On Sept. 1, 2012, as the rest of the California football team stood in the North Tunnel of California Memorial Stadium, shaking out their nerves, jumping up and down, waiting for the first roar in the newly-renovated stadium, one player was suspiciously quiet.
He peered into the sunlight, looked around, felt the drums of the band echo through his bones. There was no way this could be real. Just months ago, he’d only been a regular, average student, going to class, frantically trying to write those final papers late at night, working until 1 a.m. in the Clark Kerr computing center to make ends meet.
“I remember the first game. My first game to be a part of was Nevada,” says junior wide receiver James Grisom. “Man. It gave me chills, walking out of the tunnel. I just stopped and looked around. I can’t believe this is really happening. It must be a dream. This is real.”
For two years, Grisom had told his dorm mates and his friends that he was going to play football. He was going to run out of that tunnel on game day. He was going to walk on. He had an in with the coaches. As two football seasons came and went, though, eventually the responses slid from hopeful to dismissive, from slaps on the back to ‘Let’s just humor him.’
“I was already telling my friends that I’m going to try out for the football team, and they’re all, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’” says Grisom. “Some of my friends were like, ‘Yeah, that’s tight! Good luck!’ Others were just like, ‘Yeah, OK, that’s nice.’”
As a senior at Lynwood (Calif.), Grisom – who played safety and quarterback – was lightly recruited, to say the least. Army sniffed around a bit, but the one constant was now-former Bears running backs coach Ron Gould.
“I love the sport,” says Grisom. “Coach Gould came to our school to recruit us, and he was telling me that if I get accepted, he’d try and help me out with the process of walking on, or at least show me what I need to do and where I need to go.”
Early in high school, college was barely a dream for Grisom, until his Fresno State-bound sister (who’s now in graduate school, focusing on analytical behavior -- all but beat him into academic submission.
“I guess I was one of those students that tries to do average just to get by, and my 10th grade year, my sister basically got me into AVID. I didn’t want to,” Grisom admits.
AVID – which stands for Advance Via Individual Determination – was a program at Lynwood run by Anna Higuera. Grisom may have been more than willing to just eek by, but his sister, Higuera and school counselor James Murray wouldn’t let him.
“She was really close to the counselor, and she also got me into that program,” says Grisom. “That opened up my mind. I realized I wanted to go to college.”
Grisom finished high school with a 3.8 GPA, and got into Cal completely on his own. He was ready to try out for the team that fall as a wide receiver. He struggled a bit to adjust to his new environs, and wasn’t ready – academically – to add football to his life.
“My first semester was a little tough,” he says. “The transition from high school to college, I didn’t really utilize resources that the school had to provide for us and stuff. I was trying to be like Superman.”
A year went by, as he watched the 2010 team go 5-7 from the stands. The next season, he was determined to hit the field. There was just one hiccup: Wide receivers coach Kevin Daft had been let go. He had to wait another year and ingratiate himself to a new coach.
Ready to try out for new receivers coach Eric Kiesau, Grisom was again frustrated, as Kiesau departed for Washington after the 2011 season.
Grisom couldn’t catch a break. Then, with Keenan Allen out due to ankle surgery, 2012 signees Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs still in high school and just six healthy receivers coming into spring camp, the Bears held an open tryout.
“Since I got accepted to the school, I already had it in my mind that I wanted to play football,” Grisom says. “I just kept it in my mind. I knew, for sure. I had to try. I didn’t want to come to school and regret it later. Whether I made it or not, it was all about the opportunity – giving myself the opportunity.”
Wide receivers coach Wes Chandler gave him that opportunity. During a break in the spring practice schedule, Grisom got his shot in the spring of 2012.
“I believe I came in, in the middle of their spring practices,” Grisom recalls. “It was actually getting close to my birthday (March 25), so it was nice finding out. Basically, around my birthday, I made the team after that tryout. It was during that spring.”
Grisom and several others were added to the roster just in time for the second half of spring ball. The first time Grisom put on football pads since he played his last high school down came in the spring game at Edwards Track Stadium.
As a walk-on, Grisom had to work to make rent, to eat, to simply survive. The Bears’ practice schedule – and his class schedule -- didn’t help.
