Jeff Schultz (/author/jeff -schultz/) Aug 29, 2021
ATLANTA — The Falcons (https://theathletic.com/team/falcons/) ’ new regime of generalmanager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith inherited no shortage of problems, including, but not limited to: an underachieving offense led by two stars well into the backnine of their careers; a defense that needed to be completely rebuilt; a roster that had backslidsince consecutive playoff appearances and a near Super Bowl win with three straight losing seasons; and salary-cap problems that would limit how quickly things could get fixed.
One player they didn’t have to fix was Grady Jarrett
Falcons owner Arthur Blank may think twice before ever uttering the words, “Falcon for life,”again, given the economic realities of the NFL and the way the club’s relationship with JulioJones deteriorated. (https://theathletic.com/2635548/2021/06/06/schultz-falcons-maderight-
But Jarrett, the 28-year-olddefensive end, represents everything this organization wants, needs and has too little of.
Before the 4-12 misery of 2020, I wrote a column about why Jarrett was the way he was (https://theathletic.com/1978973/2020/08/06/schultz-why-grady-jarrett-is-the-way-he-isand-why-falcons-need-more-like-him/) and why the Falcons needed more like him. He was so overlooked as a high school player in Conyers that he had to go to open prospect camps to try to get noticed by major universities. One was at Clemson, where then-defensive line coach Dan Brooks was trying to convince Dabo Swinney to look at Jarrett, but Swinney initially wasmore interested in the higher-ranked prospects at the camp. Finally Swinney came over, watched a few drills and offered Jarrett a scholarship on the spot, even though he didn’t haveone available at the time.
Jarrett went on to become an All-ACC player, but after being projected to go as high as the late first round, the NFL ignored him until the Falcons traded up for the first pick in the fifthround (137th overall). As Jarrett would later say, he had gone from an incredible high to being hopeful to be being depressed to the point of throwing his phone down and lying flat on hisback and crying, wondering what went wrong.
In the midst of all this, the home he lived in with his mother burned in a fire on the second day of the draft, when teams were passing on Jarrett. While firefighters were trying to put outthe flames, he was out front, trying to follow the draft tracker on his phone. Members of thefamily sat out in lawn chairs until 4 a.m. in front of the smoldering ruins of the home before moving into a relative’s house nearby.
But Jarrett “ain’t ordinary,” as his mother Elisha says. He has proven that, on and off the field. He is a two-time Pro Bowler and might’ve been named the MVP of the Super Bowl four years ago if the Falcons had won the game and shined a brighter light on his three sacks of Tom Brady (https://theathletic.com/player/nfl/buccaneers/tom-brady/). Jarrett grew into ateam leader. He was rewarded with a four-year, $68 million contract, and the next one will beeven bigger. The Falcons’ 2015 draft forever will be known as the one with two players at opposite ends of the achievement spectrum — first-rounder Vic Beasley as the chronic underachiever and Jarrett as the star nobody saw coming. In that way, he’s similar to his father, Jessie Tuggle, who also was overlooked because of his stature and went from an undrafted free agent to a five-time Pro Bowler with the Falcons.
Equally important is Jarrett’s off-the-field impact. He is that rare breed of athlete who opts toactually stay home in the offseason and becomes woven into the community. He gives back. He formed a foundation. He runs camps that draw up to 500 youths, ages 6 to 18. He has done so much in and for Rockdale County, that small patch of 90,000 residents east ofAtlanta off I-20, that county officials are naming a new teen center for him: The GradyJarrett Resource Opportunity Center. The ribbon-cutting is Tuesday.
Jarrett, a past nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, buys Christmas gifts for about 10 families every year. He heard about a mother who couldn’t afford a headstone after her daughter died tragically, so he picked up the cost. He read about another family that lost its home to a fire, so he provided financial assistance.
“There are so many things he does outside of Grady Gives (Foundation) that nobody hears about,” said Elisha, who grew up in poverty in Michigan. “He just calls me and says, ‘I heard about this. I think we should do something.’ I tell him all the time, ‘Kid, you’re not ordinary. Don’t act ordinary because you’re not.’”
The Athletic interviewed Jarrett in his Atlanta home. We sat in the study, where some plaques and trophies were on display, as well as a bronze guardian angel that his mother gave him two years ago. “That’s probably my favorite thing in here,” he said.
There also was a baby stroller in the room. Breaking news here.
“I didn’t know you had kids,” I said.
“I don’t, yet. But I’ll have a baby soon,” he said. “About two more weeks, I’m expecting a young boy. So I’m just prepping. I’m trying to learn how to use all this stuff.”
Elisha laughed and added, “He’s so excited. He insists on putting all this stuff together by himself.”
Jarrett and I touched on a number of topics, beginning with the need he feels to give back.
