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For his latest book, "Overtime," John U. Bacon spent the 2018 college football season with Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines. John brings us this story from his book.
Leon Newsome had been an All-Ivy League football player at Princeton, but Leon and his wife, Kim, did not want their oldest son, Grant, to play football.
But when Grant went away to The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, he couldn’t resist joining the freshman football team. By his sophomore year, Grant started on the varsity. He was so good that his coach had a warning for Leon and Kim.
"He sat us down, and he said to us, 'If Grant wants to do this, he's going to play college football,' " Kim recalls. "And I was floored, because that was not a conversation I expected to be having when he started playing freshman football in ninth grade."
Junior year, Grant received offers from 34 schools, including every Ivy League team and most of the nation’s top-20 programs.
The recruiting experience was a whirlwind for Grant and for his parents. In the spring of his junior year, the Newsomes drove to Penn State for a recruiting visit and stopped for gas.
"So we pull into this Sheetz, about 90 miles away from Happy Valley," Grant says. "And I'm walking into the bathroom. My dad's behind me, and there's a man who's coming out. And he looks at me and goes, 'Grant Newsome?' I said, 'Yes?' And he said, 'You know, I'm a huge fan. I really hope you come to Penn State. You know, we'd love to have you.' And then — I kid you not — before we left the Sheetz, there was another fan who came up and said, 'Grant Newsome, you know, we really need you on the offensive line.' "
"It was weird that he couldn’t go to the bathroom," Leon says. "But also just tells you how fanatical the fan base is at some of these schools."
'If Football Goes Away ... Where Do You Want To Be?'
When Grant and his parents visited Penn State again, Grant went away thoroughly impressed by the coaching staff and the football program.
"And I left that Penn State visit thinking I was going to be a Nittany Lion," Grant says.
"We were driving home, and I thought, 'Well, it's game over,' " Kim says.
But Grant had one more visit planned: the University of Michigan. Unlike Penn State, Michigan was headed for a rare losing season. But the Newsomes still liked everything else about the town, the campus and the academics. After two weeks of deliberating ...
"I still couldn't decide," Grant says, "and I remember it vividly: I'm sitting in our living room, and my mom says, 'Hey, what are you thinking?' And I said, 'I have no idea, Mom. I'm torn between these two schools. It'd be a flip of a coin at this point.' "
"And I said, 'Well, take football out of it,' " Kim says. " 'If football goes away — 'cause nothing in this life is guaranteed — where do you want to be?' "
"I said, 'Well, it's no question: It's Michigan,' " Grant recalls. "And she said, 'There's your answer.' And that's why I ended up at the University of Michigan."
Shortly after Grant made his decision, Michigan fired the entire coaching staff and hired Jim Harbaugh, fresh from the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. A few days later, Harbaugh called Grant.
"He introduces himself, and he says, 'Do you have any questions for me?' And I said, 'I guess my only question is, you know, "Do you guys still want me?" ' And he said, 'You know, if you're loyal to me, if you're loyal to Michigan, we're loyal to you.' And that was all I needed to hear."
Grant assumed he wouldn’t play until his sophomore season to save a year of eligibility. But, during a team meeting before Michigan’s eighth game, Coach Harbaugh pointed right to him.
"You know, kind of just a passing comment in the meeting, says, 'Grant, be ready. You're playing this week,' " Grant says. "And I just looked around and was aghast. Pointed at myself, saying, 'Me? Grant Newsome? Me?' "
Grant played well. So well that just one year later, he was not only starting at left tackle — the blind side — he was already being pegged as a future NFL star.
In the fifth game of the 2016 season, the fourth-ranked Wolverines took on the eighth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers and a future All-American linebacker named T.J. Watt.
"So I knew I had my work cut out for me," Grant says. "But we were playing well — I believe it was 7-0 at that point. [I had] been holding my own, blocking him pretty well. So I was feeling good. I was feeling like we had the game where we wanted it."