“Since I joined football in the middle of my schedule already, I actually didn’t really make too many changes,” he says. “I work at Clark Kerr, and I work in the computing center. I was working the late-night shifts until one in the morning. I was living far on University and San Pablo at the time, so I had to catch the late-night bus, then I’d get home and I’d have to wake up two hours later, because I had seven o’clock meetings for football, and then I had eight o’clock classes every day – Spanish. I was pretty exhausted.”
Those late-night shifts were the only time he could work, the only time he could get homework done.
That first year, he played mainly on special teams, not catching a single pass, but playing in five games.
“We had 5:30 a.m. practices, and I had to work until 1 a.m., and I played last fall on special teams. I had to go to work, get to sleep around 2 a.m., 3 a.m., and I’d have to wake up two hours later,” says Grisom. “I think my body started getting used to it after a while. If I get more than four hours of sleep, I’m more tired.”
Just a month after the end of the season, Grisom saw yet another coaching change. Head coach Jeff Tedford was shown the door, as was his entire staff, in favor of Sonny Dykes, receivers coach Rob Likens and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. Their offense was, to say the least, markedly different from Tedford’s system. They were going to use their wide receivers, and they were going to use all of them.
While Grisom’s previous opportunity was just to be a part of the program, now, he had a legitimate shot to be a contributor. As determined as he was to just put on the uniform, he was even more determined to make a difference.
“His development from spring to right now has been just unbelievable,” Likens says. “That’s just a credit to him. He’s one of those kids that, you’ve got to watch what you tell him, because that’s what you’re going to see. He’s going to do it. He just comes out every single day with a purpose: To get better at one thing, and that compounds. Over and over again, day after day, you get better at one thing, you look up and all of the sudden, you’ve gotten a lot better.”
In Cal’s first scrimmage of the fall, he paced all receivers with three catches for 47 yards, with both Treggs and Harper out due to academic obligations.
With fellow X-receiver Maurice Harris limited due to a fractured finger, Grisom has emerged as a viable No. 2 behind the dynamic Treggs on the outside through the first 16 days of fall camp.
“We’ll play you, if you can help us win,” Likens says. “Maurice, we’re just watching and being smart with his deal, but when Maurice has been OK’d and cleared for contact and all that stuff, it’ll be head-to-head. One thing I love that coach Dykes and coach Franklin have always done, is, man, we’re practice-by-practice. If you come out here and have a couple bad days of practice and loafing and lazy, man, you lose your spot. Every day, we come out here, we make it competitive. You’re fighting for a spot, you’re fighting for playing time, every time we step out on this field.”
For Grisom – who’s still working those late-night hours – the fight is what keeps him going.
“I think the training helped out a lot,” Grisom says of the offseason strength and conditioning program. “It helped create a mindset just to work hard and attack, to really go for it. It helped instill a lot of confidence in myself. The hard work approach, with coach Damon [Harrington] coming in, really just working us, the conditioning was tough, but mentally, I feel like it helped prepare me a lot. Continuous hard work, doing extra work outside of practice, that really helped.”
The coaching staff – from the top down – has noticed.
“He’s been really good,” says Dykes. “He’s been consistent, he’s fast, he’s very athletic, he practices hard. He’s a really pretty remarkable story. The guy works in the middle of the night a lot of the times, and was working during spring ball. What he does off the field to give himself a chance to play football is really pretty remarkable. He’s just a great kid. You’re going to get everything he has every day, and he always has a smile on his face. He’s been a huge help for us, because he can run, he’s improved his ball skills since the spring. He’s a guy we’re really lucky to have. He looks like a scholarship player. There’s no difference between him and a lot of Division I receivers who are going to be a big part of some teams this year.”
His off-the-field obligations have staggered Likens, who glows when speaking about his newly-emergent weapon.
“It’s really amazing,” Likens says. “What he brings to our room, just dedication. All the other players, they know what he does at night, and [they say] ‘if James is out there, he’s not loafing, look at all the reps he’s getting – he’s not getting tired, and he was up until so-and-so last night. Heck man, I can do that.’ He has just been a pleasure to coach and has been great for our room.”
Grisom has plenty to be grateful for – attending Cal, putting on the uniform, even just getting on the field after what was, at times, an interminable wait. True to form, though, the one thing he’s happiest about is that he doesn’t have to go to early-morning meetings.
“Luckily, with these coaches, our practices are not in the early mornings, so I’m just thankful for that,” he smiles.
All he has to do now is what he’s done all his life: Play the game that he loves.