“Never met Grimit, but I’ve heard enough stories about him that I feel like I knew him.” the text read from my strength coach at Grand Valley State, Jack Ginn. Sent soon after he heard the news. I’m sure Jack isn’t the only one who feels this way. It’s men like Steve Grimit who change the world. Not with their words. Not even with their actions. But by the way they make those nearest them feel. Few people on this planet make you believe you can do anything. Coach Grimit was one of those individuals. The positive ripple-effect would carry from one human to the next. And quicker than you could say “bull rush”, folks who’ve never met him are proud to “know” him. They don’t make em like Grimit anymore.
In Steven Pressfield’s The Gates of Fire, he writes, “The gods endow each man with a gift by which he may conquer fear…” I never thought the day would come where I would be afraid to write. For it is with a heavy heart I shall attempt to pay tribute to a man who changed my life more than ten-years ago. Here I am. Scared to death. Not because I am frightened to share my story and experience with Grims. Because I could have, because I should have, kept in touch. But I didn’t. I let life “get in the way”. My gift by which I must conquer this fear is writing. To Coach Grimit, his family, friends, and those who knew him better than I ever did, I hope this brings you some solace.
“Steve Grimit! Pleasure to meet you! How was the trip?”
“Not bad, we actually just came from an official visit at Mankato.”
“Oh! I hope it didn’t go very well, then!”
“I like this guy.” My mom’s boyfriend whispered in my ear. My official visit to St. Cloud State started in true Steve Grimit fashion. In my heart, I knew then and there this is the place I would call, “home.”
“Now, where we see you in our defense is what we call, the ‘STUD’. You’re athletic enough to be an outside linebacker in 3-4 packages. And when we have four d-linemen in the game, you’ll have your hand in the dirt.” I had never been referred to as “athletic” before. Funny how much one word can fill you up with confidence and vigor. Something only Grimit could do.
As we continued our film-session watching SCSU greats Cale Pulczinski and Ryan Kees, Grimit stood me up out of my seat for some hands-on learning. And I learned exactly what he meant by hands-on. He “placed” one hand on my sternum. The other where my collar-bone meets my shoulder. Before I knew what hit me, my spine crashed into the wall behind me faster than he could say, “bull rush.” He held me against the wall for what felt like five-minutes. Discussing the finer points of beating the man across from you while I hung there like a loose tooth.
“I just got manhandled and there’s not a thing I can do about it.” was the exact thought bouncing between my ears. This was my guy. No way in hell I was passing up the chance, the opportunity, to play for Coach Grimit.
“Grimit’s happy!” Coach Patterson – who recruited me – exalted on the phone after I verbally committed to St. Cloud not even twenty-four hours later. Knowing I put a smile on Grimit’s face meant more to me than ending the recruiting process and committing to SCSU. As I’m sure was the case for many before me, and many more after. Who wouldn’t? Coach Grimit was the epitome of kindness…on official visits, that is.
The same couldn’t be said just months later. “Jekyll and Hyde” doesn’t even scratch the surface. Once I signed my national letter of intent and reported to training camp in the fall, I had to check my shorts several times per day. You’d be hard pressed to find a more frightening man between the white lines, and in some very special cases, the classroom as well.
One morning, my fellow d-linemen and I were in our seats. Notebooks open. Pens-in-hand. Waiting for film review of yesterday’s practice to begin. But there was only one thing missing, and it’s name was Chuck Merritt. This did not go over well with Grimit. Whatever furious rage you’re imagining right now, go ahead and triple it. The “owl muscles” around Coach’s eyes tightened. His snarl was the stuff of legend. Like a lion, showing his teeth as if he was savoring the meal to come. His head swiveled to the poor, poor graduate assistant in the corner of the room. “Find. Him. I don’t care what you have to do. Go to his house. If the door is locked, then get a fucking crowbar and break in.” He shifted his gaze to the rest of us. “If this ever happens again, we will go down to the stadium and push that sled up and down the field until one of you quits. And then we will push it some more. It will be the worst conditioning session in the history of the program.”
And you know what? We would have done it without hesitation. Why? Because we loved him. And we knew he loved us. There would be times throughout practice when we would do up-downs for two-periods without rest. For the uninformed, a “period” of practice is five-minutes. Try and wrap your mind around that. Ten-minutes straight of up-downs:
- The first couple minutes everyone is urging each other on. Spirits are still high.
- Sometime between minutes three and five, you feel the blood vessels in your thighs start to burst from the dead weight of your carcass crashing against the turf. Certainly your femurs must be showing to the sun now.
- Seven-minutes in, your saliva becomes viscous. So much so, it doesn’t make it past your face mask when you hawk in the fleeting attempt to clear your airway.
- In the moments leading up to Coach releasing us, you begin to question your sanity. Playing little games in your mind. “This will be the last one.” you’d tell yourself. Fun times.
Now, make no mistake. It is not intention to vilify Coach. On the contrary. We took great pride in these stages of suffering. For we knew what others did not. The source of fear comes from the flesh. Grimit knew flesh was the factory of fear. And if we overcame it, there’d be no obstacle we couldn’t handle. Anyone who has played for him knows I’m not overstating this.
