QB Will Grier’s jour­ney goes from dark place to home­town

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY SCOTT FOWLER [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Will Grier’s first prac­tice Fri­day morn­ing as a Carolina Pan­ther was rainy and un­re­mark­able.

What was re­mark­able, how­ever, is that Grier was there at all.

It wasn’t that many years ago that Grier was sit­ting along­side his dad and his other rel­a­tives in Sec­tion 229 at Bank of Amer­ica Stadium, cheer­ing for

Cam New­ton while wear­ing his Steve Smith jersey.

It wasn’t too long af­ter that when Grier was Pa­rade mag­a­zine’s na­tional player of the year in high school.

And it wasn’t too long af­ter that, ac­cord­ing to his fa­ther, Chad, that Grier was in such a “dark place” that “he didn’t know if he was ever go­ing to play foot­ball again.”

This sea­son, though, the Pan­thers’ third-round draft choice in 2019 (and fifth over­all QB se­lected) will back up New­ton on that very same field. Grier’s jour­ney from Davidson Day School to Florida to West Vir­ginia has turned one more sur­prise cor­ner, and now he finds it­self right back in the Char­lotte area again.

“I’m go­ing to work hard and be coach­able,” Grier vowed af­ter that first prac­tice Fri­day with rain­wa­ter drip­ping down his beard. “I think that’s im­por­tant. Fit into the sys­tem. Do what­ever it takes to help the Pan­thers win.”

While Grier’s life looks just about pic­ture-per­fect now — he will be play­ing foot­ball for his home­town NFL team, with a wife who is a for­mer NFL cheer­leader and their 2-yearold daugh­ter, Eloise, both await­ing him at their new home in Char­lotte’s Cotswold

area — it hasn’t al­ways been that way.

It was less than four years ago, in the fall of 2015, when Grier’s life crum­bled shortly af­ter he had led Florida to a 6-0 start and a top-10 na­tional rank­ing.

Grier failed an NCAA drug test then be­cause he took a per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing sub­stance called Li­gan­drol, which he had bought at a nutri­tion store. Grier said didn’t check with the Univer­sity of Florida’s ath­letic train­ers be­fore tak­ing the sub­stance, a costly mis­take he has owned up to re­peat­edly.

That pos­i­tive test meant he was sus­pended from NCAA com­pe­ti­tion for a year.

Al­though Grier thought about stay­ing in Florida, it didn’t work out. Chad Grier, a for­mer East Carolina quar­ter­back and a long­time high school foot­ball coach in the Caroli­nas, said then-Florida coach Jim McEl­wain made it clear through his ac­tions and words that Will would be bet­ter off trans­fer­ring.

“The short ver­sion is McEl­wain didn’t want him,” said the el­der Grier, who is now the head foot­ball coach for Ocean­side High in Mount Pleas­ant, S.C. “It was tough for Will to hear that. It was the first time in his life as an ath­lete where he re­ally felt un­wanted. That’s re­ally when he was kind of doubt­ing him­self.”

‘HE WENT TO A DARK PLACE’

Will Grier spent more than a year in foot­ball pur­ga­tory af­ter the sus­pen­sion.

“I learned a lot,” he said Fri­day of that pe­riod. “I grew up a lot. But it was all kind of my jour­ney in grow­ing and ma­tur­ing, and it got me to where I am to­day.”

Grier’s par­ents di­vorced when he was young. His fa­ther coached him for the ma­jor­ity of his life un­til col­lege (most no­tably, in his na­tional record-set­ting, 837-yard, 10touch­down per­for­mance for Davidson Day dur­ing a 10480 play­off win in 2012).

Chad Grier said he still re­grets not help­ing his son more dur­ing the time im­me­di­ately af­ter the sus­pen­sion, say­ing he “grossly un­der­es­ti­mated” the im­pact it had on Will.

“It was dev­as­tat­ing,” Chad Grier said. “And I didn’t re­al­ize this was go­ing on. I’d say, “Will, how are you do­ing?’ He’d say, ‘I’m good,’ and I be­lieved him. That was a fail­ure on me, as a par­ent. I should have rec­og­nized that, lit­er­ally in a mat­ter of hours, his whole world was taken away from him. … He went to a dark place.”

