Grier excited about playing for hometown team Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Will Grier’s first practice Friday morning as a Carolina Panther was rainy and unremarkable.

What was remarkable, however, is that Grier was there at all.

It wasn’t that many years ago that Grier was sitting alongside his dad and his other relatives in Section 229 at Bank of America Stadium, cheering for Cam Newton while wearing his Steve Smith jersey.

It wasn’t too long after that when Grier was Parade magazine’s national player of the year in high school.

And it wasn’t too long after that, according to his father Chad, that Grier was in such a “dark place” that “he didn’t know if he was ever going to play football again.”

This season, though, the Panthers’ third-round draft choice in 2019 (and fifth overall QB selected) will back up Newton on that very same field. Grier’s journey from Davidson Day School to Florida to West Virginia has turned one more surprise corner, and now he finds itself right back in the Charlotte area again.

“I’m going to work hard and be coachable,” Grier vowed after that first practice Friday with rainwater dripping down his beard. “I think that’s important. Fit into the system. Do whatever it takes to help the Panthers win.”

While Grier’s life looks just about picture-perfect now — he will be playing football for his hometown NFL team, with a wife who is a former NFL cheerleader and their 2-year-old daughter Eloise both awaiting him at their new home in Charlotte’s Cotswold area — it hasn’t always been that way.

It was less than four years ago, in the fall of 2015, when Grier’s life crumbled shortly after he had led Florida to a 6-0 start and a top-10 national ranking.

Grier failed an NCAA drug test then because he took a performance-enhancing substance called Ligandrol, which he had bought at a nutrition store. Grier said didn’t check with the University of Florida’s athletic trainers before taking the substance, a costly mistake he has owned up to repeatedly. That positive test meant he was suspended from NCAA competition for a year.

Although Grier thought about staying in Florida, it didn’t work out. Chad Grier, a former East Carolina quarterback and a longtime high school football coach in the Carolinas, said then-Florida coach Jim McElwain made it clear through his actions and words that Will would be better off transferring.

“The short version is McElwain didn’t want him,” said the elder Grier, who is now the head football coach for Oceanside High in Mount Pleasant, S.C. “It was tough for Will to hear that.

“It was the first time in his life as an athlete where he really felt unwanted. That’s really when he was kind of doubting himself.”

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Will Grier spent more than a year in football purgatory after the suspension.

“I learned a lot,” he said Friday of that period. “I grew up a lot. But it was all kind of my journey in growing and maturing, and it got me to where I am today.”

Grier’s parents divorced when he was young. His father coached him for the majority of his life until college (most notably, in his national record-setting, 837-yard, 10-touchdown performance for Davidson Day during a 104-80 playoff win in 2012).

Chad Grier said he still regrets not helping his son more during the time immediately after the suspension, saying he “grossly underestimated” the impact it had on Will.

“It was devastating,” Chad Grier said. “And I didn’t realize this was going on. I’d say, “Will, how are you doing?’ He’d say, ‘I’m good,’ and I believed him. That was a failure on me, as a parent. I should have recognized that, literally in a matter of hours, his whole world was taken away from him … He went to a dark place.”

During his suspension, Will Grier leaned on girlfriend Jeanne O’Neil, the former Tampa Bay Bucs cheerleader who would eventually become his wife. His father helped him renavigate the recruitment process, as there was no shortage of suitors once it became apparent that Grier would transfer. Ohio State and Urban Meyer came close to getting him, but West Virginia and coach Dana Holgorsen’s pro-style offense won out.

Grier had two excellent years for the Mountaineers. He picked up the nickname “Touchdown Jesus” in 2017, when his hair was long, and ended up throwing a total of 71 touchdown passes and finishing fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2018.

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