His nickname used to be “Big Country.”
But Jermaine Grace isn’t that kind of big anymore. So he just goes by “Country” now.
The once-plump 5-year old boy, who grew up playing on the offensive line for the Miami Gardens Chargers, has sprouted into a chiseled, 6-1, 210-pound tackling machine. In fact, Grace is so fit and muscle-bound now that when the 18-year-old fleet-footed outside linebacker flexed during a photo shoot at Miramar High recently, his coach Damon Cogdell couldn’t hold himself back from laughing a little in admiration.
“Those biceps look like a pair of softballs — see how they stretch out the words ‘No Excuses’ on his [compression] shirt,” Cogdell said of Grace, who has college scholarship offers from more than 20 BCS level schools (Tennessee and Miami are at the top of his list) and is the only returning starter from the Patriots’ Class 8A state runner-up team last season. “He’s a very athletic kid, humble kid who is as strong as an ox. He can play any position — from corner to linebacker to free safety. As long as he stays injury-free, he’s going to be playing on Sundays.”
Even if he doesn’t make it to the NFL, Grace’s mother, April Chestnut, said she’s grateful her son is on the right path.
Whether it has been his grandmother, aunts, uncle, stepfather, a local barbershop owner and youth football coach named Steve or even his infamous “cousin” — former football star Willie Williams — who talks to him from jail, Grace has received the guidance and help he’s needed to overcome dyslexia, the tragic death of his older sister and a lot of other turbulence in his life.
And his mother said she can’t stop thanking God for that.
“We were in church three weeks ago and the pastor gave everybody a chance to stand up and thank God for what they’re thankful for. I told them I’m thankful God allowed me to raise my kids with all his help,” said Chestnut, a single mom who dropped out of high school and had three children by the time she was 18. “I honestly mean this: If God doesn’t do anything else for me, I feel like he has done enough because he got my kids through their adolescent years productive, with a conscience, with a heart and with love in their heart for other people.
“If Jermaine and [his 15-year-old brother] Jeffrey [Grace Jr.] can continue to be productive young men, I would be so fine with that.”
Chestnut said she was 14-years-old when she gave birth to her eldest daughter Brittany. A year later, she got pregnant with Jermaine.
“The first time I got pregnant, my mom said: ‘You made a mistake. I’m going to help you,” Chestnut said. “But the second time she said: ‘You want to be a grown woman? This is your baby now.’ I was lucky I was the baby in my family. My older sisters helped me out a lot, took care of my kids. I used to get out of school and go straight to work at Hot N’ Now [a fast-food burger joint] on 441 when I was pregnant with Jermaine.
“He was born with colic and spent the first three months of his life hollering. It wasn’t easy.”
What made things tougher for Chestnut is that the father of her children “was one of them drop-in, drop-out dads who is never around.” Instead, Chestnut said Grace and his brother refer to her longtime boyfriend, who spent five months in the hospital in 2010 with a brain aneurysm, as their stepfather.
He was around when Grace began struggling with dyslexia in school. Chestnut said her son was 8 when he was finally diagnosed with the developmental reading disorder and it caused him to be held back in the second grade. In the meantime, football became an outlet for Grace.
“At first Jermaine had a very low attention span for it,” Chestnut said. “There would be a big play going on and he would stop to see a bird flying or a plane in the air. That’s when Coach Steve and my brother sort of got involved.”
Williams, too. Once the nation’s most-prized high school linebacker when he starred on Carol City’s state championship team in 2003, Williams was Grace’s hero while he was growing up. Williams lived with Grace’s uncle, Kevin Rutledge, for four years while he was in high school, according to Chestnut.
“I remember going to the state championship game, [and also] seeing him beat [Northwestern] pretty much by himself,” Grace said. “He was a beast. I remember saying I wanted to be the next Willie Williams.”
Williams, now 27 and in jail in Kentucky for burglary, signed with the University of Miami out of high school. But his career, which took him to four other colleges, flopped as off-field trouble and arrests followed him. He went undrafted.
Grace, who has been an usher and part of the youth ministry at Holy Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Opa-Locka since he was 14, said he spoke to Williams last month on the phone from jail and speaks to him every now and then.
“He tells me to stay focused, don’t make the same mistakes he made,” Grace said. “Everybody says I look like him — my body size. I have big arms, my chest. I see him and me are similar football wise, but not doing that bad stuff in the streets. That’s never been me.”
Grace, who was academically ineligible as a sophomore in 2010, has worked hard to raise his grades over the past couple years. His GPA is now a 3.0 (2.4 un-weighted) and he’s already scored a 19 on the ACT. He’s taking pre-calculus and is considering majoring in business in college.
His on-field measurables are equally impressive. He bench presses 215 pounds 15 times. He has maxed out at 315 pounds on the bench (five reps) and squats 425 pounds. Cogdell said Grace has run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds.
Grace finished with a team-leading 115 tackles, four interceptions and five sacks last season.
What pushes him, he said, is succeeding for his late sister.
Brittany Chestnut was a good student, according to her mother. Occasionaly, she said, Brittany and Jermaine clashed because he was “a bit of a tattle tale.”
Brittany died on impact, according to her mother, when she ran a truck into a light pole about a block away from her grandmother’s house on May 4, 2008. She was 15 and had just received her learner’s permit the week before. Grace’s younger brother, who was in the car with her, wasn’t even scratched. But it’s unknown what might have happened to Jermaine had he been in the car with his sister.
“We had an argument that day and she was mad at me,” Grace said. “So I didn’t go. I just pray every night, before I go on the football field and before practice, and I just ask for strength and to let my sister know I still love her and to keep walking with me.”
April Chestnut said she plans to be at every one of Miramar’s games this coming season. She’s already worked out a deal with a co-worker to swap shifts. April works the night shift as a primary care technician for the handicapped, but doesn’t miss a minute of her son’s senior year. He turns 19 on Nov. 8.
“It hurts to see someone that has a lot of potential and a lot going for themselves and it slips right out of the hands like it did for Willie,” Chestnut said. “But that’s not going to happen to Jermaine.
“He’s going to make it.”