Making the Big House home: How former point guard Kelvin Grady is fitting in

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Kelvin Grady, leaving the field after Michigan's 31-7 victory over WMU. Buy this photo

BY RUTH LINCOLN
Daily Sports Editor
Published October 21, 2009

Crisler Arena is the home of the Michigan football team’s postgame press conference, but for Kelvin Grady, it’s more than just an interview room.

Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen/Daily
Kelvin Grady plays against Ohio State on January 17th, 2009.
Said Alsalah/Daily

Last Saturday, following Michigan’s win over Delaware State, Kelvin stood at the podium eagerly answering questions. Smiling widely with his brother Kevin, a fullback on the team, by his side, Kelvin used the word ‘blessed’ four times in his short interview. He looked like there wasn’t anywhere else he’d rather be.

It’s hard not to think that just a couple hallways away is the Crisler Arena floor, where for two seasons, Kelvin started 33 of 64 games and averaged 4.9 points per game. It’s hard not to think that last March he celebrated on the court as the Michigan basketball team’s name was called on Selection Sunday for the first time in 11 years. And it’s hard not to think of his former locker just another wing away where he celebrated upset victories over Duke and Purdue with his former teammates.

But as his playing time dwindled to practically nothing last season, Kelvin’s thoughts drifted elsewhere. Now, he’s refocused them with a new set of Wolverines.

Through the support of his family, his infectious personality and pure athleticism, Kelvin Grady has had an incredible journey.

BROTHERLY LOVE

Inside Kevin and Kelvin’s Ann Arbor apartment, a picture hangs prominently on the wall.
It’s from the 2004 MHSAA regional football final between East Grand Rapids and Lowell, Kevin’s final high school game. Shortly before the photo was taken, Kevin had just fumbled. As the all-time MHSAA rushing leader sat solemnly on the bench with his head between his knees, Kelvin, just a 10th grader at the time, sat beside his older brother.

Amid all the chaos and clamor, Kelvin slid his arm around Kevin and whispered words of encouragement into his brother’s ear.

“Every time I see it, it brings back that memory — it just brought tears to my eyes,” the Gradys’ father, Kevin Sr., said. “It’s just a love for his brother. Kelvin shares Kevin’s pains. He’s that type of kid, he’s got a big heart.”

Last Saturday, the brothers sat on another sideline bench, far from the one they shared five years ago on a cold November night in West Michigan. This one was inside Michigan Stadium. And instead of mourning defeat, they relished a much more joyous occasion — Kelvin’s first touchdown.

Moments after freshman quarterback Denard Robinson found Kelvin steps from the end zone, Kevin found Kelvin. He lifted his younger brother high into the air as Kelvin etched his name into a small part of Michigan history.

“I’ve been dying to get in the end zone to see what it feels like, and it feels great,” Kelvin said. “On top of that, to look back and see my brother coming and lifting me over my feet, he dang near threw me over his head — it’s definitely a blessing and these are the types of moments and opportunities you work for to get.”

Although they played high school football together for just one season, the Gradys started working together for those moments far earlier. From AAU teams to their East Grand Rapids backyard, Kelvin and Kevin played every major sport together. And they had the same coach — their father.

The former high school and semi-pro football coach trained his sons the same way he had trained to play sports a generation earlier.

“I’m an old-school disciplined person,” Kevin Sr. said. “Structured. Old school. Push. I push. I get the best out of them.”

During the summer when Kelvin was in fourth grade and Kevin in sixth, Kevin Sr. would push his sons every morning — to write.

The brothers would wake up around 8 a.m., and Kevin Sr. would have the boys run around Reese Lake in East Grand Rapids. But before they hit the road, Kevin Sr. had each boy write a one-page essay about anything they wanted.

“A lot of them were about sports, and me growing up and wanting to play college football, and playing in the NFL and beating Barry Sanders’ rushing records in Detroit,” Kevin recalled.

While they were writing, running or playing catch, they developed a relationship beyond any typical teammates. Their family will tell you Kevin is the laid-back, quiet brother, and Kelvin is feisty and inquisitive. They might be best friends, but they are also each other’s fiercest competitors.

When Kelvin was five and Kevin seven, the brothers were playing basketball at their East Grand Rapids home. Being the larger, older brother, Kevin would post Kelvin up and shoot the ball over his smaller brother.

