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Having found relevance, Bucs late draft pick Grant Stuard now seeks roster spot

The final pick of the 2021 draft overcame a bleak childhood to reach the NFL.
Houston linebacker Grant Stuard, taken by the Bucs with the 259th and final pick in the NFL draft, said he often had to serve as a de facto dad to a pair of younger siblings while growing up in east Texas.
Houston linebacker Grant Stuard, taken by the Bucs with the 259th and final pick in the NFL draft, said he often had to serve as a de facto dad to a pair of younger siblings while growing up in east Texas. [ MATT PATTERSON | AP ]
Published May 6
Updated May 6

Four minutes into Grant Stuard’s virtual session with local reporters Saturday evening, a middle-aged woman with blond hair and a black tank top appeared on the screen, standing over the newest Buccaneer’s right shoulder.

“Hi,” the woman said in a raspy voice, smiling and waving to the screen.

“That’s my mom,” Stuard said with a chuckle.

Exactly four minutes, 20 seconds later, she walked off camera.

Unbeknownst to the reporters on that Zoom, a partial metaphor for Stuard’s hardscrabble existence — parents popping in and out of his life — had just revealed itself.

On Tuesday, Stuard told the Tampa Bay Times his mother was arrested hours after the Bucs selected him with the 259th and final pick in the NFL draft. Harris County (Texas) Sheriff’s Office records show Laurel Montgomery, 41, was charged with possession of a controlled substance and unauthorized use of a vehicle.

“That’s the reality of what’s going on,” said Stuard, a University of Houston team captain last season.

At least a decade before he became “Mr. Irrelevant,” Stuard already was serving as Mr. Mom to at least two of his four younger siblings. Dude had no choice.

Faith, a flock of surrogates, and a fierce survival instinct have carried him to his sport’s apex.

“Guys that can get through tough times and adversity — that’s a big box to check for us,” Bucs general manager Jason Licht said. “We think that it definitely helps them in their chances of making our football team.”

Parenting at puberty

A "Mr. Irrelevant" jersey is held up during the seventh round of the NFL  draft Saturday in Cleveland. Houston linebacker Grant Stuard was taken by Tampa Bay with the 259th and final pick.
A "Mr. Irrelevant" jersey is held up during the seventh round of the NFL draft Saturday in Cleveland. Houston linebacker Grant Stuard was taken by Tampa Bay with the 259th and final pick. [ DAVID DERMER | AP ]

A 6-foot, 230-pound linebacker with frizzy brown hair protruding from beneath his helmet, Stuard evolved from a special teams mercenary to stout nickel back to linebacker in four seasons at Houston. In seven games last fall, he totaled a team-best 61 tackles, had a 34-yard scoop-and-score against USF, and was a first-team All-American Athletic Conference pick.

“He was a tackling machine on special teams early on (at Houston),” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said moments after the Bucs drafted Stuard. “He will be that special teams dynamo, going down and making that huge and impactful hit.”

In early April, he made Houston-area headlines by transforming his pro day into a de facto pledge drive for Heels to Halos, a faith-based, non-profit organization devoted to rescuing women from the sex industry. Soliciting pledged funds for each of the 28 repetitions he achieved in the bench press, Stuard raised $5,300 for the Houston-based organization in less than a month.

“He’s just such a humble and kind individual,” said Heels to Halos founder Megan McCullum, herself a strip-club dancer in a previous life.

“It’s been a huge help and a blessing that he was able to do that for us to help support financially the vision that we have and that we’re working towards.”

For Stuard, the oldest of five kids in a blended family, the gesture was personal.

Throughout his childhood, Stuard said his mother was involved in the sex industry (even working at the same club as McCullum for a time) and struggled with addiction, while his father (whose name he politely declines to provide) logged time in prison.

“So growing up, because I was the oldest, even the second the (younger siblings) were born, I was often left with them for days, weeks,” said Stuard, who shares the same parents with the next two oldest siblings (a boy and girl).

“So you know, provide for them, care for them and make sure they ate. Perhaps my parents would leave 100 bucks or something like that for us, and really growing up, that’s how that was.”

Grant Stuard says his biggest challenge when arriving at Houston, was getting to a good place emotionally.
Grant Stuard says his biggest challenge when arriving at Houston, was getting to a good place emotionally. [ Courtesy of Houston Cougars ]

Though grandparents (including a grandma he calls “Nina”), other relatives and coaches intervened throughout Stuard’s youth (often providing a temporary place to live), moments of desperation still surfaced. Stuard said he recalls stealing the family’s food-stamp card to make sure his mom didn’t sell it. In a gastronomic pinch, he and his siblings would eat uncooked ramen noodles right out of the bag.

