Sep 4, 2013
Corey Grant’s hard work and determination finally paid off (Anthony Hall photo)
AUBURN, Ala. – With 6:18 left in the first half last Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Corey Grant took a pitch to his left, cut hard upfield and was gone 75 yards for a touchdown. It was a moment for which he had worked so hard for so long.
Defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker, out with an injury to his right leg, almost fell down as he jumped for joy.
“Oh, my gosh!” Whitaker said. “I wasn’t supposed to be up. They told me to sit down. I was jumping on one leg.”
In the stands, Ike and Deborah Grant cheered for their son’s first college touchdown, one that came much later than anyone would have imagined when he played at Opelika High School and won two 6A 100-meter dash state championships.
On the Auburn sideline, running backs coach Tim Horton nodded knowingly.
“There were several days in scrimmages where he did that exact same thing,” Horton said. “It didn’t really surprise me, because I’ve seen it before. And I’ll see it again. He’s fast. They’re not going to catch him if he can get the corner.”
Grant’s long run was more than a touchdown that gave Auburn the lead in a tight game. It was more than a running back with world-class speed leaving the defense far behind. With each step, he also put to rest the disappointment and confusion of last season, when he never got a chance.
Grant got only nine carries all of last season. And they all came against Alabama A&M and New Mexico State. Through it all, Grant refused to give in to despair. He kept his focus on the future.
“The thing that is so great about Corey Grant is that he is obviously a good football player and has great speed,” Horton said, “but he’s as fine a person as I’ve ever coached. He’s a great, great young man.”
For a long time, Grant thought he would sign with Auburn out of high school. After all, it was just down the road from Opelika. He loved the offense run by Gus Malzahn, then the offensive coordinator. But in February of 2010, Grant signed with Alabama a month after the Tide had won its first national championship under Nick Saban.
“It was a tough decision,” Grant said Tuesday. “I loved Coach Malzahn and his offense. After talking to Coach Saban and how they wanted to utilize me and wanting to get away from home, I kind of did that.”
Grant was redshirted in 2010 and, as Auburn made a national championship run of it’s own, began to question his decision. In the summer of 2011, he told Saban he wanted to transfer to Auburn. Saban refused to grant him a release, meaning he would have to pay his way for the first year. He transferred anyway.
“I realized that wasn’t for me,” Grant said. “Coming back here, I feel like, was the right choice.”
But rocky times were ahead. Grant impressed everyone with his drive and work ethic as he sat out the 2011 season as required by NCAA rules. He was named the defensive scout team Player of the year.
In his first Auburn spring practice, Grant was a consistent standout. Coaches offered frequent praise.. He was clocked at 4.29 in the 40-yard dash. The future seemed bright. But as the 2012 season unfolded, he was inexplicably pushed aside. Even as Auburn staggered toward a 3-9 record that would bring a coaching change, Grant was left to watch from the sideline.
Whitaker, his roommate for two years, saw a side of him most didn’t. He knew his friend was hurting, fighting disappointment and confusion.
“He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever been around – works hard, always eating right, good guy, positive guy, good guy for any team, good guy for any family,” Whitaker said. “To see him go through that was challenging at times, but his teammates didn’t see any complaining or anything like that. They just saw a guy that came out and just worked his behind off.”
Ike Grant, retired from coaching after 33 years at Lafayette High School, saw it, too. And he told his son to remember who he was and what mattered most.
“He never criticized the coaches, never criticized the other running backs,” Ike Grant said. “He said ‘Daddy, I’m just going to continue to work and, when the opportunity comes, I’m going to take advantage of it.’ That’s what we’ve always taught him. Things aren’t always going to go your way. You just have to be prepared, because your chance will come.”
It wasn’t always easy, but Grant wouldn’t stop believing and wouldn’t stop working. Whatever was required of him, he gave more. He would do the required workouts at Auburn by day and work out on his own by night.
“At times it got rough,” Grant said, “but I just kept pushing and knowing my time would come. It’s finally here.”
For Grant, the turnaround began last December. After a year as Arkansas State head coach, Malzahn returned to Auburn as head coach. Malzahn had tried hard to recruit Grant out of high school.
“I was very excited,” Grant said. “Other teammates were excited because a lot of guys here were recruited by him. The whole team was excited.”
Through preseason camp, most of running back talk was of Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne, but Auburn coaches repeatedly said there would be a role for Grant. They were true to their word. Grant got the first carry of the 2013 season, racing wide right for 15 yards. He wasn’t called on again until Washington State had taken a 21-15 lead.
“Sammie Coates made his block,” Grant said. “After I turned the corner, I realized maybe I could take this to the house.” He could and he did.
Grant almost stepped out of bounds, but instant replay showed he didn’t. As he crossed the goal line, he was swarmed by his teammates. Auburn had taken a lead it would not relinquish.
“The celebration was exciting,” Grant said. “My teammates know what I’ve been through. For us to do that together was an exciting moment.”
Grant would go on to rush nine times, equaling his carries all last season, for 146 yards.
“He almost broke another one when he jumped over a guy,” Whitaker said. “It was good. I always knew he could do it, because nobody can catch him. The world saw that the other day.”
Malzahn had seen it before. He’d seen it when Grant was in high school. He’d seen it when Grant was on the Auburn scout team in 2011.
“I was here before, and I knew what he could do,” Malzahn said. “But he wasn't eligible that year. You saw him on the scout team. He's got a chance to really help us.”
Grant’s father enjoyed every step of that long run, but like the others, he was not surprised. He, too, had seen it all before.
“Really and truly, I think the best is yet to come,” Ike Grant said. “I was excited for him and proud of him, but I knew his capabilities. He really didn’t surprise me. By him having that success Saturday night, it was just more fuel on the fire. He’s going to do everything a little harder, a little better.”
Grant will get another chance to shine Saturday when Auburn plays Arkansas State at Jordan-Hare Stadium. He’ll be ready again. He’s always been ready.
“It was a great opportunity Coach Malzahn gave me,” Grant said. “Putting in all the hard work is finally paying off.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: