The easy path to early playing time in college didn't appeal to Jim Grace.
Grace, an offensive lineman who will enroll at Stanford next fall as a preferred walk-on, was promised an opportunity to start as a freshman by a coach at another school during the recruiting process. But instead of being tempted by the offer, Grace was repulsed by it.
"He said, 'You're a football player,'" Grace recalled. "'You want to play somewhere you can get on the field early.' And in my mind, I never thought that way. It was kind of yeah, I am a football player and I don't necessarily want to go somewhere there's no challenge. He had told me I would start as a freshman if I went there and that's why I should go there. And that didn't really appeal to me.
"I realized going to Stanford as a preferred walk-on there's a good chance I might not see the field. There's an abundance of talented kids there. But I wasn't really interested in having a spot on a team where like I was never going to have to compete for a spot or any of that. I would rather be challenged and maybe not see the playing time that I would have seen somewhere else and take that risk rather than go somewhere just because it's safe."
Playing it safe doesn't seem to be Grace's forte. He's taking a nontraditional route to the college gridiron.
While the practice of delaying enrollment to play college ball isn't unusual (many schools greyshirt recruits for a variety of reasons), voluntarily deferring admission to continue to develop physically and serve a pair of prestigious internships is not a well-traveled path.
But that's what Grace, a 2012 graduate of Regents High School of Austin chose to do. As he prepares to join the Stanford football team next season, he's doing a pair of internships in Texas and working out regularly with a trainer.
Grace first made contact with the Stanford coaches during the coaching transition from David Shaw to Jim Harbaugh, in a somewhat roundabout manner. Grace and his father reached out to several football experts, including former Cardinal strength and conditioning intern (and NFL star) Steve Wisniewski, for feedback on Grace's highlight tape.
"My dad and I contacted anyone we knew to get evaluations, what I needed to work on the most, and that sort of thing," Grace said. "On Harbaugh's staff we knew Coach (Steve) Wisniewski. He was working somewhere else when we contacted him, but we basically contacted him for an evaluation, just can you watch my film, tell me the things I need to work on, that sort of thing."
Wisniewski took the initiative from there.
"He offered to pass my information along to the current staff, so (offensive coordinator Mike) Bloomgren," Grace said. "And that's kind of where the connection was made. So they started kind of recruiting me as this preferred walk on type thing from that."
Grace attended a Junior Day on The Farm in the spring of his junior year, then visited Palo Alto again for Stanford's two-day padded summer camp a few months later. Camp provided an opportunity for Grace and Bloomgren to become acquainted with one another. It also convinced Grace that playing for Bloomgren and the Cardinal would be an enjoyable experience.
"I hadn't really met (Coach Bloomgren) until I went to camp," Grace said. "I had met him at the Junior Day but I hadn't really talked to him extensively until I went to camp in the summer before my senior year.
"That's kind of when I really figured out that I could play for this guy and really enjoy four years, five years, whatever it is, of playing, just practicing for the guy. It was fun to practice with him because we were going full speed. It's just a lot of fun. Whereas you watch spring practices other places and anything you see at a lot of other schools, it's not as intense and the coaches don't have the same mentality. So I think that's kind of where the relationship developed."
Grace also had an opportunity to prove that his field mentality was in line with what Stanford seeks in its linemen.
"They did a lot of board drills at the camp and I remember him calling me over," Grace said. "They had some kid they were recruiting as a center that I don't think ended up going there, but they had me come and do the board drill against him. Coach Bloom called me over to do it and he told me afterwards he liked that I just kind of lined up, I mean the kid outweighed me by 80 pounds, and lined up and just fired off and hit him. And just kind of that mentality was really important for me because that's just kind of the way I've been taught to play o-line and the way I think I'm best. I wouldn't be as good in a pass offense or any of that because I didn't learn to play that way. So that was important."
Grace applied to Stanford early and was admitted in mid-December. He received a greyshirt offer from Rice and had opportunities at several Ivy League schools and smaller Division One programs, but committed to Stanford about a month after signing day,
"Eventually it came down to a question of is it important to me to play early, or almost guaranteed to play at some point, or to go somewhere like Stanford where it's going to be really hard to get on the field, but if you're willing to work hard enough and all that, then obviously it's better football," Grace said. "Nobody is disputing that.
