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Alabama’s Terry Grant rushed for 134 yards in the season opener against Western Carolina and leads the team with 697 yards in eight games.
Daily file photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Alabama’s Terry Grant rushed for 134 yards in the season opener against Western Carolina and leads the team with 697 yards in eight games.

An audience of one
Terry Grant’s father is gone, but Alabama star runs with him still in his mind

By Josh Cooper
jcooper@decaturdaily.com · 340-2460

The words stood on the tip of Terry Grant’s lips, at the edge of his tongue.

Whenever “Little Joe” ventured to the football field, seeing only dark shadows through his 77-year-old eyes — knowing only through word of mouth that his son, the star of the Lumberton (Miss.) High football team, scored a touchdown.

“I love you, dad.”

They stayed in the back of Terry’s throat at The Hole in the Wall, a joint in Lumberton where the drinks flowed and the barbecue sizzled. Where “Little Joe” was the main man and owner. Where a 9-year-old Terry ran around amidst a throng of hungry and thirsty people.

“I love you, dad.”

During the piggyback rides, the normal give and take between father and son, that sentence never materialized.

“I love you, dad.”

And when the news arrived that “Little Joe” had dropped dead — maybe from a heart attack or natural causes, nobody in the family is certain. Terry, already a swift, strong 17-year-old Division I football prospect, didn’t want to know how he died. He still doesn’t know.

But those words lie in the back of his mind.

“I never ever told my dad I loved him,” said Terry, now a redshirt freshman at Alabama and a star running back for the Crimson Tide football team.

“And I regret that to this day to the fullest. And I can’t get it back ... that I never really told him I loved him.”

Terry was born March 31, 1987, the son of Joseph Williams, a local entrepreneur in Lumberton, and Albertstein Grant, a woman who made her living by cleaning houses.

His parents never married, and Terry was the only son who came out of their courtship. Terry’s mother had three daughters.

His father? He had quite a few more children.

Reports say Terry was one of 13 brothers and sisters. People close to him aren’t quite sure of the total.

But friends say Joseph — who was “Little Joe” to everyone — cared for each of his children, no matter how many he had.

“He was a businessman. He was an intelligent guy. He was a family guy,” said Dennis Holder, principal of Lumberton High and Terry’s pastor at Zion Hill Baptist Church. “He loved his kids.

When Terry was around 12 years old, he moved from his mother’s house to his father’s place, just up the block.

The two shared a special bond. Wherever Joseph went, Terry followed. Sometimes after school, Holder would want to chat with Terry, but Terry would be halfway out the door, on his way to see Joseph.

“His dad was like a security blanket to him,” former Lumberton High football coach Teddy Dyess said. “Terry knew he could always go by there, and his dad would cook him something. He would always have a place to hang out for a little.”

At age 17, that security blanket was taken away prematurely and unexpectedly. Terry received a phone call from his father’s girlfriend, telling him that Joseph may have died.

Terry ran to the house of his sister, Michelle Toney. He told her husband, Gary, that Joseph might be dead, but Terry couldn’t muster the strength to see for himself. He sent Gary, who came back and confirmed the news.

Terry broke down. That night he cried himself to sleep.

“The ‘I love you’ part always hits me each time,” Terry said. “It never fails.”

Lumberton

A town with a population of about 2,500, Lumberton is your typical small community near the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Good people, good support, but some bad influences, many of which can grab ahold of you and suck you in.

The main drag in Lumberton has several shops, some of which are not in use — broken down possibly from Hurricane Katrina or some other cause.

Some of the larger houses with a sport utility vehicle in the driveway rest next to boarded-up residences. There are drugs, and there is crime. But there are also people who tutor and nurture the younger individuals as they find their way to adulthood. For Terry, that person was Peggy Jasperson.

A blond-haired, fair-skinned Alaskan, she met Terry in 2001 while interviewing for a teaching position at the high school. He found his way into her science skills and reasoning class as a freshman, where he almost found his way out.

Two weeks into the school year, Terry couldn’t do the work. His grades were low, and he started doubting himself. He would do a good job of answering the questions out loud in class, but when he took the tests his scores hovered around the D and F range.

Terry Grant, middle, scored two touchdowns in Alabama’s 41-17 win over Tennessee.
Daily file photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Terry Grant, middle, scored two touchdowns in Alabama’s 41-17 win over Tennessee.
The idea of dropping school entered his head.

Jasperson told him, “No, you’re not going to drop out of school.” She made the benevolent threat of calling Terry in the morning to make sure he came to class.

Terry came back, and Jasperson tried a different method. Later in the day, he returned to her classroom and took the same test he failed earlier, but she would read the questions to him. His brain processed the answers differently and in a more effective manner. He knew he could do the work, and Jasperson started marking his paper with A’s and B’s.

“It’s this instant confidence builder of, ‘I’m not dumb; I just have this problem,’ ” Jasperson said.

Family life

Around Terry’s freshman year of high school, his mother left Lumberton. The money wasn’t good enough, and she needed to start a new life in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

Terry stuck around. The town was intertwined with his personality. He had friends there, family, football. Leaving was not an option.

When his father died about two years later, Terry never thought twice about moving to Florida to be with his mother. Terry and Albertstein Grant feel something for one another, but not in the usual mother-child way. She went to some of his high school games and she travels to Alabama to watch him play, but there is something missing.

“We got that bond just because she’s my mom, but, it’s not like a bond that you can grip with your mom and tell her you love her all the time,” Terry said.

