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USF assistant football coach Mike Simmonds recalls helping the late Mike Grady — "a true hero" — rescue son Austin Grady

Mike Simmonds has coached football for 17 years and played offensive line for the Bucs before that, but when he thinks of courage and toughness, he now thinks of Mike Grady, standing in the cold waters of a North Carolina river.

It has been a month since Simmonds stood on the banks of the Cullasaja River, since he reached a big hand out and pulled a freezing 12-year-old boy from the water. Every day since, he has thought about the boy's father, who died in that same river to save his son's life.

"Mike Grady is a true hero because he gave his life to save his son," Simmonds said. "I've never seen anything like it."

• • •

Simmonds, 44 and entering his third season coaching the offensive line at USF, recounts the day as if it were yesterday, walking around his office, acting out his initial helplessness and frustration, reaching his arms out as he did June 28.

He was halfway through a two-week vacation in the North Carolina mountains with his family. They set out that morning with sandwiches packed and cameras ready, hoping to catch four waterfalls along Highway 64.

The family arrived at the second falls — Upper Cullasaja Falls, known to locals as "Bust Yer Butt Falls" for the dark algae that makes the long, flat rocks slicker than ice, allowing visitors to slide down the falls in some spots.

Walking to the river, Simmonds looked up at the falls and saw people standing on the banks, yelling to more people in a waist-high pool of water between the levels of the falls.

"Something's not right up there," he told his wife, Jamie, and he hurried perhaps 75 yards up the bank to the falls.

He saw Mike Grady, a 52-year-old accountant from Maitland, a father of two, a coach in Little League and Pop Warner and a Cub Scout leader, standing over his son, Austin, whose leg was lodged under a large rock, his head barely above water as the falls poured down around him.

Grady's body shielded his son from the oncoming torrent, water pounding his back as another man steadied him from the side. Bystanders on the far banks tried in vain to throw a rope to put around Austin but couldn't reach him. Others who tried to go out in the water were swept downstream past the Gradys.

For 25 minutes or more, the rescue efforts continued with frustratingly little progress. Two paramedics arrived, only to slip and fall into the water. Firefighters arrived, and one was able to relieve the man holding Grady as he kept his son above water.

Grady was able to get a rope under one of Austin's arms, and he and others pulled and pulled, trying to dislodge him. Austin finally came free, but as he was being pulled up a large rock in the water, he slipped away from the rope.

Simmonds saw him fall into "a cauldron of water, swirling around," and he quickly made his way toward him.

• • •

Simmonds crawled out along a large, flat rock, reaching out as far as he could without going over a second set of falls.

"I just reached out and grabbed his left wrist," he said. "I didn't say nothing to him, but I knew I had him good."

He heard another rescuer call to him and said it sounded like God was talking to him: "Don't let him go. He ain't got nothing left."

Simmonds got a foothold, steadied himself and hauled himself and Austin up the rock and away from the river. "Pulled him so hard I pulled his shorts right off," he recalled.

They got to paramedics a few feet away, and Simmonds held the boy's head in his hands for a moment.

"That's the way to fight, boy," he told him. "I ain't ever seen nobody fight like that. You made it."

Austin's body was blue from the cold, his leg badly bruised, and when paramedics asked him where he hurt, he said, "Everywhere."

Simmonds lay on the side of the river, emotionally exhausted. He looked back to the river and saw that Grady, who had helped pull his son loose, was now trapped in the same part of the river.

Rescue units cleared the area as they tried to save Grady from the water. Despite their efforts, he died in the river, physically spent from saving his son.

"He didn't have a whole lot left to try to get himself out of there with their help," said Simmonds, who watched for an hour with Grady's family. "We watched a heroic effort, the whole thing from start to finish. The one consolation is that the way Mr. Grady was positioned, I know he saw Austin get out. He knew he saved his son."

• • •

Simmonds has written to the Grady family, expressing his sadness that he wasn't able to do more, to help save two lives that day instead of only one.

"I wish I could have done more. It's frustrating knowing everybody didn't get out," Simmonds said. "God was there that day, giving Mike and the rescuers the strength to get the young man out. We saw a miracle that day. It's something my family will never forget, and we want to do something to help them out."

USF football sent a care package to the Grady family last week, and the Bulls have invited the Gradys to attend a home football game this fall if their schedule allows.

Simmonds' only reason in speaking publicly about the rescue was the hope that Bulls fans would follow his lead and do something to help the Grady family.

"Hopefully the South Florida community will reach out and help this family through the trust funds," said Simmonds, who was head coach at Jefferson High for eight years before joining USF as a graduate assistant in 2006. "It's the least we can do for someone who is a true hero. And Austin's courage, through the whole thing, was amazing.

"In his life, it's not ever going to get tougher than that for him, and I think it will give him a lot of strength."

On Saturday, Simmonds drove to Winter Park and was able to see the Gradys for the first time since that Sunday in North Carolina. He went to lunch with some of Grady's closest friends, met with Austin and his 9-year-old brother, Tyler, and spoke with their Little League team that Grady had coached. Jake Sims, who lives in Winter Park and is expected to be USF's starting center, joined Simmonds and signed autographs for the young players.

The experience has brought Simmonds closer to his own family — "your kids are your life," he said — so there are more hugs for his three daughters, more appreciation for everyday things he won't take for granted.

"It's with me all the time, and probably always will be," Simmonds said. "It was a happy ending and a sad ending, all in the same note. Those young men have to know how much their dad loved them, what he did for them. It's a special family that has a lot to be proud of."

. Fast facts

To help the Gradys

Donations may be made to the Grady family at P.O. Box 940654, Maitland, FL 32794-0654. Checks can be made to Lisa, Austin or Tyler Grady.

USF assistant football coach Mike Simmonds recalls helping the late Mike Grady — "a true hero" — rescue son Austin Grady 08/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 7:55pm]
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