Grant Norton's Journey through the Underworld of College Football
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Grant Norton grew up in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. Once known by some Americans as a good place to vacation in the summer, the spot has seen a surge in notoriety since the debut of the Netflix series Ozark. Grant’s family, through their boating and water sports business, has reaped the rewards of this surge along with the propensity of those with the means to buy a boat during the COVID-19 pandemic. When I visited Grant this summer, I walked into the shop and stared at a massive boat that sat in the middle of their showroom. Having never even driven a boat myself, I asked Grant how much it would set me back. He replied, “Oh, you can’t buy that one, I just sold it yesterday. But we could get you another one for $150,000.” I congratulated him on the sale even as I knew this is not where he imagined himself being in the summer of 2020. If you had asked Grant three years ago where he’d be, he probably would have said playing Division I college football.
Three years ago Grant was a rising senior at Camdenton High School and a star offensive tackle on the school’s football team. He was a three-star recruit and ESPN listed him as the 13th best recruit in the state. At 6 feet, 8 inches tall and 250 pounds, it was not hard to see why. Schools came calling just as he and his father had hoped they would when they spent the previous four years sculpting him into just such a player.
Grant had his pick of scholarship offers from multiple schools. He told me that travelling around the country with his dad doing campus visits as a junior in high school was a highlight for both of them. Grant would be the first in his family to attend a major university. His dad had played basketball for a small regional university in Missouri and his mom was trained for youth ministry and so major university visits were a new thing for the family. It seemed that all of their hard work was finally paying off. The University of Minnesota wasn’t really on Grant’s radar until the coaching staff started reaching out to him on Twitter saying that they had an open spot on their offensive line to fill. Grant and his dad took interest.
Several things attracted Grant to Minnesota. He said he loved the new practice facility and the fact that most players lived in an apartment building owned by the university right across the street from where they practiced. He described being in awe of the architecture on campus and how he really liked offensive line coach Ed Warinner. As for Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck, Grant—like so many others I’ve interviewed over the years—said he was attracted to Fleck’s “energy.” Grant commented that it seemed like Fleck never slowed down and that this frantic energy would translate into him working hard to develop every player on the team to the top of their abilities. This eventually convinced Grant to accept Fleck’s offer of a full scholarship.
Before he came to Minnesota, Grant says he was a “happy and outgoing” person. He said every once in a while he would get “a bit of anxiety” if he had to make a big life decision, but that was it. He had never been treated for any mental health issues and assumed this would continue at Minnesota.
Grant’s entry into his new life was bumpy. His arrival at summer camp in 2018 was delayed as he awaited confirmation of his ACT scores from a re-test he had taken. Once the scores came in and he was cleared for camp, there were other immediate bumps in the road. As is so often the case for recruits, certain promises are made to get them to commit to a school. However, there is no way that those promises are enforceable upon arrival. Such was the case for Grant. Shortly before the season began, new behemoth four-star offensive linemen Daniel Faalele signed along with another four-star IMG Academy offensive line recruit Curtis Dunlap Jr. Moreover, as is so often the case in Fleck’s program, the assistant coach who had recruited Grant was now gone. Ed Warinner had been replaced by Brian Callahan who Grant had immediate static with. According to Grant he had a dark sense of humor and refused to catch him up on what he had missed after coming into camp late.
From the first day of summer camp, Grant said that he felt like the writing was on the wall. Coming to Minnesota, he felt like he would be starting by his junior year. But, with the arrival of Faalele and Dunlap after Grant committed the earliest he would see a start would be his senior year. Even that might not happen. Instead, he stared ahead at a college career where he might be relegated to the practice squad the entire time. But, he “was not a quitter” and he didn’t want to let his father down so he dove into practice and tried to stick it out.
He simply couldn’t have imagined how strenuous summer and fall camp could be. Unknown or uncared about to most of the general public, football practice time limits in this period are essentially nonexistent. In Fleck’s first season at Minnesota in 2017, other players on the team described to me a hellacious schedule that began at 5:00 a.m. with most of the players not falling asleep until after midnight. Then they woke up the next day and did it all over again. Players told me that many of them simply slept and showered at the practice facility itself (where cots were laid out) as opposed to going home at all. No time was allowed for leisure.