I know you have the foundation, but was the teen center something you’ve always wantedto do?
I used to go to Johnson Park when I was growing up, playing basketball. The teen center is going to be connected to do that. It’s a brand new gym with a track on top and there will be a weight room kids can use. It’s another safe place for them to go to train. And they’ll also havea college prep kind of room, meetings rooms with computers. They’ll help people applying for colleges and jobs and stuff like that.
So this was a good way to give back.
Definitely. This is part athletics and part school and just a place for kids to chill and hang out.To have my name attached to that means a lot to me, and I think it will help draw more kids there and make a better life. Really, the county is funding most of it. It’s not like college, where you donate X amount of dollars and you get your name on a building. The county is building it, and they want to dedicate it to me for being like a hometown hero and the things I stand for. It’s really an honor for me. But obviously if there’s resources or financial stuff they need, I’ll be involved.
I’ve always considered the pro athletes who gave back to their community and stayed in their city as opposed to flying to L.A. in the offseason to be unique.
It’s been cool for me to stay in the Atlanta area and to be so connected to what’s going on. I can get there in 30 minutes, and my mom still lives in Conyers. It’s really been a blessing. Atlanta has always been home to me. Even if I wasn’t with the Falcons, I feel like I’d always be in Atlanta.
Brooks told me a story last year about how you just showed up at an open camp before your senior year in high school, and most of these camps you were in the second tier of players.
Every level I’ve been in I had to prove myself. It makes things that much sweeter in the end. I was always the one counted out. In fact, I can’t even say I was counted out because they didn’t even know I was there to count. So showing up and not just surviving but excelling — high school, college, pros — I just continued to ascend. The only offers I really had were from mid-majors — Buffalo, Middle Tennessee, maybe Western Kentucky. I had been to a camp at Clemson a year or two before. I had good numbers in high school. But it was all about what would happen when they saw you in person.
You were ignored by Georgia?
Mark Richt and Rodney Garner came to Rockdale one time to see me. They called me into the office, and I was thinking we were going to talk. But they just kind of looked me up anddown. I didn’t really say too much, just like, “What’s up?” and then left. I never really heardanything from them again. I think Mississippi State offered me, and I thought, “Cool, an SEC school,” but they wanted me to go to a camp. But then the Clemson camp happened, and I ended up committing. I went to a South Carolina camp, and I was killing it, but the coach said, “We like you, but you’re too short.” I went to an Auburn camp, and all the kids they were really looking at had a certain color wristband on. The extras had a different color. I was one of the extras. I was just kind of there. Same at Alabama. I was just kinda there.
Clemson offered you on the spot?
Yeah, I told them I had to think about it. On the drive back my mom was like, “Boy are youcrazy? Call them back right now!” I committed like two days later.
Were you upset at Georgia?
To be honest with you, we were never big UGA fans. My mom worked at Georgia State, but they had just gotten football, so I wasn’t going there. It all worked out the way it was supposed to work out.
So you do well in high school, but you were overlooked in college. Then you do well in college, but you were drafted in the fifth round. There’s a theme developing here.
Being drafted meant a lot to me. But I was getting predictions like late first round or second or third at the latest. After I get didn’t drafted in the first round, Coach Swinney called me before the second day, congratulating me and telling me, “Today’s your day.” So when it didn’t happen, that was frustrating, along with obviously the house fire. And then on the third day, the whole fourth round went by and I thought, “I don’t know what’s going on.” I didn’t know if I was gonna get drafted. Then I finally got a phone call from the Falcons. I spoke to Coach (Dan) Quinn, (Scott) Pioli and (Thomas) Dimitroff, and they told me they were trading up to draft me. But one thing I’ve done — the things that upset me, I use them to motivate me to get better. I didn’t sulk about it. I kept working.
That’s a common trait of a strong leader.
Coach Swinney’s big thing is being all in. I’ve tried to be the best version of myself, and I feel the way you live off the field ties into it as well. There’s a healthy balance between having a productive life on and off the field. It motivates me, knowing guys depend on me, to push me, even on days when something’s not going good or I have something going on in my personal life. I definitely embrace that role. As a young player, I would see good things and bad thingsfrom teammates I was around, and sometimes there were things I wanted from an older player, and I wasn’t getting it. I always told myself if I ever get that chance, I’ll go out of my way to give that to the next guy coming up. Make them feel good, make them feel comfortable like they’re a part of the team because that’ll make them go hard.
What do you think when you see a teammate isn’t getting the most out of their ability,whether because of effort or off-field habits?
