Dream Season Worth the Pain for Kansas State's Grant Gregory
Usually Manhattan, Kan., isn't the most obvious place where dreams come true. For Grant Gregory it proved the perfect location. Since 2004, Gregory had waited for an opportunity to be a starting college quarterback and contribute -- to really contribute -- in a game.
After spending 2004 at Indiana, Gregory transferred to South Florida in 2005. For the next three seasons he mostly watched from the sideline as starter Matt Grothe became the Big East's career total offense leader.
After the 2008 season, because of various injuries during his career, Gregory received a rare sixth season from the NCAA. Gregory already had decided if he got the extra season he would transfer from USF to another school so he could compete for the starting position. He chose Eastern Kentucky, but at the last minute Kansas State coach Bill Snyder called. Snyder made no promises, but said Gregory would get a fair shot in Manhattan so Gregory opted for K-State and a chance to start in the mighty Big 12 Conference.
Gregory's dream had finally come true. Or so he thought. Only this dream came with a wicked twist.
Upon arriving to Manhattan, Gregory was zipping passes to his new teammates during an informal June workout. It was a few months before the season opener and he had never felt better. On his second day, a blitzing cornerback hit his right arm as he released the football. Excruciating pain shot through his shoulder. Something did not feel right.
On Dec. 5 in Birmingham, Ala., Grant Gregory's right shoulder -- the one with the torn rotator cuff and torn labrum -- was operated on by Dr. James Andrews.
The surgery should have been performed back in June when Gregory injured his throwing shoulder. But that would have meant Gregory's dream would have ended even before it began.
So Gregory opted to delay the surgery until after the season. And the man played on.
He played his final season of college ball with a torn rotator cuff and torn labrum in his right shoulder, a slightly torn meniscus in his right knee (suffered in the season opener) along with playing his final 7 1/2 games with a dislocated left shoulder.
"Literally every day during two-a-days and during the season, I wondered if that was going to be the last day that I was able to throw," Gregory told FanHouse over lunch recently in Tampa, Fla. "I wondered if it would give out. The [team] doctor said it was basically holding on by a couple of threats and at any point it could go."
Only Kansas State's coaches and trainers, a few of his teammates and Gregory's family knew about the right shoulder injury. Only his family realized the extreme pain Gregory went through on a daily basis.
There were days the pain was so intense Gregory couldn't brush his teeth right-handed. When he tried, the pain knocked him to his knees. Lifting his right arm for a drink of water also was torture. Reaching with his right arm to change the radio in his car sometimes felt like his shoulder was being ripped off the sockets.
"There were some absolutely miserable days," Gregory said.
Gregory never complained. He also never missed one practice, never missed one workout -- although the strength coaches basically had to revise his weight room workouts for that of a one-armed man -- and never, ever didn't make every single throw in practice.
"That was one of the most proud parts about last season," Gregory said. "I did not miss a single rep in practice or games due to injury."
The worst part was warming up at the start of practice.
"I would bite my mouthpiece as hard as I could, I felt like my shoulder was tearing every time," Gregory said. "I would ask myself if I was going to make it through the day. Is it going to tear on the first time I throw it hard? Somehow it never did. I was lucky in that regard."
Lucky? At the start of practice, Gregory would warm up as far away from Snyder and the trainers so they wouldn't realize the pain he was in. Gregory feared if they really knew how bad it was, they would shut him down for the rest of the season.
"The first 10-15 throws each day were absolutely miserable," Gregory said. "After it loosened up slightly, it was a little bit better. I would go as far away from Coach [Snyder], bite my mouthpiece and just deal with it. I didn't want him to see how much it hurt. I didn't want them to know how bad it hurt. It wasn't going to help anything anyway."
Despite the injury, Gregory kept plugging away. He battled junior Carson Coffman for the starting quarterback position. Four days before the season opener against UMass, Snyder -- saying "it wasn't the easiest decision in the world" -- named Coffman the starter.
Once again, Gregory was relegated to being a backup. But he never gave up. He was still pursuing his dream.
Gregory has always been a workout freak in the weight room. On the practice field he was one of those cliché' 'first one to arrive, last one to leave' guys. But his bad throwing shoulder prohibited him from doing any extra work, which ate at Gregory.
"It was very frustrating because I love lifting weights. I couldn't do anything extra," Gregory said. "I could barely lift. I couldn't stay and throw extra. I couldn't work on extra routes. I couldn't do any of that."
With Coffman at the starter, the Wildcats started 2-2. But Snyder knew his team needed a spark entering the Big 12 opener against Iowa State.
About 90 minutes before kickoff in the locker room at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, Gregory was told he would make his first start in six seasons. His first start since the final game of his senior year at Athens (Ohio) High School. He immediately remembered that Senior Night performance in 2003, a 35-25 victory against Point Pleasant (W.Va.) High when he went 10-for-15 for 175 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Gregory's first start in six years couldn't have started any better. After an Iowa State punt, Kansas State's first possession with Gregory at quarterback resulted in an 89-yard touchdown drive capped, fittingly enough, by Gregory's option around right end for a 2-yard touchdown run.
Gregory's first start, however, nearly ended in the third quarter when his left shoulder was slammed into the turf. Gregory, with a torn rotator cuff and labrum in his right shoulder, now had a dislocated left shoulder.