After Joseph’s death, Terry moved in with his sister, Michelle, and her husband, Gary. For his final two years of high school, they housed him, helped him and fed him.

Terry is described by many as a 20-year-old going on 60 — not just because of his maturity level, but also his mannerisms and activities. For example, Gary recalled that one of Terry’s favorite pastimes involved plopping on the couch and watching television.

“If you give him a remote control and a big screen TV, and you won’t have to worry about him,” Gary said.

That house was Terry’s home base, but the entire town turned into a haven.

Other people felt comfortable letting him crash. Sometimes he stayed with Dyess, other times with friends and teammates.

“There were a lot of people in Lumberton who cared about him,” said Holder, who watched over him as his school principal and pastor.

High school success

While college football programs recruited Terry, it was easy to find him. When coaches stopped off at a gas station or a restaurant to ask for directions to the high school, the townsfolk saw the logos on their shirts and eagerly said, “Oh, you’re looking for Terry!”

“They would just volunteer,” said former Alabama running backs coach Sparky Woods, who recruited Terry to Tuscaloosa. “They wanted to tell you how great he was.”

While Terry’s athletic exploits spoke for themselves — 2,700 yards rushing and 36 touchdowns as a senior — he wanted to make sure that other players on the team received publicity.

There were times after games when he hid in the crowd of teammates and then snuck out of the stadium so he didn’t have to deal with the constant crush of reporters.

A Mississippi television station arrived at Lumberton to talk with Terry, who was in a tutoring session with Jasperson. Terry told the reporter to wait so he could finish his studies. And when the interview started, Terry talked about other players more than himself.

“He’s always talking about not himself, but others in front of him,” Holder said. “That’s just the way that he is.”

Terry’s visit to Alabama his senior year was one of the worst imaginable, according to Woods. He came to Tuscaloosa on a Sunday — after all the pageantry and hoopla of the previous game had been erased. Former coach Mike Shula stayed to meet Terry, but needed to hit the recruiting trail the following day, so he couldn’t give him his full attention.

Woods took Terry to the goal line of Bryant-Denny Stadium and said to him, “My goal for you is to return the opening kickoff for next year’s football season.”

It wasn’t a promise that Terry would fulfill, but it showed him that the coaches would develop and nurture him.

There was something else that tilted Terry’s path toward Alabama, which had nothing to do with football.

Along with the typical “Does this team play a running game?” and “Do I like the coaches?” criteria, Terry needed a full-service institution to deal with his needs as a student, and a person, and then as an athlete.

When the time came to choose, Terry and Jasperson decided his path based on one important priority: “If you never played football again in your whole life, where could you be a good student and enjoy yourself?”

Said Jasperson: “It was very liberating for Terry to write on the dotted like that, ‘Yes, I am going to go to school there,’ because he knew that was comfortable — and home.”

Impact

The door leading into Jasperson’s classroom has a giant Alabama Crimson Tide decal on the glass window, celebrating Terry’s football success.

On the bulletin board behind her desk there is a schedule of Alabama’s games. And on the wall on a white board sits a homemade poster that includes his name and high school number.

When asked about her favorite Terry story, Jasperson’s eyes well up with tears.

“I love that kid,” she said. “He’s just so funny.”

She rattled off stories of Terry pulling his pants up to his chin, like the “Family Matters” character Steve Urkel, or how he once protected the lock box money after a bake sale.

“Terry is the perfect example of it’s not where you come from, but it’s where you’re going,” Holder said. “That’s what I think about when I think of Terry.”

When she thinks of Terry and his future experiences at Alabama, Jasperson uses the potato chip example. If a bag of chips is left in the lunchroom at Lumberton High unattended, the bag will disappear in a heartbeat. Such an innocent object provides such value.

“At Alabama, he can have a bag of chips, and it’s his,” she said.

For Terry, coming to Alabama has given him more than a bag of chips. It has given him an opportunity to get an education, play football and make something of himself. But there is still that indescribable feeling of pain and loss that tugs at him on a daily basis.

After his father died, Terry added a tinge of emotion to his touchdown celebration.

When he broke across the goal line, he would put his hand over his heart and point to the sky. Once in Lumberton, a referee gave Terry a penalty for excessive celebration. Now, at Alabama, it’s not quite as pronounced.

This small moment flashes only for an instant, and most people might not notice it, even if they look hard. But Terry knows that one person can.

“(My dad) never could see who I was, running the ball,” Terry said. “All the things that make me feel good about the situation is that I know he’s up there watching now and seeing clear.”

Terry Grant at a glance

  • Leads Alabama and ranks seventh in the Southeastern Conference with 697 rushing yards in eight games.

  • Has seven rushing touchdowns and one receiving for a team-high eight. That also ranks seventh in the SEC.

  • Ranks second among SEC freshmen in rushing yards to Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno and first in touchdowns.

  • Played 15 snaps during his first collegiate season in 2006. Carried two times for 22 yards with a run of 19 yards against Louisiana-Monroe. Missed the final nine games of the season because of an injury.

  • Because he appeared in so few games, he qualified for a medical redshirt from the NCAA and didn’t lose a year of eligibility. Including 2007, he has four years remaining.

  • Played for Lumberton (Miss.) High and scored 113 career touchdowns, which is only two short of the state record.

  • Rushed for 2,700 yards and 36 touchdowns as a high school senior and was named Mississippi’s Mr. Football.

    Josh Cooper

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