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.”