MANHATTAN — South Alabama is a long way from Arrowhead Stadium. Almost 830 miles, to be exact. But it was there, on a practice football field in Mobile, Ala., earlier this week that a busy offensive coordinator told the story of Grant Gregory's success in motivating his players.
The assistant coach thought that much of Gregory's breakout performance against Iowa State last week.
He watched on TV and marveled as Gregory, a sixth-year senior quarterback starting his first collegiate game, led Kansas State to a dramatic 24-23 victory over the Cyclones. He thought it was one of the greatest things he'd ever seen.
So, he figured, why keep something like that to himself?
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"I used him as an example to our football team," the coach said. "I was talking to the players and I said, 'Some of you guys are backups right now or you're on the scout team and you're wondering if you're ever going to play.' I told them about Grant. I said, 'It took him six years, but he was ready when his time was called.' "
OK, so the South Alabama assistant is Gregory's father, Greg, and his enthusiasm for his son's most recent game may be a bit inflated. But that doesn't mean his post-practice speech wasn't worth sharing or wasn't well received.
Just look at what has happened to Grant Gregory. A week ago, he was calling his career a failure. Now, he has pumped new life into the Wildcats' once-struggling offense and is the odds-on favorite to continue taking the snaps at Texas Tech on Saturday.
How could anyone, father or stranger, not take something away from his long journey?
* * *
The plane touched down in Tampa and South Florida coach Jim Leavitt started looking for a score.
Across the country in Kansas City, Mo., his former backup quarterback, Gregory, was finally getting the chance to show his stuff. Leavitt had caught the beginning of the game before taking off, and badly wanted to know how his former player was doing.
When a member of his staff informed him K-State had won 24-23, and that Gregory had led the way, he couldn't stop smiling.
When word came two days later that Gregory was named Big 12 offensive player of the week for his performance, Leavitt just kept on smiling.
"What a story," Leavitt said. "It couldn't have happened to a better guy."
Yes, Gregory is still well liked at South Florida. Even though he never started a game for the Bulls — which was not planned when he transferred from Indiana as a redshirt freshman after IU tried to move him to receiver — he still left quite an impression.
Leavitt insists it is impossible to out-work Gregory. And had it not been for getting injured and record-setting quarterback Matt Grothe leading South Florida into the Top 25 ahead of him, Gregory would have been a starter.
He thinks so much of Gregory that he helped him land at K-State.
Leavitt, a former K-State assistant, knew Gregory wanted to be a starting quarterback and was looking to transfer.
Leavitt wasn't going to stop him. With Grothe still ahead of him and capable freshman B.J. Daniels behind him, Leavitt encouraged Gregory to chase his dream. But when he heard Eastern Kentucky was the likely destination, he thought Gregory could do better.
He always though Gregory was a smart player. He didn't make many mistakes on the field, and he had a real knack for keeping plays alive with his feet. He figured a quarterback like that could help many teams.
So during a casual phone conversation with his coaching mentor, Bill Snyder, Leavitt asked if he needed a quarterback who could come in and compete for the starting job. Snyder, not having many options beyond junior Carson Coffman, said yes.
"I don't know how it even came up, but we got to talking about Grant," Leavitt said. "I told him I had a guy here who was a really good quarterback and was ready to help a team. He said he wanted him."
Leavitt immediately walked into his locker room, where Gregory was taking a nap. He woke him up to see what he thought about playing for Kansas State.
Gregory hopes to be a college coach someday, and he really liked the idea of learning from someone with Snyder's experience. When Snyder told him and his father that he would allow Gregory to compete for the starting job, the decision was easy.
"Coach Snyder gave me an opportunity when there was not a single other Division I BCS team that would," he said. "For him to bring me in here and have the confidence that I could help this team win... "
It's all he ever wanted.
* * *
Football has taken Gregory everywhere.
He was born in West Point, N.Y., and went to high school in Athens, Ohio. He's attended college at Indiana, South Florida and Kansas State. He's 23 and already possesses a bachelor's degree.
That's what made it possible for him to transfer to K-State this season without sitting out a year.
Every move has been pigskin-related. That's just part of being born into a football family, he guesses.
Seemingly every male he's related to can coach the game.
His father runs offense at South Alabama — and used to coach Grant for three years at South Florida — his brother Tate coaches wide receivers at the University of Charleston (W.Va.), and his grandfather was a high school coach in Richmond, Va.
No wonder Gregory wants to be a coach so bad.
"Sports are my life," Gregory said. "When I'm not here or doing school work, I'm watching football or looking up stats. Football is my passion. It's what I love."
It's what he's good at, too. Gregory's father said he has all kinds of football knowledge to pass on. His teammates say he's a student of the game. Leavitt thinks he will be an excellent coach someday.
And when he finally becomes a coach, one thing he will likely put a premium on is honest communication with his players. Along this journey, he has experienced the wrong end of that stick a time or two.
At Indiana, coaches told Gregory of their decision to move him away from quarterback outside the locker room, in passing. At South Florida, coaches told him they wanted to try defense in a similar fashion. He eventually worked his way back to quarterback, but Gregory's father said both incidents irked his son.
That's part of the reason Gregory has been so emotional when talking about his play this season.
"Coach Snyder promised him a fair shot at the starting job and he's lived up to his word," Gregory's father said. "He's never had that chance. For a number of different circumstances, he's never been able to just go head-to-head with somebody and see who the better quarterback is. He thinks the world of Coach Snyder for that."
* * *
Gregory may be on top right now, but it hasn't all been smooth sailing in Manhattan.
Coffman was named the starter at the beginning of the season, and then, when he got his chance to take meaningful first-half snaps against Louisiana-Lafayette and played miserably, he was crushed.
"He was really down after that game," Greg Gregory said. "He was coming off a great week of practice and he thought it was his time. Then he called me and just kind of said he felt like he missed his opportunity."
After not playing against UCLA and only in mop-up duty against Tennessee Tech, it seemed like he had. But something changed leading up that Iowa State game.
Ask Grant or his father what that change was and they claim to have no idea.
Aside from simply saying he thought Gregory gave K-State the best chance to win that week, Snyder hasn't been specific, either. But he did say Gregory never stopped pushing in practice.
"(The way) he roles up his sleeves, it's almost like he was born in Kansas," Snyder said. "(He's) a blue-collar guy, has a great attitude."
Gregory said no matter how frustrated he felt — even when he learned Grothe suffered a season-ending injury three games into the season at South Florida, where he would have been in line to take over — he never considered quitting.
There was always that thought in the back of his mind that maybe he would get another shot. With everything he's been through, he's always believed if a coach would just give him one full game to prove himself, he could help a team win.
And he did. Gregory played the whole way against Iowa State and was the focal point of K-State's victory.
It was enough to make him tear up when the game was over. Nearly 830 miles away, his dad fought back the same emotions.
"I'm just so proud of him," said Gregory's father. "He has finally persevered."