And then the coaches called a play called "99 Truck," in which the quarterback pitches the ball to the running back. He runs behind Grant, who clears the way by diving at the defender’s legs — a maneuver called "cutting," as in, cutting him down.
But, right before the snap, Grant had a premonition.
"I get this voice inside my head, and — I kid you not, it's never happened to me ever again — it's my voice, and it says, 'If you don't cut him on this play, he's gonna cut you,' " Grant recalls. "So the ball's snapped and, you know, something about it just didn't feel right.
"And I remember thinking, you know — as I'm running towards this defender — 'There's not enough room for me to cut.' If I cut, I'm just going to clog the hole, and it's going to be a three-yard gain. There's going to be nowhere for the running back to go.
"And this is obviously happening in split seconds, so I make the decision, I said, 'I'm going to stay up.' "
Grant was essentially going to take one for the team.
"Essentially," Grant says. "I'm gonna stay up and try to block him and minimize the amount of bodies on the ground that are gonna be occupying this hole the running back needs to run through. And the last thing I remember was making that decision to stay up. And I see him start to cut. And that's the last thing I remember before I'm on the ground."
That was probably for the best. The defender had gone head first straight into Grant’s right knee, with a force so great it shoved Grant’s knee 60-degrees — in the wrong direction.
Grant crumpled to the ground, landing on his stomach.
"And I remember trying to crawl," Grant says. "And then one of my teammates came and said, 'Grant, you've got to get up.' I remember saying, 'I'm trying.' And it just — it didn't feel like — my body wouldn't let me get up. The training staff and our team doctors and Coach Harbaugh come out, and they say, 'All right, can you turn over for us?' And I turn over and I feel my knee pop.
"You can hear it. So I think I just tore my ACL turning over. I say, 'I just tore my f---ing ACL turning over.' So, with heavy assistance, I walk off the field. And, right before the tunnel, this fact hits me that my mom is in attendance. And I know she's probably sobbing at this point already.
"So I turn, and I try to give a thumbs up towards the section I know they're sitting in — say, 'Hey, look, I'm fine. You know, even if it's a torn ACL, I'm fine. We'll be able to get through this.' "
'Am I Gonna Have A Leg When This Is Done?'
Grant and the medical staff went to the team’s emergency room under the stands, and were soon joined by Leon, Kim and Grant’s two younger brothers.
"And it didn't seem like he was in a ton of pain," Kim recalls. "He was sitting up, asking if he could go back out and watch the rest of the game from the sidelines. And they said, 'Well, we're gonna hold on for a little bit.' "
"And they initially thought it may just be a sprained MCL," Grant says. "So, at this point, I’m thinking, 'Whoa.' I just went from thinking I tore my ACL to now it's a sprain. I was doing the math at this point. I’m thinking, 'I'll be back for Michigan State. I'll be back for Ohio State, certainly.' So, at this point, I'm pretty overjoyed."
But at the end of the exam, the doctors asked Grant if he had any tingling or numbness in his toes.
"I said, 'Well, yeah, I have a lot of numbness in my toes. But I'm sure that's probably normal,' " Grant recalls.
It was not normal. The tingling indicated the main artery which delivers blood to his leg had been damaged.
"And they both looked at each other and say, 'Yeah, we're going to take you to the hospital for a few tests,' " Grant says.
"And then, very quickly, we were getting in an ambulance and going to the hospital," Kim says.
Grant underwent X-rays, CT scans and an MRI, trying to find the vascular injury.
"After each test, no one will tell me the results," Grant remembers. "You kinda get this sinking feeling like, 'Something isn't right here.' And, keep in mind, my family and I are watching the Wisconsin-Michigan game from the room, on TV, in the Emergency Department. So we're watching this, we're following, we're cheering. The nurses are trying to shush us because we're cheering too loud.
