From ash to hellfire

Grady Jarrett’s search for validation started before he ever hit the field with the Atlanta Falcons

Bob Levey/Getty Images

Bob Levey/Getty Images

By Max E. Marcovitch
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Elisha and Grady Jarrett sat in lawn chairs at the base of their driveway, surveying the destroyed memories and memorabilia, as fire marshals barred them from going back in the house.

They were stunned as 11 p.m. became midnight and midnight turned to 4 a.m. 

Elisha, Grady’s mother, had hosted what she hoped would be a celebration of her son’s selection in the 2015 NFL Draft. Instead, a fire began in the upper level of their Conyers home and spread quickly. Grady carried Elisha out of the house. All guests, including family, friends and peers, escaped unscathed. 

Earlier that night, Jarrett had expected to be taken late in the first round or early in the second of the draft. Elisha still has a picture of a mock draft that predicted Jarrett, a defensive lineman from Clemson, to the Detroit Lions with the 22nd overall selection. A Michigan native, Elisha imagined moving back home. 

Instead, as Jarrett went undrafted on the first day, Elisha could do nothing but watch as much of her home was engulfed in flame. Sitting in that driveway after a night that was memorable for all the wrong reasons, perspective was not hard to find.

“We were thinking how humbled we are, in that this was supposed to be such an amazing time, and something like this happens,” Elisha told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It puts things in perspective, and makes you realize and appreciate life and to take advantage of today.”

On that driveway, as night turned to morning, Jarrett was just grateful for one person.

“It was just so cloudy during that moment,” Jarrett said in reflection. “I couldn’t make it through a situation like that if I didn’t have my mom with me.”

Family surveys the fire damage the Elisha Jarrett's home in Conyers. (Special to the AJC)

Family surveys fire damage. (Special to AJC)

Some of Grady Jarrett's soot-covered college and high school jerseys were rescued from the fire. (Special to the AJC)

Grady Jarrett's soot-covered jerseys after fire. (Special to AJC)

The next day, picking up the pieces, Elisha and Grady went to watch the second of the NFL’s three-day draft at Elisha’s niece’s house. As selections continued without his name being called, Jarrett couldn’t hold back anymore.

“(Grady) laid in the floor, tears were streaming down his eyes — which, of course, hurt me to death,” Elisha said. “But I just had to keep reminding him, you know, that first of all this isn’t over, and you just need an opportunity.”

On a premonition, Elisha grabbed a piece of paper, scribbled “Falcons, pick 105,” rolled it up, and placed it in Jarrett’s pocket. 

Pick No. 105 came and went. Then the Falcons traded up to the first pick of the fifth round to take Jarrett at No. 137 overall. He still has the note.

Jarrett was used to rejection by then. He had been told no more than most in a short lifetime, been overlooked at every level, learned to fend for himself. And yet, his slip in the draft was still a shock.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney tried to warn him beforehand. 

“I kinda prepared him for that,” Swinney told the AJC last week. “I said, ‘Grady, you’re not going to get drafted high.’ ”

Jarrett didn’t listen. No, this time was going to be different, he thought.

“Through the draft process, I’m hearing late first round, early second round,” he said. “Those are the people that’s like, in my eyes, are chosen. They got favored. In the moment, me feeling like I’m finally about to get some confirmation, somebody’s about to choose me first. It didn’t happen.”

Still, even after losing so much, Jarrett had his opportunity.

His house reduced to ash, his career path in fumes, Jarrett’s soul burned with the rage of hellfire.

Early in his senior year of high school, Jarrett was invited to participate in a recruiting camp at Clemson. The Tigers coaching staff had maintained consistent communication, but, to Jarrett, the interest seemed tepid at best. It was, until a day and a performance that forever altered the way Swinney approaches recruiting.

Before they left, Elisha offered an ultimatum. It was now or never.

“We’re about to go up here, but this is our last time going up here,” Elisha recalled telling her son. “(If) they don’t want to do something, whatever.”

It was getting to the latter stage of the recruitment process, when decisions needed to be made. For Jarrett, the process had amounted to a series of rejections and disappointment at every turn. 

He knew why. That didn’t make it any easier to accept.

“He always worried about his height,” said Jessie Tuggle, Jarrett’s biological father. “He knew he had the size, he always worried about his height. He used to talk to me all the time, ‘Man, I hope I grow three more inches.’ ”

Those three inches never came. Tuggle, a 5-foot-11, five-time Pro Bowl linebacker with the Falcons, knew a thing or two about maximizing your size. As Jarrett began to ascend in football, Tuggle saw his son take on a similar work ethic.

