Grant Aasen’s playbook as a 145-pound sophomore running back at Starr’s Mill High School in Fayetteville, Georgia, did not include an “X” and “O” line drawing like this.
Anyone who’s ever watched NFL Films can recall Vince Lombardi standing with a piece of white chalk at a green chalkboard, drawing two skinny, parallel lines on the perimeter of the offensive line to describe to his players the blocking intricacies that made the vaunted Green Bay Packers’ sweep virtually unstoppable.
“I want a seal here! And a seal here!” Lombardi barked.
In real life, that meant Jimmy Taylor for 17 yards left; Jimmy Taylor for 20 yards right.
But in October 2010, during a practice drill at Starr’s Mill, Aasen was the skinny chalk “X” and 6-foot-6, 260-pound senior nose guard Ufomba Kamalu, who later became known at the University of Miami and the NFL Houston Texans as the 300-pound “Nigerian Nightmare,” was the ample, heat-seeking “O.”
God was about to write straight with crooked lines.
The impact of the collision between senior and sophomore whiplashed Aasen’s head into the ground. He got up a little woozy, but in football parlance, Aasen just had to show the coaches he could shake it off.
The next day, in the final minute of a junior varsity game in which he took no hard hits, Aasen came to the sidelines, took off his helmet and collapsed to the ground. He passed out and had a seizure. Paramedics at a fire station right around the corner got to him within minutes, and a helicopter rushed Aasen to the hospital, where he underwent a craniotomy to relieve the pressure on his swelling brain.
“I was expected less than 1 percent to make it out of there alive,” said Aasen. “My parents always tell me as they saw their baby boy being wheeled back to surgery – and they didn’t know what was going on – a nurse came up to them and said, ‘We need you to sign this.’ Her face told them, ‘This isn’t good.’”
Amazingly, Aasen survived the surgery and made incredible progress from a brain injury that in many cases causes permanent damage.
“In seven days, I was back home; in two months, I was back in school taking classes,” he said. “I had two sessions of therapy afterwards. Most people are getting therapy for a year to relearn how to walk.”
Aasen, 22, now a first-year seminarian at Notre Dame Seminary, said getting knocked off his horse by a thunderbolt was not exactly a St. Paul moment. He had grown up in a Catholic family and attended Mass each Sunday, but football still remained a priority in his life.
“Seven months after my surgery, my pastor asked me, ‘How does it feel to be a miracle?’” Aasen said. “I remember thinking, ‘It feels fine. Nothing’s changed. I had brain surgery, but I can’t remember any of it.’ For some reason, that question kind of struck me that this shouldn’t have happened. Maybe God was trying to do something with my life.”
But, for now, Aasen had to figure out a way to get back on the field. He decided the only way to continue his football career was to give up life as a running back and linebacker and become a punter, even though he had never kicked a football in his life.
“I hate punters,” he said. “I still do to this day, but I had to be one if I was going to continue. I was pretty awful at it.”
Aasen would carry footballs around with him in a sack and worked on his craft relentlessly in open fields. He also started to immerse himself with friends in Bible studies.
After Sunday Mass, the day before practice opened for his senior season, Aasen recalls “pouring it all out to God. This was it for me. I loved football more than anything else. If I wanted to punt in college, I needed to have a good day on Monday.”
And then, just like that, Aasen said, “I punted better than I ever had. It was just a small thing – punting footballs – but Jesus became very real to me. He wasn’t like some fairy tale. That’s when football and God became connected at the hip for me.”
Aasen went on to Georgia Tech and twice unsuccessfully tried out for the team. All the while, his older brother Davis kept him connected to the Catholic Center on campus.
“I started learning what we do at the Eucharist and at confession, all these things that are Catholic, and I was just blown away at how beautiful these gifts are,” Aasen said.
On his third try, Aasen made the Georgia Tech team as a walk-on, scout team punter. In spring practice before his junior season, Aasen felt he had a chance to actually be the regular punter. The coaches called for him to fake a punt, and Aasen’s old running vibes kicked in. He ran 75 yards before being caught from behind and fumbling. During the tackle, he tore a knee ligament, sidelining him for 10 weeks.
“It was crushing to think I was this close, and I just fumbled it and looked like a fool,” he said.
But as the 2016 season arrived, Aasen finally got his shot. The starting punter had performed miserably in the opener against Boston College, and coach Paul Johnson decided to hold a punting competition during the week leading up to the Mercer game. Aasen won the job.
Then he stepped on the field for his first and only college punt. “I shanked it, and it ended up rolling about 20 yards and I wound up getting 42 yards,” Aasen said. “This was my moment, and it didn’t go the way I wanted.”
For more than a year, Aasen had felt tugged by the notion that God was calling him to the seminary to study for the priesthood. He had the option of returning to Georgia Tech in 2017 as a fifth-year senior and even went through spring drills, but he felt compelled to take a different leap of faith.
“Being down South, football is everything, right?” Aasen said. “I was playing college football and I was living it. God let me live that experience, but it was time. God asked me, ‘Will you follow me and take this step?’ I have no idea where it’s going to end. One of my favorite verses is from Ezekiel 36 (verse 26): ‘A new heart I will create for you out of a heart of stone.’”
Now that he has nearly completed his first year of seminary studies, Aasen said he is content and open to any place God leads him.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be married or ordained in six years, but that’s OK,” Aasen said. “I look back at what God has done for me over the past seven or eight months. I look at the brothers he’s given me at the seminary, and I look at the areas I’ve grown. God is shaping me into the man he wants me to be. The beautiful thing he has given me is just this peace.”
Aasen did prove he still is a cut above when it comes to using Xs and Os against mortal men in black. In the titanic, annual flag football game between seminarians from Notre Dame Seminary and St. Joseph Seminary College before Thanksgiving, Aasen caught the winning touchdown pass as well as the two-point conversion in a 14-7 Notre Dame victory.
The Nigerian Nightmare was nowhere around.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.