"And not five minutes after the game ends, Dr. Matt Corriere, who ended up being my vascular surgeon, comes into the room. And he puts what’s called a Doppler, which is a machine that kind of amplifies the sound of your blood pumping — he puts that on my toes, listens for maybe 10 seconds at most and says, 'All right, Grant. We're going to take you into emergency surgery. The lower part of your leg is getting 50% of the blood it needs to survive.'
"And I just look at him and was like, 'What?' I had no idea we were talking about something this serious. I couldn't even imagine it, even being at the hospital. And so I kind of look at him and look at my family. And the only words I can think to formulate are, 'Am I gonna have a leg when this is done?' And, the last thing I remember, he's saying, 'We're going to try our best.' "
The surgery was supposed to last four hours. Kim, Leon and Grant’s brothers waited and waited and waited.
"It was seven hours," Leon recalls. "It felt like an eternity."
Dr. Corriere finally emerged and told the family ...
"They were able to save his leg, and they thought the surgery was successful," Leon says.
Doctors told the Newsomes if they had operated just 15 minutes later, Grant might have lost his leg. His mom was right: Football could be taken away in an instant.
In the days that followed, doctors removed a large chunk of Grant's lower right calf muscle, which had already turned black from lack of blood flow, and bolted a metal rod to his thigh and shin bones to immobilize his knee. Grant recovered in the hospital for more than a month.
"The highlight of my day was moving the two feet to the chair that was in the hospital room," Grant says.
Grant stayed in school and started rehab.
"My right thigh was the size of my left calf," Grant recalls. "I took my second first steps of my life two months after the injury. And those first steps were — it was kinda like the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. It was a very short flight."
'Is What I'm Trying To Do Worth It?'
Thanks to a lot of hard work and a lot of help — with the coaches and trainers visiting every night for weeks — after six months, Grant could jog again. Six months after that, he could run full speed. He was determined to return to the team. The idea secretly terrified his parents, but they supported him.
Almost two years after the injury, in August of 2018, Grant was practicing with the team again.
"I was able to do all of the team conditioning, essentially, and I feel good," he remembers. "I essentially do everything we could do, just without pads on and without contact."
But at practice a few days later ...
"I was just watching an offensive lineman and a defensive lineman go head to head on a blocking drill, and it just hit me, like, 'You don't have this anymore,' " Grant recalls. "It was just this epiphany moment of, 'Is what I'm trying to do worth it?' "
After practice ended, Grant paced the length of the grass field.
"Finally work up the courage to call my dad and say, 'Hey, you know, I think I'm gonna hang it up. I think it's time,' " Grant recalls.
Leon told Grant that, if he was sure about his decision, he would support it.
"So I hang up with him, probably pacing another two miles on that field back and forth, and then finally call my mom," Grant says. "My mom’s a crier, so I call her and tell her. And I just hear 30 seconds of silence on the phone."
"I just wanted my son to be OK," Kim says. "And I was worried about who his people were going to be now, if he didn't have his team."
But Grant still had his people. He still had his team.
Harbaugh assured Grant he’d keep his scholarship and a role in the program. Grant is now helping the tight ends, analyzing film, and sending in plays, while getting his master’s degree from Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy.
"Coach Harbaugh and the rest of the Michigan family embraced him and continued to embrace him in a way that I will be forever grateful for," Kim says.
'Was It All Worth It?'
So was it all worth it?
"That is the million-dollar question, as they say," Grant says. "My answer is, 'Yes.' Emphatically, 'Yes.' You know, everyone likes to joke that Michigan got their money's worth with me. But I think I got all that and more from Michigan, and I'm really just extremely grateful."
"In some ways, I think everything happens for a reason," Kim says. "And I think this was to help him realize that he has what it takes to get through the tough times."
"I think it's made Grant stronger," Leon says. "It's made us stronger as parents. And so, I wouldn't change that for anything."
In my book, Leon said this: "I believe to the bottom of my heart that Grant will leave Michigan as well-prepared to face the world as any young man could be."
John U. Bacon is the author of "Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football."
This segment aired on December 7, 2019.
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