SOUTH BEND — No one is more excited about playing in the Notre Dame spring game on Saturday than middle linebacker Jarrett Grace.
There was a time when the 6-foot-3, 253-pound graduate student wondered if he'd ever walk normally again, much less play football. Now he is competing for a starting job.
"To me it is all just pure joy and excitement, just to be out there and have that opportunity again," he said. "Trying to soak it all in again because for so long I was just watching these guys play. A lot of them are young so they never had the chance to play with me, so I'm trying to show them the way it needs to be done with effort, excitement, and enthusiasm."
Grace was making his third start and leading the team in tackles when he shattered his right leg in four places against Arizona State two seasons ago on Oct. 5, 2013. His first instinct was to try to walk it off. When he couldn't do that, he began thinking he'd be ready to play the next week.
He quickly found out the injury was far more serious than he first thought. He recalls seeing the X-ray and thinking: "Oh, that thing is shattered." He underwent surgery to have a rod inserted into his leg and tried to walk on it several days later as instructed to by a doctor.
"I'm like, 'Holy cow, this doesn't feel as good as you say it should,'" Grace said.
He expected to be back on the practice field last spring. Instead, he was still walking with a severe limp and using a crutch. He admits there were times he wondered whether he'd ever play again and whether he would always walk with a limp.
"You rely on your faith, your family, your support system and then you kind of realize, it's not that bad," he said.
When doctors told him he needed another surgery last March to have a piece of his hipbone implanted in his leg and another rod inserted, he refused to view it as a setback. Grace began feeling better in weeks, although recovery was still months away.
The turning point came during winter workouts when he got stronger rapidly. He went from having a 13-inch vertical jump in November to a 30-inch jump in February.
"That was a psychological boost as well, just because, 'I can do this again,'" Grace said. "Things just started clicking. I was running fast and being explosive."
Grace said he's not quite back to 100 percent, but he's close. He feels like his old self running around.
Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder admits he had doubts about whether Grace would ever play football again. But he said Grace always kept working to learn the new defense VanGorder installed last season.
"All he did was sit there and study, study, study," VanGorder said. "He knows our defense. He's way ahead of guys that have played because of that. He's an amazing guy."
Coach Brian Kelly agreed.
"You always want your best players to be your best leaders," Kelly said. "When it's a guy like Jarrett who carries so much respect from everybody that, as coaches, we can go to him and ask him to do a lot of the work for us. So he makes our job easy."
Grace will be competing for a starting job with Nyles Morgan and Joe Schmidt, who is still recovering from a fractured and dislocated left ankle he sustained against Navy on Nov. 2. Schmidt was voted most valuable player by his teammates last season and Morgan is a former five-star recruit who finished seventh on the team in tackles with 47 even though he only started four games.
Grace isn't worried about the competition right now.
"Whatever my role is come the season, I'm just going to embrace that and just give it all I've got," Grace said. "This is a new chance for me, a new opportunity. For me to give anything less than full effort and excitement. That's not what Notre Dame deserves, that's not what my teammates deserve. They supported me for so long so I'm going to give back to them."