Kelvin lost. He didn’t like it.

So when the boys went into the house, Kelvin had a present for Kevin.

“He actually came in the house and threw a rock at me inside the house,” Kevin recalled with a laugh. “He was so mad that he had lost.”

The rock hit a door instead of Kevin. Kevin remembers their father wasn’t too happy; Kelvin’s a little blurry on the details.

Neither brother has lost their competitive edge through the years, but their bond has grown. Despite Kevin’s heralded high school rushing success, Kelvin said he’s never tried to compare himself to Kevin.

“It’s a blessing for the two of them, they came up together close, and while they’re in school together, they’re still close,” said Alice Whitney, Kevin and Kelvin’s maternal grandmother. “Because sometimes when brothers are in sports, they kind of competitive and they pull away from each other. But with these two, they love each other and they support each other, and I think that’s what makes both as strong as they are.”

FROM THE HARDWOOD TO THE GRIDIRON

After Kelvin went from starting eight straight games on the Michigan basketball team to playing in garbage time, his departure wasn’t much of a shock.

“I was a little bit surprised, but I could tell because of his playing time because I know how my brother's competitive and how he likes to be on the playing field,” Kevin said. “Being his brother, I could tell by that that he was unhappy about the situation.”

Kelvin left the basketball team and headed back to East Grand Rapids at the end of the winter semester in order to sort out his life. Would he continue to play basketball elsewhere? Would he give up athletics altogether?

For three weeks, Kelvin tried to find those answers while working the third shift at the Amway plant in nearby Ada. From 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., Kelvin put caps on lotion bottles. With each bottle cap, he debated his past decisions and contemplated his future.

“It was a humbling experience,” he said. “To go from college, playing sports, getting a rent check, going to class, hanging out with your friends to reality. I was out of school and I was working — working in a factory.”

It only took a few days for Kelvin to realize he didn’t want to spend his life in a factory. College football had been an option for him before he chose to play basketball, and he felt he might fit in at Michigan Stadium.

Shortly after his time at the factory, he sought out Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez and showed him his high school highlights. The rest is history.

With Kevin already on the football team, Kelvin sought out Kevin when he felt football might be an option.

“He was like, ‘You got the tools,’ ” Kelvin said. “ ‘If you want to come, come in. But if you do, you need to be all in. You can’t come out here just to come out here. This is something serious. This is Michigan football. This is something that you have to really want to do.’ ”

And what he really wanted to do was play in the Big House.

LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE

If you have never heard Michigan offensive coordinator Calvin Magee or running backs coach Fred Jackson speak, don’t worry. Kelvin can take care of that.

While learning the Michigan playbook, Kelvin was, of course, listening to instructions at his slot receiver position. But between the X’s and O’s, Kelvin noticed the long O’s, southern accents and other sound bytes coming from his coaches’ mouths. He knew imitation was the highest form of flattery, so he made the accents his own.

“Some of the coaches will call him out to do an imitation of it, sometimes before or after practice,” Kevin said, noting that Kelvin’s Coach Jackson impression is the better of the two. “You might not even know Coach Jackson, but the way he does it, we’ll have a riot just laughing at him.”

Kelvin said it took him all of fall camp and the first couple weeks of the season to hone his craft. But picking up on others’ traits is nothing new for the self-proclaimed “people person.” Kelvin said he will talk with teammates from all position groups, and he likes to find out unique and interesting things about people.

But above all he loves to make people laugh. For the Wolverines, that’s a good thing.

“From the first day he came in, he fit right in,” sophomore tight end Kevin Koger said. “He gives comic relief to the team and mainly our position group. I love having him around.

“It’s Tuesday, it’s Wednesday in the middle of the week and we’re not feeling too well, and he comes in always with a smile on his face, always has a joke to say.”

It’s natural, then, that Kevin said the best part about sharing an apartment with his brother is the constant laughter.

Senior wide receiver Greg Mathews doesn’t live with the Gradys, but for him, Kelvin makes Friday morning Anthropology class a little more bearable.

“It’s tough to go to class at 9 a.m. and pay attention because it’s kind of early, but being in class with Kelvin, it’s just fun because the teacher usually calls on Kelvin, and he usually has something funny to say,” Mathews said. “He makes a joke and then he’ll get around to answering the question.”