This is the life Grant stepped into and he simply could not have imagined how awful it would be and how “it would completely destroy his love for football.” He said that almost immediately he “didn’t like the person I was becoming” as depression set in. To make matters worse, Grant said he felt shunned by Fleck. Where once he and other assistant coaches flew multiple times to Missouri to ensure that he came to Minnesota, on his arrival he felt as if he was no longer welcome.
As his mental health declined, the physical soon followed. Grant’s throat was hit hard during one practice and his overall health spiraled downward from there. Grant described waking up every morning so racked with anxiety about another day of practice that he would immediately begin vomiting which exacerbated his throat injury. The vomiting became so continuous and intense that he was eventually throwing up blood all the time and couldn’t keep any food down. This physical and mental toll led to rapid weight loss. Grant came into summer camp at 6 feet, 8 inches and 280 pounds. He said in about 4 weeks he had lost roughly forty pounds of this weight simply because he couldn’t keep food down and was vomiting so much.
Despite staff knowing all of this, Grant was not kept out of practice. Quite the contrary. Instead of being kept out of practice, he was practiced harderby the coaching staff, particularly Fleck’s longtime strength and conditioning coach Dan Nichol. Not only did he have to continue grinding out practices in his physical and mental condition, he also had to do five-minute planks after practice was over as punishment for not keeping on weight. Grant said at one point that Nichol actually apologized for having to do this but these were his orders.
It was about this time that I met Grant. In the first week of the fall semester 2018, he was in a freshman seminar that I taught at the University of Minnesota. I knew immediately when looking at him that something was wrong. In the report that I submitted in summer 2019 to central administrators at the University of Minnesota, and which was read by many people including Athletics Director Mark Coyle, I described my interaction with Grant in the classroom as follows:
I met SA16 [the anonymous label I used for Grant] in fall semester 2018. Almost immediately he was having attendance problems. I asked him why and he said he was having extreme anxiety and some sort of problem with his trachea and/or esophagus (I don’t remember which). At the end of week 2 (I believe) of class he went in for surgery on the problem. I never saw him again after that. He not only dropped my class but also un-enrolled from the U of MN and gave up his scholarship. 2 other football players in class were having a conversation about him that they definitely did not know that I overheard. One said to the other, “He definitely has a lawsuit because of what happened to him.”
As Grant would tell me this summer, he had a hole in his esophagus from vomiting so much and it needed to be repaired. He said soon after this he reached the absolute pit of despair. He said that he saw a therapist who was housed within the athletics department but that the person wasn’t much help. Without any help or support Grant began developing a “heavy anxiety that weighed on me to the point where I didn’t want to be alive.” He finally decided it was time to have his first real conversation with Coach Fleck about what was going on.
When he walked into Fleck’s office, Grant said that he didn’t really know what was going to come of the meeting. Grant hoped, given that he wouldn’t even be playing in games during the 2018 season, that he would be given time off to rest and recover. Fleck was having none of it. Grant said it was immediately clear that the therapist within the athletics department, that he had seen confidentially, had spoken with Fleck about some of what Grant had told her. Fleck made it clear that he now considered Grant a liability and didn’t want him on the team anymore. He told him it was time for him to go and that he shouldn’t speak poorly about the program after he left. So, Grant left that day back to Missouri. News reports at the time barely mentioned him and Grant was immediately disappeared from the team’s website. His playing number (74) was immediately turned over to another player which led to confusing media reports incorrectly identifying him as having played in a game for Minnesota. He returned to Missouri weighing fifty pounds less than when he left but he said what hurt most was his dad’s disappointment at his “failure.”
At the family’s boat shop this summer, Grant’s dad Joe had clearly moved beyond the idea that his son had “failed.” In the intervening two years, he definitely had come to understand that Minnesota’s coaches and the institution that enabled their bad behavior had failed his son. Joe spoke of talking with football coach Jeff Sims about what happened to Grant and how Sims spoke of first-year college players “as being a bit like eggs.” Sims said that coaches needed to be careful with these players and the pressure they put on them to keep them from breaking. Joe understood now that Grant had been broken by a coach with a different mindset.
