Saturday, February 17, 2018
Colleges

Former Pasco star Janarion Grant emerges at Rutgers

DADE CITY

Perched atop Janarion Grant's dresser in the two-bedroom dorm he shares with three others at Rutgers is a framed poem given to him by his Pasco High coach.

For 15 years, Tom McHugh has presented the same keepsake — he doesn't divulge the verse's message — to those Pirate seniors who leave more of an imprint than impression.

"Sometimes you have a senior that you know and he's part of the team," McHugh said. "Then there's a kid you have a certain bond with. It's a poem-type thing."

Grant said he looks at it every day, first thing. The poem, and Pirates letter jacket he still pulls out when New Jersey gets especially raw, remind him of prior glory, and the community where he attained it.

The same community that nurtured him from forlorn kid to impact freshman at Rutgers.

"For me, personally, it's probably the biggest accomplishment that I've had, just being a part of it," McHugh said. "Not that I did that much. We just worked as a group to get him to go (to college)."

Grant, who will handle return duties Saturday for the Scarlet Knights if USF kicks or punts to him, is more succinct.

"It's quite unbelievable," he said.

A year after lining up at no fewer than a half-dozen spots for Pasco, Grant enters Saturday's regular-season finale against the Bulls ranked 29th in Division I-A in punt returns (9.2-yard average).

On the first touch of his college career, in the season opener against Fresno State, Grant returned a kickoff 100 yards. It was the program's first kick-return TD since another bay area alumnus — Leto's Jeremy Deering — logged a 98-yarder against USF in 2011.

In a 28-24 victory against Arkansas, he scored on a 58-yard punt return and had a 47-yarder in the fourth quarter, setting up the Knights' winning TD. He's averaging 21.7 yards on 18 kick returns, has three receptions, and ranks third on the team with 567 all-purpose yards.

"We knew when he got here, he had some homegrown abilities to be a differencemaker in the return game, and he has shown himself to do that," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "But I think the area he's made the most improvement in is really his skill set as a wide receiver. He hasn't played as much there yet, but … as Janarion goes through his career he'll become more of a focal point because any time the ball's in his hands he can make plays."

Long before his encounter with Fresno, or even Flood, Grant was a kid from Trilby struggling to find a seam of daylight through which he could escape blighted streets and barren pantries.

Today, he's listed at 170 pounds, 27 more than McHugh says he weighed when the coach took him to his first trip ever to an airport for his first plane flight for his first official visit.

One of five siblings, Grant grew up with a single, disabled mother, spending most of his nights with friends or relatives as he got older. Deprived of a domestic infrastructure, his grades suffered. Yet he remained homed in on the dream he embraced as a prepubescent.

"I asked him in the sixth grade, 'What do you want to do?' " recalled McHugh, who watched Grant score 77 TDs — believed to be a Pasco/Hernando area record — at Pasco.

"He said, 'I want to go to college and play football, and I want to play in the NFL.' That was his goal. We reminded him of that for the seven years that I knew the kid. That was a reminder: 'You've got to know where you're going, how are you going to get there?' "

The path was paved with tough love and tutors, hard-line approaches and online courses. When he wasn't in Becky Johnson's study hall, he was in career specialist Mignon Edwards' office. McHugh nagged him as much about algebra as running a precise curl route.

On a handful of Sunday nights, defensive line coach Pat Fortunato had Grant over for some of wife Megan's lasagna. Other nights, it was a trip to Sonny's or an Italian place.

"They say it takes a village; that truly did take a village," McHugh said.

Meantime, college offers of varying sincerity levels arrived. Several schools, leery of whether Grant would fulfill their academic requirements, backed off. Others, such as USF's then-new coaching staff, converged late.

Houston and Rutgers held firm. In February, Grant signed with the Scarlet Knights. The village erupted.

"If they're the right kind of people they generally have great success here," Flood said. "And Janarion is such a good person, and so many people at the high school down there at Pasco had so many glowing things to say about him, it doesn't surprise me at all that he's having the success he's having."

Last month, roughly 15 of Grant's Pasco High peers, teachers and coaches traveled to Orlando for the Knights' game against UCF. The caravan home had barely reached Interstate 4 when several in the group got texts from Grant, thanking them for being there.

"It just kind of brings a smile to your face, watching him succeed," Fortunato said.

They'll watch him again Saturday, when ESPN2's prime-time ratings are sure to spike in east Pasco County. In the rural, rolling hillsides of greater Dade City, they love Grant. He loves them back.

McHugh's daughter, Jenny, still sends him care packages, complete with notes composed by her twins in jagged 5-year-old handwriting. McHugh texts him regularly, getting the same response without fail: I love you Coach.

"I say this a lot, when you're a high school coach they don't pay you," McHugh said. "The way you get paid is when this kind of stuff happens."

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