Jarrett’s freshman year of high school, Rockdale hired a new coach, one who came with a no-frills policy.

“The first thing this coach says is, ‘I don’t start freshmen,’ ” Elisha recalls. “‘I don’t want no mama, no daddy, no granddaddy.’ I remember this like it was yesterday.”

Elisha shared a knowing glance with her son. She knew he would change the coach's mind. Five games — five losses — into the season, Jarrett was the starting defensive tackle at Rockdale. He never relinquished the role.

“He just made play after play when we had to have it,” said Mike Etheridge, the coach who took over at Rockdale after Jarrett’s freshman season. “When it got down to the nut-and-gut time, he was making big plays.”

Jarrett was a two-time all-state selection, racking up 63 tackles for loss and 27.5 sacks in his last two high school seasons. Despite all that, Jarrett was a mere afterthought in high-end Division-I recruiting spheres. He was ranked 1,161st nationally, 90th in the state, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. 

“I think if he would’ve been 6-3 or 6-4, he would’ve been a 5-star. Ain’t no doubt about it,” Tuggle said. “Kids get caught up in star ratings. He was caught up he wasn’t ranked higher.”

The interest from Georgia, his home state school, was cursory at best, flippant at worst. Then-defensive coordinator Todd Grantham visited Jarrett’s home and school and maintained sporadic conversation. Then someone else came across their radar, and Jarrett heard nothing. Ultimately, Georgia offered eight defensive tackles in the 2011 class; Grady Jarrett was not one.

There’s some dissent among Jarrett’s closest confidants in how interested he was in Georgia. There’s unanimity, in retrospect, that Georgia’s relative disinterest was a blessing in disguise.

At the time, though, there was only frustration.

“I would go to these (recruiting) camps and dominate,” Jarrett said, “and then they would be like ‘Well, how tall are you?’ or something like that. Nobody wanted a shorter guy like me.

“I remember going to a South Carolina camp and, like, having like a beast day and going hard. And then, at the end of the day, ‘We like you, but you’re too short.’ I remember getting emotional after that. … It was a lot of no’s and people not believing.”

With his mother’s now-or-never decree in mind, Jarrett strolled up to Clemson for camp that fateful day, eager to make it now.

Swinney hadn’t planned to offer Jarrett that day. He wanted someone taller. He was short on scholarships. Jarrett had heard it all before.

“To this day it was one of the most unbelievable camp performances I had ever seen,” Swinney said. “I just couldn’t deny what my eyes were seeing. Here was a kid who was so relentless. I mean, nobody could block him.”

For every rep another recruit took, Grady took three. At a camp of hungry recruits, Grady was the hungriest. By a mile.

“I just made the call,” Swinney said. “I hadn’t seen anybody come through this camp that year with his heart, his desire, his work ethic. … I’m like, ‘This one right here, I know we’re looking for a bigger guy and this and that. This guy, he may only be 6-foot, whatever he is, but man he’s 6-foot-6, 290 in his heart.’ ”

“Five-star guys, four-star guys,” Jarrett said, with a noticeable distaste for those very words, “it didn’t matter who it was. Guys that had signed, whatever, I was just whoopin’ them. 

“That one day, I can say was a pivotal moment in my entire life.”

Swinney expressed his amazement to his staff. He decided they had to find a scholarship. Swinney told his assistants that if Jarrett failed, he would take full responsibility. 

Of course, Jarrett did anything but fail. At camp that day, Jarrett cracked open the door. In the next four years, he busted down that door and stomped on it.

In those four seasons at Clemson, Jarrett racked up 28.5 tackles for loss. He was named defensive captain before his junior season, and helped lift the Swinney era to the level of national prominence it has now. Each year Grady was at Clemson, the team won at least 10 games.

“He was exactly what I saw in that camp for four years,” Swinney said. “Just so disruptive, and as good a player as I’ve ever been around. Just a pure football player. In fact, I tell people all the time, if somebody told me I could start my whole program from scratch and I could draft my players, and my pool to draft from would be all my players I’ve had in my nine years as a head coach, he would be in the top three. And there’s no question about it.”

But the recruiting process calloused Grady to external expectation. Though he’s used to it by now, there is a degree to which he resents having to prove himself at every step of the path. Football personnel — at all levels — can be too smart for their own good, NFL and college alike. 