It’s definitely frustrating. But I’ve learned you can push certain guys to a certain point, but you can’t push anybody further than they’re willing to go themselves. And it’s a shame because it takes somebody being on the outside and looking in to wish that they had that opportunity again, to say they want to do it the right way now. I didn’t want to be that guy. I didn’t want to think, “Oh, if I just did this.” I didn’t want to have regrets. Even the guys who are super talented, that talent may get you there, but it’s only going to keep you there for so long. You know what I’m saying? The guys who are super talented and super work hard, those are theguys who are superstars. I watched how Julio would practice, and he was humble around the building. I thought, “If Julio Jones (https://theathletic.com/player/nfl/titans/julio-jones/) can work like that while the world is singing his praises, there’s no excuse for me to not try to emulate that.”
You have any thoughts about the way it ended for Julio with the Falcons?
I’m happy for him. I know what kind of guy he is. If he feels he gave Atlanta 10 great years and he was a great teammate to me, I want the best for him. But it seemed like there was mutual agreeance on how it went down.
What are your thoughts on the new regime with Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot?
I’m excited. It’s good to have a fresh energy around there. It’s what we needed. I definitely believe in the things they want to do, guys buying all the way in. I have to play here, anyway, so I want to be a resource for them to get across any message they want and to be the standard of how they want other guys to play. So I don’t feel anything but excitement and positivity. Obviously, there’s adjustments, but in life there’s always adjustments, and change is good; I’ve never been scared of change. I’m excited for this season.
Smith seems like your kind of guy.
Without a doubt. He definitely demands the most out of you at all the time. Straight forward.Transparent. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, it is what is.
What did you say the other day, “No fluff”?
Yeah. And my D-line coach, Gary Emanuel, is like that, too. If you like it, great. If you don’t, get out. And (defensive coordinator Dean) Pees, I’m excited to play for him. The multiple looks. It’s cool to me to see how different coaches game plan and their thought processes going into a game. As a player, it makes me look at something through a different set of eyes,along with the ways I look at it myself and the way I was taught by other people.
You were in the Super Bowl in your second year. You probably thought, “Wow the NFL is great!” And then the last few years happened.
It definitely took a lot of hard work to get there. But these last couple of years have been tough. I want to get back to winning and playing competitive games — not just going out there and play in games that don’t matter. I want to play for something. I want to play for a championship. Stakes on the line. I’m telling you, the game is different when you go out there when there’s something on the line instead of just (needing to) complete the next game or padding stats. Or maybe the other team is trying to get through it, too. The game is different. It’s called different. It’s played different. And I like to shine in big moments. It pulls the best out of me.
You had three sacks in the Super Bowl and might’ve been the MVP if you had won. I believe that wholeheartedly.
But at the end of the day, you can only control what you canand just keep going.
These last four years make you realize how hard it is to get there?
Absolutely. It also shows you how small a margin for error there is. Even when we were struggling, we weren’t out here getting blown up. We were losing crazy, close games. That was mentally taxing in itself. It shows how hard it is to win this league. But the most important thing is it shows how game day matters. You’re not just throwing rosters out there and matching them up. You have to play the game and execute, no matter how you practiced during the week. Your team has to be right on the day of the game.
Why do you think went sideways under Dan Quinn after the Super Bowl?
People forget we were pretty good the following year. We won a playoff game, and we lost to Philly in a crazy situation (15-10 after a goal-line stand), and then they went on to win the Super Bowl. Then the last couple of years just started off terrible. Last year was just terrible. I don’t know what happened. But I don’t have one bad thing to say about Coach Quinn, and I want to be clear about something:
When I was talking about Coach Smith and how (https://theathletic.com/2739515/2021/07/29/schultz-theres-a-new-sound-at-falcons-campunder-arthur-smith-and-it-was-needed/) he was straightforward, no fluff, blah blah blah, I wasn’t taking a jab at Coach Quinn. Because I love Coach Quinn. I appreciate every effort he gave towards trying to have a good team. He wanted to win and maybe it took a certain type of player and person to appreciate that and go hard.
Did some guys take advantage of him because he was such a nice guy?
As pros, you should want to do your best at all times. That’s more of a reflection on a player than a coach.
Last question: Is there anything you can say about your contract? The Falcons obviouslywant to extend your deal, which runs through 2022, but have obvious cap issues.
I don’t know. I want to see how this season shakes out. After this, I don’t have any guarantees left. (The guaranteed money is done after this season.) I’m just focused on playing right now. For real. I’m not really pressed about it. In due time. I learned from last time when we were going through this. It doesn’t stress me out because I know I’ll do my part.
Do you want to stay here?
I love Atlanta, you know that. I love playing for Mr. Blank and the organization and everything they stand for. But at the end of the day, we all know how business goes. However it shakes out for me, Atlanta will always be home. But I love where I’m at, and I want to win where I’m at. But I understand the business and the way things go as well.
(Top photo: Michael Reaves / Getty Images