There was no doubt in Jarrett Grace’s mind. He was injured - badly - without the ability to lift himself up and remove himself from the AT&T Stadium turf.
“I knew it was broken,” said the junior linebacker, who suffered a broken fibula and tibia in Notre Dame’s victory over Arizona State in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 5.
“I was laying on the ground, tapping my helmet, which is what we do when we need a breather. I was like, ‘Coach, I don’t think I can get up. I need to sit out at least a couple plays.’”
Make that months. Friday night following the 93rd Notre Dame Football Awards Ceremony - where Grace was presented the prestigious Rockne Student-Athlete Award - the junior with two years of eligibility remaining still needs a crutch under his left arm to get around. He’s put his scooter away, which is a step forward, but he’s still in the early stages of his recovery with a long road ahead.
“It’s been intensive, every day, sometimes multiple times a day,” said Grace of his rehab, now about 10 weeks removed from the catastrophic injury. “I’m attacking it, trying to get back as soon as possible, yet at the same time not pushing it too far. That bone has taken a while to heal because it was so severe.”
Grace said he didn’t spend much time looking at the x-rays, which he described as “lots of pieces.”
“I have pictures. It’s bad. I don’t like looking at it,” Grace said. “Honestly, at the time, I was a little bit out of it when I was going through it. It was weird. When I look back on it now, I can’t believe that happened. It makes you feel a little vulnerable, like you have a weakness in your body.”
Grace admits that he has a “mental hurdle” to clear before feels like a complete football player again. He’s done plenty of upper-body work in the weight room while following a strict lower body recovery plan.
“In terms of my leg strength, I’m bending now, I’m working it out a little bit,” Grace said. “When I get just a little more strength, I’ll be able to walk like normal.”
By spring practice, Grace expects to be running. He’ll have about six months after that to “return to normal.”
“Springtime is when I expect to start running again, when I expect to feel athletic again and not like a tripod,” the 6-foot-2 ½, 253-pounder laughed.
The injury has provided Grace with a unique perspective after his performance on the field trended strongly upward through the first half of the 2013 season. Grace beat out veteran Dan Fox for the starting Mike linebacker spot and was emerging as one of Notre Dame’s best and most consistent defensive players when the injury occurred.
“It was almost like a coach’s perspective, just seeing things differently because so often, yeah, you watch film after the game, but I’m watching it live, thinking of the play calls, all of that stuff,” said Grace, who commiserated with Danny Spond, whose season/career came to a close due to migraine issues.
“I was trying to get in Coach (Bob Diaco’s) head like, ‘Why is he doing this? Why is that happening?’ At the same time, I was able to watch the passion that my teammates have, which is something you can’t always appreciate when you’re in there mixing it up.”
Grace - who finished his seven-game/three-start season with 41 tackles, which still ranks ninth on the squad - was pleased with the progress he made in his first season of full-time duty.
“It was a good year,” Grace said. “I was learning with every play. I made my fair share of mistakes, but I was building confidence. I was feeling good. I think that’s going to just keep rolling, and that’s the same for the whole team.
“We had a lot of learning this year. We’re going to go out with a bang. We’re going to beat Rutgers and in terms of next year, it’s going to be 100 percent locked in.”
Upbeat by nature, Grace has a positive frame of mind as he takes the next step in his rehabilitation.
“You get down a little because it’s like, ‘What the heck?’ and ‘Why?’” Grace said. “You dream about playing. You dream about running around. Then you wake up and roll out of bed and it’s like, ‘Oh, wait, I can’t do this.’ That took a while to get used to.
“As soon as I’m able to get that strength back, as soon as I’m squatting again, I’ll be fine. I’m going to be even better than before.”
Better than before?
“I’ll be better, faster, stronger,” said a determined Grace. “No doubt about it.”