Before anybody knew really who Grady Jarrett was, before he helped elevate a floundering college football program to a national force and an NFL team to near Super Bowl champion, he was off the grid. Major college scouts never ventured out to Conyers because Rockdale County High School wasn’t a Georgia program known to produce high-level talent. The program had one winning season in Jarrett’s four years. Nobody was going to come to watch him. So he went to them.
“We had a camp. I think it was before his senior year,” Dan Brooks said.
An invitational camp?
“No. It was open,” Brooks said. “If it was an invitation deal, we might not have invited him. We didn’t know a lot about him before he came in, other than he could run, and he was a great high school wrestler. People thought he was too short.”
This was early in June of 2010, early in Dabo Swinney’s tenure at Clemson. Brooks was the Tigers’ defensive line coach. He watched Jarrett take on bigger linemen in drills and, “He ripped everybody there. I kept telling Coach Swinney, ‘Come here and watch push rush drills.’ We picked the best offensive linemen we had in camp to go against him, and I don’t think Grady lost one (drill) the whole time. I said, ‘We gotta take this guy.’ They said, ‘He’s too short.’ I said, ‘No, he’s not too short!’ I don’t care how tall they are if they play like that.”
Brooks won the debate. Swinney made an offer. Jarrett committed to Clemson. Scouting services listed him as a “two-star” or a “three-star.” They also listed him at 6-foot-2, which stretched the truth, which is just what Jarrett wanted. Not that it mattered. He soon proved to everybody what he could do on a football field.
I bring this story up now because the Falcons are coming off two miserable and underachieving seasons. Jarrett fits into the category of players who probably is taking this the hardest. He plays beyond what the measurables suggest he should, just as he played beyond what recruiting services thought and what NFL scouts projected, as evidenced by the fact he lasted until the fifth round in 2015. There were 136 players taken before him. The Falcons’ first two picks in that first draft with Dan Quinn as coach: Vic Beasley and Jalen Collins, two players whose physical talents proved to far outweigh their desire and determination. The Falcons always liked Jarrett, but even they never projected he would become a fixture in their starting lineup, a leader of their defense, a Pro Bowler and an “undersized” defensive tackle who sacked Tom Brady three times in the Super Bowl.
Jarrett so far outplayed his modest rookie contract that general manager Thomas Dimitroff would not have been surprised if the player complained about his salary and nudged him for a new deal. It never happened.
“I’ve never met a player who was more mature in the contract process than Grady Jarrett,” Dimitroff said. “I don’t think I’ll admire anybody more in that setting, He handled it, head-on, no moaning, no agitation. I don’t know how many people would’ve navigated that the way he did. All the times he and I spoke about the team and leadership, he never once pulled me aside to talk about his contract — not that he couldn’t have.”
The Falcons rewarded Jarrett before the 2019 season with a four-year, $68 million contract. He was universally recognized as not only a player of NFL caliber but one you build a defense around. But there wasn’t joy in the season that followed.
The only thing that frustrates Jarrett more than losing is seeing teammates underachieve. He never would publicly throw anybody under the bus. But the truth is the Falcons had too many players who went south after the 2016 Super Bowl season. They either were not as dedicated as him or were worried more about their paycheck than leading teammates and winning games. Look at some of the players who were let go after the past two seasons, including Beasley. Look at Devonta Freeman, whose then-agent spoke out about his contract during Super Bowl week and never consistently played at the same level after he got the big contract.
The losing ate at Jarrett last season, just as it ate at him at Rockdale County. Having varied experiences, from high school to four double-digit-win seasons at Clemson to extreme highs and lows with the Falcons has helped him process things. But it’s not easy.
“On a personal level, no matter how good or bad things are going, I’ll always try to be my best and prepare in a way to where I can put my best foot forward no matter how it is,” he said. “Whether things are going good or bad, you always have to try to lead your teammates and encourage them. You can always be better and things could always be worse. So you’ve got to be thankful for where you are. I just want to be that consistent player to try to help us reach the postseason every year and to never give up, no matter the circumstances.”