By age 11, he said he had learned to drive his grandmother’s beige Chevrolet Cavalier, transporting himself to middle school (when he missed the bus), the grocery store or a friend’s house.

On his senior night at Oak Ridge High in Conroe, Texas, when senior players are recognized before kickoff with parents, guardians or relatives, Stuard was accompanied to midfield by assistant coach Danny Barber and his high school girlfriend.

His mom arrived after the ceremony, he said.

“There was a football game being played or something like that where my mom and dad would get their (act) together and they’d show up to the game,” said Stuard, who had 68 tackles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries as an Oak Ridge senior.

“There were certain times in life, Christmas even, so there’s certain little moments I had in my childhood we still were all together, but it was very rare.”

Though forced to cope with algebra and adulthood concurrently, Stuard nonetheless excelled at Oak Ridge, about 45 minutes north of Houston.

He successfully transitioned from a blitzing outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme to a free safety in a 3-4 for the War Eagles football team (which included Bengals third-round draft pick Joseph Ossai). He also ran a leg on a 4x400-meter relay team that won a University Interscholastic League state title.

Barber, now an administrator at Oak Ridge, never recalls Stuard missing a practice or summer workout.

“I think his biggest discipline issue might have been tardy to get to school,” recalled Barber, then the War Eagles’ secondary coach.

“He was an emotional kid. To be honest with you, the only time you had to really deal with Grant was when he messed up (on the field). It was just a matter of, ‘Hey, it’s okay.’ And that did it.”

Personal Stuard-ship

UCF running back Otis Anderson tries to elude Houston safety Grant Stuard during a 2019 game in Orlando.
UCF running back Otis Anderson tries to elude Houston safety Grant Stuard during a 2019 game in Orlando. [ WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Associated Press (2019) ]

Stuard says the lack of a moral compass led him to some poor decisions in high school and the outset of college, where he arrived emotionally unkempt.

“I didn’t have anything guiding me,” said Stuard, whose paternal grandfather is a pastor.

“I’ve always gone to church my whole life, and I always have sang in the church; I’ve always been the worship leader of our church. ... But I didn’t have a personal belief or a personal relationship with the Lord. It never was real to me, it kind of was just a culture thing.”

He said that changed on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, when he devoted himself fully to Christianity. Six days later, Stuard had a team-high 11 tackles in a 46-25 rout of North Texas that snapped a two-game skid. Around the same time, he met Josie Reid, a Houston cheerleader whom he’s set to marry July 1.

“Up until that point, I was just a special-teams guy, because all I knew I could do was just run and hit; I couldn’t think about anything because my mind was always in too many different places,” Stuard said.

“And ever since then, God has really taken care of me.”

In turn, Stuard has used his faith — and football platform — for myriad philanthropic endeavors.

Last December, he helped organize a food drive for the Houston Food Bank that brought in 800 pounds of food. Last August, he set up a school-supplies drive in his hometown of Conroe, about 40 miles north of Houston.

“Grant’s life speaks to me, because look at where he’s at right now,” said McCullum, who befriended Stuard after giving her testimony at their place of worship, Get Wrapped Church in Spring, Texas.

“And the fact that he has stayed on a solid path, the fact that he has kept his eyes fixed on where he’s going and he has not gotten caught up in all of that and he has stayed focused — we celebrated him. And I cried when I saw (that he got drafted). I said, ‘Look, you are not Mr. Irrelevant, because the last will be first, and you will show that’s where you’re going.’”

Related: Grading the NFC South's draft classes

Though his mom’s struggles continue, Stuard said she no longer is involved in the sex industry. His dad, meantime, is out of prison and has “definitely been improving,” he indicated.

“Both of them made it to my house on draft night,” Stuard added.

“They were both there for me during that process, and that was really great just to share it with them because even though they might not have been the best support system for me growing up, I definitely know that they have always loved me and have always really cared about me.”

He said conversations continue about bringing a younger brother to Tampa to reside with him. Earning steady employment in Tampa almost certainly will hinge on whether he can assert himself as a special teams force of nature.

“I was with the Dolphins when we signed Larry Izzo out of Rice as an undersized linebacker that played with a huge heart,” Licht said.

“He ended up making a great career for himself as a special teams linebacker. Not to say that we don’t think Grant has a chance to play linebacker — he’s going to be (an inside linebacker) for us on the field — but we think he’s got a chance to excel as a special teams ace.”

Special teams ace. Surrogate dad. Soon-to-be husband. Selfless benefactor. Society has an adjective for such people.

Relevant.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampbay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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