Others in Grant’s 2018 recruiting class have been similarly broken. Of the twenty-six players Fleck recruited for 2018—the first year he was wholly responsible for recruiting an entire class of players as head coach—five will never play the game again because of physical and/or mentally debilitating injuries that they all sustained solely in practice. Grant is one of these five. Four others—Alex Reigelsperger, Jornell Manns, Nolan Edmonds, and Erik Gibson—are now officially classified as “medical retirements” from the sport of football. They will never again play the game and the only benefit they will receive from their designations as “medical retirees” is the ability to finish out their scholarships at Minnesota. As with all Division I college athletes during and after their playing time, they and their families will have to obtain their own medical insurance coverage and foot the costs associated with this coverage.
A person affiliated with the University of Minnesota football program, and who prefers to remain anonymous so as to avoid retaliation, confirmed much of Grant’s story for me. This person said that they couldn’t believe what Grant was put through at Minnesota—particularly the fact that Grant was forced to keep practicing as his condition deteriorated. My source personally witnessed Grant throwing up blood and told me that with his shirt off Grant “had come to look more like a tight end than an offensive lineman” given his rapid weight loss.
My source was “relieved” when Grant left because at least he would be cared for at home in a way he wasn’t in the program. The source told me that Grant “left in a blur” with almost no one realizing that he wasn’t on the team anymore. The source told me that “no one, even in his position group, knew he left” as there was no announcement from coaches at all. Despite my June 2019 report to University of Minnesota central administrators which detailed my concerns with Grant’s physical and mental health, I was the first person, nearly two years after he departed, to ever call him and investigate what had happened to him.
Grant says now that if he had to do it all over again that he would go to The University of Nebraska to play for head coach Scott Frost from whom he had also received a scholarship offer. Joe speaks wistfully about Frost and Nebraska as well. But, they both believe that “everything happens for a reason” and that God wanted Grant for other things. This belief was further engrained in Hawaii this past February when Grant was volunteering with the community organization Surfing the Nations. He and two other volunteers were swimming in the ocean and were swept out to sea. Grant was able to save a friend’s life but they both had to watch as a 20-year-old Swedish volunteer died. Both of these events—one person living and one person dying affected him greatly and he said he just wants to “use the life God has given me to help others.” His dream is to open a kid’s wake board surf camp in the Lake of the Ozarks. For now, he seems content working at his family’s business and being with his family and his girlfriend in Missouri.
Grant told me that if anyone takes anything from his story he would want it to be that “your mental health is so important and so fragile” and that it can change so quickly “if people want to take advantage of you.” He said that being around people that love and support you is what is most important for your mental health.
And therein lies the rub. Tens of thousands of student-athlete parents send their kids off for their freshman year every year. Many come from backgrounds like Grant’s where they are simply not familiar with what university life in all its facets is supposed to look like. But, at the very least, they have an expectation that the institution will care for their kids. In many cases, though, the student-athletes get to campus and are subjected to abusive cultures like the one Grant was. This can happen, ironically, because of the same factors that drew Grant to come to Minnesota—the great athletics facilities and the apartment building across the street where all the athletes live. Such a world, which exists on most campuses for student-athletes, creates an isolation from normal campus life. Such an isolation, in the hands of a good coach, can have positive attributes. To use the current pandemic parlance, it can create “bubble” through which all can see that athletes are being kept safe. However, in the hands of an uncaring coach, a bubble can quickly become a black box where abuse can happen undetected and where everyone feels beholden to a single man.
That all of this is occurring in higher education should give everyone pause. In the wider political culture universities are, of course, seen as the ultimate institutions in American life dedicated to social justice and to creating “safe spaces” in which everyone can thrive. At the University of Minnesota, the new president Joan Gable came in a year ago saying that the top item on her agenda was ameliorating the student mental health “epidemic” on campus. However, it is easy to see how such rhetoric, absent of any real institutional action, can be used as window dressing by administrators, coaches and athletics directors to cover up a much darker reality behind the scenes. For student-athlete safety and mental health to truly move to the top of the agenda, players will have to organize themselves and demand that the system be changed.
If you are thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or a loved one, or would like emotional support call 1-800-273-8255.
If you are a current or former NCAA student-athlete or coach and you think I need to hear your story for my forthcoming book Exploit U: The Secret Underworld of College Football or for a possible story in my newsletter don’t hesitate to email me at email@example.com.
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University of Minnesota Director of Athletics Mark Coyle, citing federal and state privacy laws for student-athletes, declined comment on this story for both himself and the University of Minnesota football coaching staff.