During his long career in international and professional lacrosse, John Grant Jr. always tracked his family’s location in the stadium.
He knows some athletes block out everything, but he never did. The music, the crowd and particularly his wife and daughter – he was always aware of it all.
But before a concussion halted his career in 2016, his could see his daughter wasn’t old enough to appreciate what she was seeing.
“She would go to games, but it would be so loud she wouldn’t know what was going on,” Grant said. “She would just kind of sing and dance.”
Fast forward more than 1,000 days. The concussion symptoms are gone. Grant, an assistant lacrosse coach at Air Force, had been working himself back into shape at the academy’s facilities. Gabby, now 8, is playing lacrosse.
Maybe it was time to show Gabby what she had been missing. And when she asked him to come back, well, that sealed it.
“It felt like maybe it was the right time,” Grant said.
And so one of the most decorated lacrosse players in history is back as an attacksman with the Denver Outlaws at age 44. He’s 10 years older than any of his teammates. He was 22 years older than his roommate for a road game last week. Decades of injuries have slowed him. But he’s never appreciated the game more, and “Gabby’s daddy,” as he identifies first and foremost on Twitter, can share this with his new biggest fan.
‘You can’t take the fire out of this dragon’
Maybe Gabby’s request that her dad resume his playing career came from a place of mercy.
She watched him on the sidelines as an Air Force coach and knew he was growing angry when the hat came off and the arms crossed.
“I said that I don’t like watching you coach on the field, so I want you to play,” the soon-to-be fourth grader said. “And I was really excited when he started to play because I didn’t like watching him yell at kids.”
It wasn’t just the “kids” on his own team, either.
“It’s not like I didn’t want to coach, I just wanted to play more,” said Grant, who continues to serve as an assistant at Air Force and for the Outlaws, where he’s a player/offensive coordinator. “I’d catch myself threatening guys on the other team if they were picking on our guys. I’d have to remind myself, ‘John, you have a golf shirt on…’”
Grant said he likely wouldn’t have entertained the thought of a comeback if it weren’t for a workout routine he began with fellow Air Force assistant Doug Murray, an avid mountain biker who “trains all the time.”
Grant began joining Murray once a week. Then two. The opportunity was never lacking at the academy, where Grant said “there’s a weight room every five steps.”
Once he grew serious, he hired a personal trainer with Landow Performance. That meant leaving his Highlands Ranch home at 7 a.m. for workouts in Commerce City before commuting to Air Force.
When Raygen Grant saw that dedication, it helped her inch closer to accepting the idea.
She said when she “signed on” with John back in high school in Canada, she knew professional lacrosse was likely in his future. But the average career spanned no more than five years. His, however, encompassed decades and forced her into situations like the one in 2009 when she had to convince doctors not to amputate his leg when an infection spread from his knee throughout his body, nearly killing him and leaving him in the hospital for 40 days.
Then came the concussion, which she sees as an entirely different and frightening situation.
So, when he approached her with the idea of a comeback – “It was more of a begging,” he said – she needed him to meet certain criteria logistically, mentally and physically.
The logistics were fairly simple. He was already working out and already with the Outlaws at practices and games as a coach – so trading the clipboard for a stick wasn’t such a big deal as far as time was concerned. Air Force signed off on the idea, and he has already used road trips as recruiting opportunities.
The Outlaws told him a spot would be there for him until someone came along and proved they could take it. Mentally, he was all in with Gabby as a driving force, but also with a sense of unfinished business.
“I always knew deep down I could still play if I wasn’t so obliterated physically,” he said. “So deep down I needed to know if that was just false bravado, or I could really do it.”
Physically, Raygen is still not fully convinced he will avoid being a “speed bump.” But she relented. It was two against one in their family as Gabby was fully on her dad’s side, and there was a part of her that missed it as well.
“Honestly, it hasn’t been as exciting to watch him coach as it was to watch him play,” she admitted to him for the first time while sitting at their kitchen table with Gabby. “We were always there for the support factor, but if we’re going to talk fun factor, the fun factor for us was more seeing him on the field. I will admit there have been numerous times I’ve thought after watching him coach a game, ‘God what I wouldn’t do to see you on the field playing.’
“There’s a nostalgia around it.”
John seemed a bit shocked by this revelation.
She sighed, adding, “you can’t take the fire out of this dragon.”
‘Keeping them in the forefront’
The record fell in the third game.
Grant had retired from Major League Lacrosse as a five-time champion and two-time MVP, but he was two points shy of Paul Rabil’s career scoring mark.
When Grant assisted Brendan Kavanagh’s goal in the opening minutes of the second quarter, he moved into first place with 598 points (369 goals – including 18 2-point goals – and 211 assists). It was his third assist of the season for the Outlaws, who have won 2 of 3 on the road as they await the June 27th home opener.
Not bad for a 44-year-old with no meniscus or cartilage in one knee who struggles at times just to walk from the parking lot to his office. “I feel the pain less when I’m playing than just walking to my car,” Grant said. “The mind is a crazy thing. You can do a lot of things if you put your mind to it.”
When the mind is motivated by family, the possibilities expand even further. Lacrosse was passed down to John from his father, John Grant Sr., an accomplished player and later coach. Days would be spent around the game from the end of school until the late-night hours, leaving John little choice but to pick it up and become a standout who has played 17 years in the National Lacrosse League after being named National College Player of the Year while at Delaware. He has also left a long list of junior, collegiate and professional championships and individual accolades.
Raygen – the spelling of her name is after her father – knew nothing of lacrosse before meeting John, yet she picked it up so thoroughly she eventually coached four years of girls’ high school lacrosse in Canada.
John wanted their house in Highlands Ranch because of its giant side yard, and it is there that he practices with Gabby and invites her friends over for clinics and games. That group has formed a neighborhood recreation team.
“I want my number to be 48 because I’m going to be two times better than he is,” Gabby said. John doesn’t put up an argument, particularly when Gabby adds she’s faster than him.
With the home opener approaching, John is excited to have a new captive member of the audience. He looks forward to talking with her after the game, discussing the action and perhaps picking up some pointers.
He doesn’t know how long this comeback will last, but he has visions of a sixth championship – won as a player, a coach and with a daughter fully aware of what is happening.
It would be the perfect end to a season that began with his daughter at media day, lip syncing to Taylor Swift while jamming on a little air guitar.
“I was always just so focused on winning and being a good teammate, and I think with most athletes that’s what happens,” said Grant, trying as hard as ever to keep his family in his sights at all times. “I’m keeping them in forefront of this comeback.
“So far, so good.”