For FIU Golden Panthers’ Chuck Grace, safety first

Now a senior strong safety with the Panthers, Chuck Grace almost never started playing football because his mother thought he would get injured.

09/27/2012 12:01 AM

09/23/2013 7:13 PM

Chuck Grace’s start in football wasn’t your traditional one. In fact, it was downright surreptitious.

Grace, now a senior FIU strong safety, wanted to play age-group football as a little kid. Dad also wanted his son to play. However, Mom firmly wanted him not to play. It was one of those “he’ll get hurt” things.

What to do?

Dad had a plan.

“My dad had a friend who coached a little league team,” Grace recalled, “so he signed me up and he would sneak me to the practices. Mom didn’t know at all.

“So when the first game came on a Saturday, my dad told my mom: ‘Let’s go watch this football game. She went to the game and didn’t know I was playing. When she got there and saw that I was playing, they got into a big argument.

“But in that first game I scored a touchdown,” Grace continued. “After that TD, Mom was fine. And she also saw that I didn’t get hurt.”

These days, Grace’s parents — Ricky and Tonia Pyron — travel from Tampa to every FIU home game and proudly watch their son play.

“I feel like I play for Mom and Dad,” Grace said. “That’s big for me. I always feel like I have some kind of support with them there. It’s not just the fans, although the fans are great. But when I have my mom and dad here, I’m playing for them every time I go out there.”

Before each game, Grace turns toward Section 118 in the FIU stands and makes eye contact with his parents and gives them a wave.

“It’s a big boost for me when I see them in the stands,” he said.

Recently, Grace — 5-9 and 200 pounds — has been giving FIU a boost.

In Saturday’s loss to Louisville, he started his first game since an injury in the third game of last year ended his season. Grace responded with an interception, two pass break-ups and five tackles against quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the Cardinals.

Grace is part of an improving FIU defense that struggled mightily early this season.

“There’s still room for improvement,” coach Mario Cristobal said, “but Chuck Grace certainly made a difference. His presence back there was felt, not only physically but in terms of being in the right place and making sure we were in the right place as a defense. It certainly was a good step toward what we want to be and can be defensively.”

Cristobal will see if his defense continues to improve when the Panthers (1-3, 0-0 Sun Belt Conference) play at Louisiana-Lafayette (2-1, 1-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday, facing the Ragin’ Cajuns and their option offense.

Grace, for one, relishes the opportunity. He has seen option attacks before.

“Everything is reading keys and reacting to what you see,” he said. “Nothing’s that different. Football is football. Everybody has to read their keys. If one person doesn’t, then something is going to pop.”

A strong safety must defend against both the run and pass, and Grace was asked if he would rather knock down a pass or level a running back.

He smiled and said, “I always like to smack someone.”

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