through Champagne glasses resting on the table.Grant cut an artery, a tendon and the ulnar nerve in his arm. Blood poured out of the wound, requiring emergency surgery. Grant plays down the ordeal now, but he acknowledged Wednesday that doctors were initially unsure if he would regain the use of his left hand. The Giants placed Grant on injured reserve for the 2006 season. He took real-estate classes and the volunteer coaching job at Queen of Peace. His players gawked at the scars, the lines running up and down a left arm so damaged they remember Grant could barely form his hand into a fist.
He was traded to the Packers for a sixth round pick before last season, emerging as Green Bay’s featured back after being a third stringer for most of the first half of the season.
For every athlete that squanders his talent, there’s one ready to maximize his potential and become the best he can be. I never doubted Grant would make it to the NFL because I knew he’d work just that hard–after all, I’d seen the raw intensity he generated as a youngster–and watching him in college showed that, while he didn’t boast the raw talent that Jones did, he could more than make up for it in other ways. (Note: the sports media world seems to be the “achievement inverse” of this: for every writer/journalist out there working his tail off to be the best they can be, there’s some hackass tossing their integrity into a metaphorical garbage can, spouting off bullshit for a major network or newspaper.)
All the hard work paid off, too. Grant, who set a franchise record rushing for 201 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Seahawks in the playoffs last year, signed a 4 year deal worth that could be worth up to 30 million in incentives last Monday. Given everything he’s been through, an incentive-laden contract is only fitting. Why settle for a middling amount that will reward you no matter what, when you can strive to make more if you achieve more and continue to push yourself?
As I watched the SportsCenter Brett Favre special the day after ESPN began to report that Grant would sign the extension, I didn’t catch a single mention of the deal. Now, I might have dozed off in the middle of an in-segment Wrangler commercial, but you wouldn’t be able to blame me either way. The young kid that helped Favre and co. resuscitate their dormant running game was about to sign a new deal and it was barely mentioned–IF AT ALL–during special all about Favre and the Packers. (Note: as Jets fan since the days of Browning Nagle, I’m seriously considering changing my allegiance to the Packers given all that’s gone down.)
The reason my experience watching Ryan Grant grow as an athlete is important is because, on some level, it kick-started the next phases of my life. Watching what it took for him to pursue a dream playing a game that wasn’t even his best sport effectively crushed my NBA aspirations.
It’s okay though, I still made into the building. Every once in a while I get to watch a guy like Grant, who’s made the most out of what he’s been given.
And for me, that’s enough.