"I kind of looked at it as I'm a football player. I want to go somewhere I'll be forced to really work to get playing time and a place where as a little kid, you don't grow up dreaming of going to play Ivy League football, usually. You grow up dreaming to play at a school that can go to the Rose Bowl that plays in a major conference, that sort of thing. So it kind of came down to that, and when I realized that, it was a pretty easy decision. Stanford's the only school that offers both the academics that we were looking for and the football that you always want to play growing up, especially living in Texas where it's huge and every kid thinks that from when they're playing Pop Warner."
That's where Grace's story takes a turn. While most football players in the 2012 recruiting class are currently preparing for, or partaking in, their first college spring practices, Grace is back home in Austin working a pair of internships - one with a private equity firm, the other with a lobbying firm.
The decision to defer enrollment to Stanford sprung from two main factors. First and foremost, Grace wanted to give his body more time to develop. Grace is young for his grade (he was only 17 when he graduated from high school), and, after being slowed by an injury during his senior season, had plenty of room to continue to mature physically.
"Part of it is I was a young kid," Grace said. "So really late in terms of just development. I was young. I graduated at 17. Which some kids are fine (at that age), but both of my parents developed late also, so just in terms of strength and athleticism going in, there were a combination of things."
Then there was the intellectual side of things. Grace valued the opportunity to have some real-world experience before embarking on his college education.
"Mentally I had never really gotten to do any internships, any of that," Grace said. "My dad had always said that there was a lot of value in getting some real-world experience before you go into a math class where they're teaching you these abstract concepts. If you have nothing to apply it to it doesn't really make much sense. That's been another side of it that wasn't as big in my mind, but has been pretty big, because it's just been really helpful.
"I'm interning at two places. I intern Monday, Wednesday and Friday at a lobbying firm, and Tuesday and Thursday at a private equity. And it's a really interesting experience. The lobbying firm I do a lot of marketing stuff, develop PowerPoint's that they can show to clients, develop spreadsheets for their clients, that sort of stuff. Or sometimes I'll get to go to hearings and take notes on the hearings if they pertain to one of their clients' interests. That's mainly on the lobbying side.
"With the private equity, it's a small, kind of family private equity, so there's a lot of stuff for me to do there. I'm getting to help my boss start a new company that deals with Chapter 11 bankruptcy investment. Just because really it's him, an accountant, and he has me help him with anything else, so I've gotten to do a lot of actual valuable real world stuff there."
Grace also found time to keep tabs on his future football team this fall. He watched most of the Cardinal's games on TV, and even attended the Rose Bowl game with his family.
"I watched every game I could get, sometimes with the Pac-12 networks there were a couple of games I didn't get to see, but I got to see most of the big ones," Grace said. "We actually got to go to the Rose Bowl, so that was cool. That was definitely a moment where you kind of wish… I definitely had to remind myself that it's for the better, I made good gains athletically and it will be better for me going on in where I am now than if I had gone in last year.
"But there was definitely a moment when they like ran into the stadium. It was almost all Stanford people, there weren't a lot of Wisconsin fans there. It kind of exploded and you're like oh, it would be cool to be on the team, but yeah, I just had to remind myself that it was probably for the best to get the extra year of age, maturity and whatnot."
Grace plans to enroll at Stanford this summer along with the rest of the Card's incoming freshman class. He's thinking about majoring in Management, Science and Engineering.
Grace said that he's currently 6-foot-3 and weighs 250 pounds. He played essentially every line position on the field (offense and defense), but will be an interior offensive lineman at Stanford.
"I know I'm going to have to take at least two years probably to get to 280, 285," Grace said. "I'm a center. So I can play guard, but I'm not tall enough to play tackle, I don't think.
"I played a lot of different positions, but I think center and guard is probably the best fit as far as just height. That's the biggest limitation. I can put on weight, but you can't really force yourself to grow."
But by postponing the start of his college career for a year, Grace is doing his best to make sure he's prepared for the rigors of Stanford, both in academia and on the football field.
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