At Michigan, it’s easy for Kelvin to be in his element. His teammates and peers respond fluidly to his jokes and humor. Laughter has helped Kelvin fit in, but he’s not about to forget the person he likes to make laugh most:

His grandmother.

“She’s probably one of the people I talk to the most,” Kelvin said. “I try to make her laugh as much as possible. … I know my grandmother really well. I just tell her lots of jokes. She likes jokes.”

Kelvin said the two talk frequently about a range of topics, and despite their age difference, they actually have a lot in common. Alice lives in Grand Rapids and can’t make it down for games, but watches her grandsons on TV every week.

“I have 17 grandkids and when we all get together, we are just one big, laughable family,” Alice said. “For one thing, (Kelvin’s) very loving. He’s very funny. He’s always doing something to keep me laughing. He's just one grandson that’s always thinking about his granny and making sure I’m all right, so I love him for loving me like that.”

Sometimes, Alice must miss the live broadcast because of choir practice, but she always watches the recorded version when she gets home so she can discuss the games with Kelvin later.

“We talk about everything,” Kelvin said. “She tells me she watches the game and she’s like, ‘If they’re going to keep hitting you like that, I’ll have to come out there.’ ”

Luckily, for Alice, the first time Kelvin got hit, he got right back up.

YOU’RE HIT, NOW WHAT?

Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Junior Hemingway remembers well the first day Kelvin put on pads during fall camp. None of the Wolverines wanted to miss it.

“We were talking about it like, ‘Ooooh, Kelvin’s first day in pads, we’re gonna see what you got,’ ” Hemingway recalled. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m so small. I haven’t gotten hit in what seems like four years. I don’t know how it’s going to feel. Someone might break my bones.’ ”

Luckily for the 5-foot-9, 168 pounder, no casts were necessary.

“I just remember him getting smacked and him getting up quick,” Magee said. “He was kind of excited about it. He said, ‘Man, at least I got that out of the way.’ ”

Now, it’s not a question if Kelvin can take a hit, but how far he can go.

When Kelvin first contacted Rodriguez about joining the team in June, Magee said he immediately got a phone call from Rodriguez to examine Kelvin’s high school highlights. Magee was impressed with Kelvin’s play-making ability at tailback, his ball skills and vision.

But with Michigan already boasting a deep stable of running backs, the coaching staff felt Kelvin’s talents could best be used at slot receiver.

“That was what we talked about from the very beginning, because that’s what we look for in our slot receivers,” Magee said. “Most of our slot receivers are good former tailbacks. So he had the ball skills.”

It’s a formula Rodriguez and his staff has already proved to be effective. Darius Reynaud, a current Minnesota Vikings receiver and former slot receiver at West Virginia under Rodriguez and Magee, rushed for nearly 2,000 yards his senior year of high school but never played receiver. He went to Morgantown and finished his storied three-year career with 1,550 receiving yards.

Kelvin’s Michigan football story might not be quite as prolific, but with two years of eligibility remaining after this season, he could just be getting started.

“He can be as good as any collegiate starter,” Magee said “As he gets another year with (strength and conditioning coach) Mike Barwis in the weight room, he’s going to get stronger, he’s going to get faster. I think the sky’s the limit for him. I really think he can be as good as any other guy at his position.”

When Magee meets with Kelvin in his Schembechler Hall office, it’s always a worthwhile trip for Kelvin. Sitting on Magee’s office desk is a candy dish. Magee doesn’t care for Starburst fruit chews, but he keeps his dish stocked, just for Kelvin.

“I think he would choose to eat Starburst for breakfast, lunch and dinner if he could,” Magee said. “He eats candy all the time. I know he’s probably excited Halloween’s coming up.”

To the staff, Kelvin’s worth keeping around. Magee’s small gesture shows the coaching staff wants to keep Kelvin happy, and he clearly is. But probably the biggest indicator of Kelvin’s potential success came one week into fall camp.

Completely unprovoked, Kelvin approached Coach Magee and told him that he wasn’t looking back at Crisler Arena or anything else. He was a football player now, and was going to put all of himself into it.

“I was excited because it’s a lot that the kid volunteered that on his own,” Magee said. “I didn’t have to sit him down and talk with him about that. … I took his word for it.”