By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
VERO BEACH - The grind of training camp in Vero Beach makes things quite repetitive at times with USF players operating for hours under the hot sun.
The Bulls got a very big breath of fresh air Tuesday when senior defensive tackle Cory Grissom sprinted out to the field with his teammates as a full go for the first time since breaking his ankle late in the spring.
"It feels really good to be back out here with the guys, working on my craft and getting ready for the season," Grissom said.
Players perked up quite a bit seeing Grissom, or Pork Chop as the team usually calls him, all the way back to work because they know he's a huge piece to the Bulls' winning puzzle in 2012. Grissom has started every one of the Bulls' 25 games in the past two seasons and has given defensive tackles coach Kevin Patrick countless positive teaching points.
"His work ethic is paramount," Patrick said. "Head coaches before have come up to me and said, 'Can you get my guys to practice like that?' He's that picture-perfect guy that you want."
Little do people know that Grissom would not have been in the picture at USF, let alone in football, if it wasn't for the strong support he received from another defensive line coach years before he was a Bull.
Grissom came from a single-parent household in LaGrange, Ga., with his mother, Jackie Jennings, working 12 to 16 hours a day at a blue collar job. Grissom and his mom are so tight that he shares everything with Jackie on a daily basis to this day.
"I'm rarely on my cell phone, and if you see me on my cell phone I'm talking to my mom," Grissom said.
There was no shortage of loving support for Grissom growing up, but a father figure and a purpose was missing. Grissom was never a bad kid, as Jackie would tell you, but he hit a bump in the road early in his prep years at Troup County High School when he got into a fight with another boy.
Grissom won the tussle, but it came at a cost.
"He had gotten kicked out of school. I had to go before the school board to get him put back in," Jackie said.
'Who Is That Big Guy?'
Grissom was able to resume classes at Troup County High School on a probationary basis that turned into an evolutionary period. He was playing basketball in the gym during his 10th grade year when a football coach noticed his footwork on the court.
"He was standing in the corner of the gym and I was like, 'Who is this big guy?'" Grissom said.
The "big guy" was George Brewer, the team's defensive coordinator, who was eager to get Grissom back into the sport he hadn't played since the Pee Wee level.
"I grew to see coach Brewer as like a father figure when I started playing football," Grissom said. "He also would joke around with me just like a normal father would do."
The relationship took a little time to develop, however, with Brewer having to put in some effort to get Grissom out to the football field.
"I stayed on top of him every day, got to know his mom and eventually asked her to bring him out to football practice," said Brewer, a former prep football star who now coaches at New Manchester High School in Douglasville, Ga.
'Absolutely Everything Got Better'
Grissom's first few practices were "a struggle," but coaches quickly discovered they had something special. Brewer said Grissom worked his way into the lineup his first year, was a starter at defensive end by midseason before he decided to move him inside to defensive tackle.
Brewer's desire to bring out the best in Grissom continued off the football field - even during the weekends - because of a promise he made when times were tough for the rising star.
"I gave his mom my word that I'd make sure he would stay on task as far as his grades," Brewer said. "My thing was confronting him when he needed to be confronted about a situation that he could do better with, or maybe giving a little bit more effort at practice, or maybe working a little harder in the classroom."
Brewer said the task of mentoring Grissom wasn't a tough one because of the way Jackie raised him along with her two other children - Brian, 31, and Jasmine, 15.
"He was a, 'Yes sir, no sir,' type of kid. He never talked back. His work ethic was always there," Brewer said.
Guidance from an older male can go a long way for a boy and was just the thing Grissom needed in all facets of life.
"It was like when he got with coach Brewer he just changed. Absolutely everything got better," Jackie said.
Getting to Know USF, and Waking Up the Neighbors
The ability to get on the right track put Grissom in the fast lane to success on the football field. The three-year letterman had a monster senior season, posting 13 sacks, five forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries on the way to all-region recognition and many cheers from his mom, who always had enough energy to watch her son.
"He wanted to see me in the stands. He would just try to show me how good he was," Jackie said with a laugh.
College scouts definitely noticed.
Virginia Tech, Arkansas, North Carolina, Southern Miss and numerous Division II schools were interested in signing Grissom, but USF intrigued him for the simplest reason.
"I don't know why, but the name stuck out to me. I hadn't even heard of it before," he said.
Grissom did his homework on the Bulls by turning on the television, and it came at the best possible time for the program. The year was 2007 and Grissom's first-ever USF viewing experience was a 26-23 win over No. 13 Auburn in a game broacast on ESPN2.
"I was like, 'Wow, their defense really moves,'" he said.
The Bulls won the game in dramatic fashion when Matt Grothe threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Jessie Hester Jr. in overtime. Grissom was home alone and going wild with excitement.
"I was like, 'Oh my God!' I was hollering and I'm pretty sure my neighbors heard me yelling and rooting for USF. This team can really play and this might be my final choice," Grissom remembered.
The victory helped USF get into the top 25 and gave Grissom some bragging rights back at school.
"My high school English teacher was a huge Auburn fan. He knew that I had an offer from USF and I was really considering USF. When they beat them, the next day he came back to school and gave me a weird look. He was like, 'Your team beat my team,'" Grissom said.
Grissom and his high school head coach made the trip down to Tampa three weeks later and USF's performance on the field helped seal the deal. The Bulls got up to their highest-ever ranking (No. 2) by beating No. 5 West Virginia, 21-13, which is a score that Grissom easily remembers.
"I was sold on that game, too," he said.
The Present and the Future
Grissom now stands tall as a 6-foot-2, 316-pound senior and all signs are pointing to him being healthy enough to play in USF's season opener if things continue to go well. He'll be a college graduate a few months after the season kicks off when he walks across the stage with a degree in interdisciplinary social sciences.
"I am so proud of Cory because if you saw him from high school to now, you would wonder, 'How could this child have made it?'" Jackie said.
Grissom doesn't think about it often, but he knows another strong season could put him on NFL scouts' radars and becoming a draft pick would help him give back to the person that's on the other line of his daily phone call.
"I told mom after I graduate, I'm hoping to go the NFL," Grissom said. "My mission is to go to the NFL and pay her back, so she can just stop working and she can just come to live with me."
More Pork Chop
- Former teammate and current Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Terrell McClain is credited with giving Grissom his popular nickname. "At first I didn't like it. I was like, 'Please don't call me that.' Over a few months, it just stuck with me. I was like, 'OK, I actually like this nickname now.' If I go outside, people know me as Pork Chop, not Cory," Grissom said.
- Grissom was actually taking up boxing before he got back into football in high school. He later became a two-time letterman in wrestling.