SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Arguably no Notre Dame player has worked harder than Jarrett Grace to be able to run out to meet his parents at midfield for Saturday’s senior day ceremonies at Notre Dame Stadium.
Grace suffered a brutal injury in early October of 2013, breaking his leg against Arizona State and undergoing two separate procedures on it over the next five and a half months. His focus in 2014 was less about getting back on the field and more about re-learning how to run — even though he was in pads and a helmet, Grace limped through warm-ups that season and wasn’t cleared for contact until 2015’s spring practice.
But he’s returned from that devastating moment at AT&T Stadium to fill in the gaps as a special teams player and veteran leader on a Notre Dame team that heads into its game against Wake Forest this weekend with an 8-1 record and No. 4 ranking in the College Football Playoff race.
“It’s simply amazing that he’s been able to recovery from that injury he had, and to be able to get back on the field this year and contribute as much as he’s been able to on special teams, it’s just really amazing,” Grace’s father, Joel, said. “Me and his mom, we’re just really, really proud of him. The determination he had not to give up, he really wants to continue to play football. He loves it.”
[SHOP: Get your Notre Dame gear]
Grace made five tackles against Navy as he helped Notre Dame’s defense smother the Mids’ triple option in the second half of a 41-24 win last month, too. In a season with razor-thin margins and no room for error, Grace’s efforts helped turn a possible upset into one of Notre Dame’s better wins of the season.
“It was like yep, that’s Jarrett,” Joel Grace said. “He’s back doing what he does. It was really an emotional high to see him back out there doing it.”
Grace, three years ago, looked like the heir apparent to Manti Te’o at Mike linebacker. He didn’t begin the 2013 season as Notre Dame’s starter there, but split time there with Dan Fox. Grace felt like he was starting to play his best football leading up to his injury, making it, and the lengthy recovery timetable, that much more cruel.
But Grace didn’t give up after his injury, and feels a sense of accomplishment that he made it back for a fifth season after a year and a half relegated to rehab work and the sidelines.
“I’m very proud of that fact because, who knows, if I hadn’t put in that much work and people hadn’t believed in me and trusted in me, and I didn’t make this recovery, then who knows if they invite me back,” Grace said. “But that’s all said and done. We’ve done that work. That’s behind us now. So I’m definitely proud that I’m able to come to this point again with full health, being somebody who’s playing on the field. It makes it different. It makes it especially different to know I’m actually going to play in my senior game as well.”
Coach Brian Kelly lauded Grace's commitment to Notre Dame and returning to the field, too.
"It's not overlooked by anybody in the program, no player, no coach, no support staff, certainly not our medical staff," Kelly said. "When we reflect back on Jarrett Grace's time here, we'll say he impacted on program not only on the field but off the field in terms of his commitment, his resolve, his love for Notre Dame and wanting to get back on the field, and just for those that were out there while he was struggling through this injury and limping every day and stretch lines and trying to work through it.
"Because we remember what he looked like prior to, it's a pretty inspirational story for all those players and coaches and staff members that have been part of this."
There does exist a possibility, though, that Grace’s career won’t come to an end when Notre Dame’s season does. Grace can apply for a waiver to be granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA (the complete bylaw is below), though Notre Dame will first have to want him back and second, he’ll then have to be granted that additional year. But given Grace missed more than a year due to his injury — the second half of 2013, plus all of 2014 — and is, in 2015, only in his third season of playing, he could be granted that waiver.
Grace said he’d “definitely” be open to coming back for another year.
“I feel like a lot of time’s been taken away from me and I still have a lot more to offer to Notre Dame, to just my own career and to my teammates,” he said.
But if Saturday’s game is indeed his last time playing at Notre Dame Stadium, he’ll leave South Bend without any regrets.
“When it’s all said and done and the dust settles," Grace said, "I’m just going to sit there and be like, Wow, I am so lucky and so blessed that I’ve been able to share in all these great memories for all these years.”
[MORE: Sheldon Day owns his role, Notre Dame legacy in senior year]
The NCAA bylaws on granting a sixth year are pasted below:
22.214.171.124 Five-Year Rule Waiver. The Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement, or its designated committee, by a two-thirds majority of its members present and voting, may approve waivers of the five-year rule as it deems appropriate.
126.96.36.199.1 Waiver Criteria. A waiver of the five-year period of eligibility is designed to provide a student- athlete with the opportunity to participate in four seasons of intercollegiate competition within a five-year period. This waiver may be granted, based upon objective evidence, for reasons that are beyond the control of the student-athlete or the institution, which deprive the student-athlete of the opportunity to participate for more than one season in his or her sport within the five-year period. The Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement reserves the right to review requests that do not meet the more-than-one-year criteria detailed in this bylaw for circumstances of extraordinary or extreme hardship. A student-athlete who has exhausted his or her five years of eligibility may continue to practice (but not compete) for a maximum of 30 consecutive calendar days, provided the student-athlete’s institution has submitted a waiver request. The student-athlete may not commence practice until the institution has filed such a request. Further, if such a request is denied prior to exhausting the 30-day practice period, the student-athlete must cease all practice activities upon the institution’s notification of the denial.