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.