Dur­ing his sus­pen­sion, Will Grier leaned on girl­friend Jeanne O’Neil, the for­mer Tampa Bay Bucs cheer­leader who would even­tu­ally be­come his wife. His fa­ther helped him re­nav­i­gate the re­cruit­ment process, as there were no short­age of suit­ors once it be­came ap­par­ent that Grier would trans­fer. Ohio State and Ur­ban Meyer came close to get­ting him, but West Vir­ginia and coach Dana Hol­gorsen’s prostyle of­fense won out.

Grier had two ex­cel­lent years for the Moun­taineers. He picked up the nick­name “Touch­down Je­sus” in 2017, when his hair was long, and ended up throw­ing a to­tal of 71 touch­down passes and fin­ish­ing fourth in the Heis­man Tro­phy vot­ing in 2018.

Al­though his younger broth­ers Nash and Hayes sur­passed him for sev­eral years in pub­lic­ity due to their sta­tus as so­cial-me­dia stars, older brother Will made a lot of headlines him­self — the good kind — his last two years in Morgantown.

4 OTHER QBS GO FIRST

For the draft, the Grier fam­ily gath­ered three miles away from the stadium at the house of Will’s un­cle. On Thurs­day night, Chad Grier said, the fam­ily “thought it was kind of 50-50” as to whether Will would be drafted in the first round.

He wasn’t. Ok­la­homa quar­ter­back Kyler Mur­ray (No. 1, to Ari­zona), Duke quar­ter­back Daniel Jones (No. 6, to the New York Giants) and Ohio State quar­ter­back Dwayne Hask­ins (No. 15, to Washington) were the three first-round QBs. Some draft­niks ques­tioned Grier’s arm strength, al­though he says he never has.

In the sec­ond round, only one quar­ter­back (Mis­souri’s Drew Lock at No. 42 to Denver) was taken. Carolina at No. 100 and New Eng­land at No. 101 were the last re­al­is­tic shots in the third round. If that didn’t hap­pen, “It was go­ing to be time to wait un­til Satur­day (for rounds 4-7) and or­der up some more bar­be­cue,” Chad Grier said.

But the Pan­thers chose Grier, mark­ing the first time they had used a draft choice on a quar­ter­back since pick­ing New­ton No. 1 over­all in 2011 (when Grier was a high school fresh­man).

“This is about depth and bring­ing in young guys and de­vel­op­ing young guys,” Pan­thers gen­eral man­ager Marty Hur­ney said af­ter Grier was drafted. “This has noth­ing to do with Cam New­ton. Cam New­ton is our start­ing quar­ter­back and fran­chise quar­ter­back.”

A ‘POS­I­TIVE’ COL­LAB­O­RA­TION

Will Grier is be­ing very care­ful not to rat­tle any cages in his first months on the job. He gets that New­ton re­mains the man in Char­lotte — al­though New­ton is also com­ing off Jan­uary shoul­der surgery. Grier has said at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity he is just here to learn and to help Carolina win.

At 24, Grier is old for a rookie but young enough that he and his Davidson Day team­mates played in New­ton’s 7-on-7 tour­na­ment in Char­lotte when Grier was still in high school (Davidson Day won it that year).

“Will has texted with Cam al­ready,” Chad Grier said. “The thing about Will is that when he was at West Vir­ginia and had to sit out (dur­ing the NCAA-man­dated sus­pen­sion), a lot of peo­ple don’t re­al­ize that Will was the scout team MVP that year, as cho­sen by the de­fense.”

Con­tin­ued Chad Grier: “Of course he wants to play, to con­trib­ute. But Cam’s an NFL MVP. Cam’s a guy that Will was watch­ing and pulling for while sit­ting in the stands. Cam’s a spe­cial tal­ent. He does things that re­ally not many peo­ple in the world can do. … I think what Will is go­ing to try to do is push Cam in a pos­i­tive, col­lab­o­ra­tive way.”

At the least, Grier’s pres­ence will make the pre­sea­son games a lot more in­ter­est­ing. At the most, if New­ton gets re-in­jured he could be called upon to di­rect the team in the most cru­cial games of 2019.

“I’m not try­ing to prove any­thing,” Grier said. “I’m just here with the Pan­thers, try­ing to help them win.

DAVID T. FOS­TER III dt­fos­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Pan­thers rookie Will Grier throws through pour­ing rain dur­ing his first ses­sion of rookie camp Fri­day in Char­lotte.

DAVID T. FOS­TER III dt­fos­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Will Grier gets in­struc­tions from quar­ter­backs coach Scott Turner dur­ing rookie mini­camp Fri­day. Grier, 24, was the Pan­thers’ third-round draft pick in April and the fifth over­all quar­ter­back taken.

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