But the moment your cleats went from field to floor, Grimit became your biggest fan. As a young man who was just four-years removed from losing his dad, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see Coach as a father figure. I would give anything for ten more minutes of up-downs with him, for him.
“I have made the decision that you are no longer going to be a member of this football team.” I sunk into my chair as I watched (Head) Coach Underwood’s pursed lips deliver what was the end of my college football career as I knew it. A promising campaign ended before it started. I was on my own now. Done. Outcast. Forsaken.
This news came the day after I had hosted a recruit on his official visit. Poor kid had to be taken to the hospital to have his stomach pumped the night before. Alcohol poisoning.
Did I make a mistake? Yes. Was I young and foolish? You bet. Did I deserve a second chance? I certainly think so.
King David, who authored the book of Psalms, had sex with a married woman and killed her husband. It was this same person who later heard God say to him, “…with you I am pleased.” If our creator does not judge us on our greatest faults, but on our capacity to do good, then everyone deserves a second chance. And Grimit believed I did, too.
But the Athletic Director didn’t share the same sentiment. Morris Kurtz had an ego the size of a cathedral and a pair of eyebrows that wouldn’t quit. “It’s either you, or Hunter.” is the ultimatum I’m told he presented Coach Underwood. It was clear if I was going to be given that second chance and play football again, then I was going to have to win him over and change his mind.
I made a pact with myself as I visualized playing the game I loved in my mind’s eye. I knew this isn’t how my story would end. I was going to play football again, but this wasn’t going to be a solo act. The man who was the reason I committed to St. Cloud was in my corner faster than I could say, “bull rush.” Grimit was there for me. “If he (Kurtz) can see how tremendous of a young man you are, then I think they’ll have to let you stay.”
It was a dimly lit room with a long mahogany table. There was one lonely seat at the end for your’s truly. I sat into my chair with several pairs of eyes locked on me. I was waiting to be turned to stone any second. After pleading my case, Kurtz and the board deliberated briefly. It felt like hours. Moments after this brood of vipers took their seats, Kurtz delivered his decision in venomous fashion. “You can be heard again six-months from now. After demonstrating how much you’ve improved and matured, we will consider reinstating you then. But we’d rather just wash our hands with you and move on.” My appeal was denied the moment it was heard.
When Coach Grimit was notified of their condemnation, we were at a crossroads. Should I stay at St. Cloud and try again in half-a-year? Or do I transfer? Leaving Grims was not an option I wanted to entertain, but he knew what was best for me. It was time to leave St. Cloud. The two of us sat in his office for hours calling coaches across the country. Wisconsin-Whitewater, Hillsdale College, Northwest Missouri State, you name it. “Gotta kid for ya.” He’d tell them. In between phone calls I saw the light bulb go off in Grimit’s head. “Coach Louis knows the head coach at Grand Valley!” he remarked. Coach Louis was St. Cloud State’s defensive coordinator and had coached with the staff at Grand Valley years ago. Why Grand Valley? Because they were a powerhouse in Division-II, and Grimit wouldn’t settle for anything less. He went to bend Coach Louis’ ear to see what he thought. Moments later he sat back down, told me to just sit tight and see what happens. “Everything is gonna be OK.” he assured me. Having transferred schools a few times himself at my age. “You’re a phenomenal young man and you’re going to have a great college football career.”
It was then I told him he was the reason I committed to St. Cloud State. “I don’t want to leave you.” I wept. He pulled me tight to his big, burly chest as we embraced while tears filled with “what could have been” rolled down our cheeks. A memory I won’t soon forget.
There’s a post-script: Grand Valley State offered me a scholarship. Coach Grimit is the reason I got to play college-football.
As regretful as not playing for him the next-four years was, nothing can compare to the regret and heartbreak I feel now. I didn’t stay in touch with him as much as I should have. I didn’t get to share this story with him. He deserved to hear it. Ross Kees, someone I looked up to during the autumn of ’09, sent me a text not even a month ago:
“I was with Grimit last week. He still cares about you a lot. He was explaining your situation again and he said, “The day they told me their decision on what to do with Hunter, was the only time I truly considered leaving the program. They completely mishandled his situation. I told them straight up, ‘You are doing the wrong thing. This is a great person and he will do great things for this program and school.'”
My heart filled with glee. Grimit still cared about me after all these years. Many don’t know this, but I am writing a book. And in it, you had better believe there’s a chapter dedicated to Coach. After reading Ross’ text, I thought to myself, “I can’t wait to finish this book so Grim knows how much he means to me!”
Sixteen-days later, I received another text from Ross:
“Grimit passed away.”
Learn from me. If there’s a “Grimit” in your life, don’t wait. Today is the day to tell them how much they mean to you. Not tomorrow. Not at Thanksgiving. Today. Because you don’t know when God will call them back home. And neither do they.
If there isn’t a “Grimit” in your life, then learn from him. A friend of mine once told me, “It’s better to be a friend than to have a friend.” I think I speak for everyone when I say the world would be better with Steve Grimit in it. Although we can no longer have a “Grimit” – we can be a “Grimit” – and he can still live on, making the world a better place through you and me.
Be a “Grimit”.
Love and miss you, Coach. I’ll see you again in paradise.