As for the frustrations of consecutive 7-9 seasons, including last year’s 1-7 start against the backdrop of high expectations, Jarrett said, “As a competitor, you always want to play for the championship. You want to win a lot of games. But I wouldn’t compare past success and making it like a frustration point for me. It’s just a point of motivation to try to get better and to try to get back to where I know we can be.”
It’s the week-to-week, year-to-year focus great athletes have. But last season’s losing and constantly being one of the few stand-up guys in the locker room after games weren’t easy. After a 37-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, Julio Jones had a fiery postgame speech to teammates and said players were at fault for the 1-6 start, not Quinn. It was notable that Jones, Jarrett and Ricardo Allen, three team leaders, left the stadium without speaking to the media, effectively requiring other players to come out.
It clearly bothers Jarrett when others don’t get the most out of their talent because that’s not the way he’s wired.
“I don’t want to speak for him,” Dimitroff said. “But given his drive, his personality, his grit, his whole makeup, I’m sure people like that really struggle because they know how good this football team can be. It takes more than just pure talent. It takes being on the front foot and pushing through for everyone. That I’m sure would be agitating for someone like Grady, given his makeup.”
Brooks is now retired. He last spoke to Jarrett at a Clemson football function in March, but the two frequently text each other, and Brooks said early on at Clemson he spoke to Jarrett about the frustrations of playing on a losing team.
“He and I had a lot of long talks about him trying to motivate teammates to be better,” Brooks said. “Rockdale County didn’t have a run of great success. But he was successful in wrestling, an individual thing, which was something he could control. He was under-recruited because they didn’t have other players, they hadn’t had success, and he had to overcome those things.”
Brooks also believes the past two seasons frustrated Jarrett.
“He really tries to be a leader but it’s in a real positive way,” Brooks said. “I’ve never been in that locker room. But (at Clemson) he could challenge guys to be their best in my little segment group, in my room or on defense. If he’s talking to a linebacker, it’s, ‘I’ve got this gap, you’re supposed to have that one.’ He could challenge guys to be better. So I’m sure it’s worn on him.”
The player nobody wanted, the player Georgia and Georgia Tech didn’t notice until it was too late, went on to become an All-ACC pick and team captain at Clemson. The Tigers, who went 6-7 in Swinney’s second full season as coach in 2010, had an aggregate record of 42-11 with two Orange Bowl appearances in Jarrett’s four seasons. His tenacity, his “motor,” reminded many of his father, Jessie Tuggle, the former Falcons’ linebacker who similarly played beyond his dimensions and expectations.
Jarrett had “everything you were looking for,” in a defensive lineman, Brooks said.
“Everything except the height,” Brooks said. “But he helped us get that program to where it is today.”
In college, Jarrett told anybody who would listen that he was 6-2. Brooks told him he was 6-0. They would go back and forth.
“I had a conversation with him once. I said, ‘Grady, when you go to the combine, and you back your butt up against the wall, and they make you take your socks and shoes and everything else off and put a clipboard on top of your head, they’re going to call out 72,” Brooks said. “Do you know what that is?’ He said, ‘Coach. I know what that is. But I’m 6-2.’”
Jarrett went to the combine. He officially measured at 72.75 inches. So, 6-1-ish.
“Being a quote/unquote undersized guy, I always kept a chip on my shoulder,” Jarrett said. “As I got better and better and started having success, (the chip) never left. So I never got complacent.”
He was asked if he had any concerns about the NFL season unfolding despite COVID-19. His response was like a page torn out of his book of daily meditations.
“‘I have confidence, and I have faith, not fear, in everything in my life,” he said. “So I’m going to prepare to have a full season. At the end of the day, what’s going to happen is going to happen. I’m going to focus on being in the league that I’m in and that we are going to have success.”
The Falcons need more like him.