"I got hit and I could feel it pop completely out," Gregory said. "I was like, 'I can't freaking believe this. You can't be serious.' This was my first start and my shoulder just popped out. I'm lying on the ground. I didn't want anyone to see that I was hurt. I got up and it popped back in."
Not surprisingly, Gregory remained in the game. He threw two fourth quarter TD passes to lead K-State to a come-from-behind 24-23 victory. On the winning 54-yard TD pass, Gregory appeared to be sacked for a huge loss, but escaped and hit Brandon Banks with 5:34 remaining.
Gregory rushed for 29 yards that day and finished 16-for-23 with 213 yards passing, two touchdowns, one interception and two water-filled eyes.
"I was incredibly emotional afterward," Gregory said. "The thought in my mind was that I had played for five years and never helped a team win. I never contributed to a victory.
"I did a couple of good things in blowouts here or there, but I was never a factor in a game and helped a team win. That was the most rewarding thing ever in my sixth year to help a team win. That was one of the best feelings of my life on a football field."
After his first collegiate start, Gregory was named the Big 12's Offensive Player of the Week.
It wasn't a bad debut: first victory as a starter and the league's player of the week. But then it was back to reality the following week in a 66-14 loss at Texas Tech.
"We got annihilated," said Gregory, who wore a brace on his left shoulder to keep his shoulder from popping out.
After that game, Gregory's shoulders bothered him more than usual. That is, whatever the "usual pain" for one dislocated shoulder and one torn rotator cuff/labrum is.
His range of motion became so limited that he could not scratch his back.
"I remember I had to have a teammate wash my back in the shower," Gregory said. "I can't reach my back and I'm like , 'Could you please wash my back? I can't reach it with either shoulder.' I'm like, 'Dude, seriously, can you wash my back?'
"One of the offensive linemen was like, 'All right', and took my luffa [sponge] and washed my back."
Next week was a home game with Texas A&M. Gregory thought it would probably be the final game of his career.
"I fully went into the game thinking this was the last game I would ever play," Gregory said. "My left shoulder is not going to hold up; my right one is going to be gone. I remember I went into the game and I didn't know how I'm going to run the ball or throw the ball without hurting either one."
Gregory made it through a lot better than the Aggies. The Wildcats routed Texas A&M, 62-14. Gregory not only made it through that game, but managed to make it through the end of the season and start all of K-State's conference games.
He not only learned to play with pain, but also how to fall on his shoulders a certain way to lessen the pain.
"The left one, I learned how to land on it so it really didn't hurt as bad," Gregory said. "By the end of the year my right one was awful. It felt like my shoulder was ripping apart. There were some bad moments.
"It got really bad. It was just weird. During the year, the coaches were like, 'How's your shoulder?' I'm like, 'Which one?' "
Gregory said each week during the season he went through the same rollercoaster. Monday and Tuesday: "It would feel OK." Wednesday and Thursday: "It would feel like hell." Friday: "We had a day off." Saturday: "I would get shot up with anti-inflammatory and Toradol. It made it feel a little better and would last for 12 hours."
Then the same maddening cycle would begin again the next week. Toward the end of the season, Gregory said the pain was so excruciating that he couldn't throw the ball more than 40 yards in practice. But Gregory didn't want to use the shoulder injury as an excuse, even though he admitted his arm strength diminished during the season.
"It didn't cause any bad throws on the field," he said.
Gregory led the Wildcats to victories against Colorado and Kansas -- only their second victory in the past six years against their state rival -- and by the time Kansas State's regular-season finale at Nebraska rolled around, K-State was playing for the Big 12 North title and a spot in the Big 12 Championship and also trying to become bowl eligible.
Kansas State was a big underdog at Nebraska, but outgained the Cornhuskers, 293-267, and even outplayed them. Ultimately, though, the Wildcats couldn't overcome two critical turnovers and lost 17-3.
In Gregory's eight starts at K-State, he threw for 1,075 yards, completing 58 percent of his passes, with four touchdowns and four interceptions. He also rushed for 216 yards and two touchdowns. They weren't the video game-like numbers some quarterbacks put up these days, but they were solid numbers for a solid team leader, who just wanted the chance to start.
Despite the injuries to both shoulders -- he's scheduled to get his left shoulder operated on next month and his right knee also might require surgery -- Gregory said getting the opportunity to be a starting quarterback was definitely worth it.
"I still remember the day it [the torn rotator cuff] happened," Gregory said. "I told Coach Snyder, 'I'm gonna deal with it.' I'm going to win the starting job and I'm going to lead you to a bowl game.
"We didn't quite get to a bowl game, but this gave me some closure with my career. I played, I helped the team and I was a major part of the team. I got to see what it's like to be on the field. That's all I wanted to do -- was to play against the best and I held my own against some of the best teams in the nation. That was important individually and to be a major part of a team was amazing.
"Just knowing we were so close to playing for the Big 12 title if we had won the Nebraska game. Knowing what I and everyone on the team went through, it was pretty tough."
Gregory said dealing with all the injuries is just part of the game, part of the sacrifice one makes to be a college football player.
"Everybody's banged up on a college football field," Gregory said. "Most fans have no idea how many of our offensive linemen shouldn't be playing, but they tough it out.
"You're going to get hurt. You can deal with it or you can't. I had no choice but to deal with it. It was my last year. My last go-around."
And what a go-around it was. After all, it was a dream come true.
Contact FanHouse reporter Brett McMurphy at email@example.com