“Can’t see the forest through the trees sometimes,” Swinney said.

During the draft process, Swinney met with Dan Quinn and other Falcons personnel to discuss Vic Beasley, who the Falcons were highly considering taking (and did) eighth overall that year.

“Y’all are going to really, really, really like Vic Beasley. They were talking about taking Vic early on and I said, Vic is, he’s a franchise player, he’s an elite freak athlete, just unbelievable,” Swinney recalled, before slipping in what he really wanted to say.

“But you’re going to looooovvvveee Grady Jarrett. Grady Jarrett is gonna change your locker room, he’s gonna change the mentality of your defense. He’s gonna demand excellence from everybody around him. He’s gonna impact the community. 

“That’s who he is.”

“(Swinney) believed in me,” Jarrett said. “He stood on the table for me.”

He paused.

“I ain’t prove him wrong.”

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney hugs Grady Jarrett following the Tigers', 40-6, win over Oklahoma Dec. 29, 2014, at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney hugs Grady Jarrett at his final college football game. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Defensive lineman Grady Jarrett runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015, in Indianapolis. Jarrett had been projected as a first- or second-round pick. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Grady Jarrett runs a drill at the 2015 NFL football scouting combine. (David J. Phillip/AP)

With rain pouring down after a day of training camp in Flowery Branch, Jarrett, 25, sits on a bench overlooking the field and puts his feet up. Literally, but never figuratively.

On the cusp of NFL stardom in his fourth season and dubbed next in line for a contract extension, Jarrett says, “It did take me working harder than others to have success.

“You know how to appreciate good times because you’ve been through bad, frustrating times,” he continues. “You just use the losses and the hardships to push you forward, make you go harder.”

Jarrett doesn’t hold grudges, his mother says. Coaches come up to him all the time telling him they were trying to recruit him, that they really wanted him, that circumstances prohibited it.

Elisha tells a story of Clemson’s season opener against Georgia in 2013 with fond recollection. Jarrett tore his labrum early in the game. He played through it and notched six tackles in the Tigers’ 38-35 win — their first victory over the Bulldogs since 1990.

No grudges?

“He can’t help but say look at me now,” she adds.

Before each year, Jarrett writes down personal and team goals and keeps them sealed away, occasionally peering back when he needs to. He won’t say what those are for the 2018 season. But by putting them on paper, his intended path is inescapable.

As for the contract extension — Jarrett’s rookie deal will expire after this season — he won’t get into the details. Public perception has characterized a deal as more an inevitability than a debate.

If it does come to fruition, Jarrett would be receiving unconditional validation for the first time in his football life. He insists that he doesn’t need it, that the only approval he needs is from his family, his teammates and himself.

And yet as the conversation progresses there are little hints of resentment — cracks in the facade. He points out that the media picked him just third team All-ACC after a junior season he described as “a monster year.” He can still name players who were ranked higher than him out of high school or selected higher in the draft. Every single person interviewed for this story, including Jarrett, independently volunteered that he has a lingering chip on his shoulder. That’s real.

His distrust of anything and anyone outside of his control is understandable, if still confounding. 

He was named All-State twice in high school, got the Division-I scholarship, became a team captain, got drafted, and earned a role as an NFL starter. Bleacher Report ranked him the fourth best defensive tackle in the NFL last season. Hell, he sacked Tom Brady three times in a Super Bowl.

He’s made it. 

So where to now?

“He wants to be the best,” Swinney said, cutting off the question before finished. “He doesn’t have to prove now he can make it to the NFL. He doesn’t have to prove anymore that he’s good enough to play Division-I at the highest level in college. He doesn’t have to prove he could be a starter in the NFL. What he has to prove is that he can be the best. 

“To leave a legacy that when people think about great D-tackles, they think about Grady Jarrett.”

That grand pronouncement may seem outlandish, and it probably is. But Jarrett’s done hearing about what is or isn’t realistic.

“That triumph, that just shows that you can’t let people put limitations on you ever,” he says. “You just gotta keep fighting and clawing, and using it as motivation forever.”

About the author

Max Marcovitch, a summer intern at the AJC, is a rising junior at the University of Michigan, where he works on the student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, as a senior sports editor and football beat writer. He grew up in Atlanta and attended the Paideia School for high school. He hopes to continue pursuing his passion for writing and for sports as long as it will take him.

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