Grant Aasen had dreams of making it big in college and pro football. As a sophomore at Starr’s Mill High School in Fayetteville, Georgia, he was a running back with a bright future. However, that’s when the lights went out.
Aasen was running the ball in practice when an older, bigger and stronger player, who is now with the Houston Texans, leveled him with a jarring tackle. He incurred a serious head injury and came close to dying. His physical revival would be followed by a supernatural one. The influence of his older brother, Davis, and his friends at Georgia Tech’s Catholic Center would pave the way for him to consider becoming a priest.
Grant Aasen, who just graduated from Georgia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, decided to forego his final season of eligibility for the football team. Instead of punting, which he had transitioned to after his accident in high school, Aasen is now aiming high by continuing the application process to seminary for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, which he spoke about recently with the Register.
Vocations aside for the moment, many young people leave the Church when they leave for college, so how did you stay Catholic at all during that time?
It’s funny you should ask, because I never really considered taking Catholicism more seriously in high school. I went to Mass with my parents, but honestly, I didn’t even know the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. I didn’t care too much about religion until after an accident in my sophomore year.
I was a running back on the JV team before becoming a punter, and one day in practice, I was flattened by a guy on varsity — 6-foot-6, 280-pound Ufomba Kamulu — who went on to play at the University of Miami and now is with the Houston Texans. My head hit the ground, and I suffered what they call “whiplash of the brain.” I sat out the rest of practice and the next day during a game I felt tired, walked to the sideline, took off my helmet, sat down on the bench and passed out.
The medical people examined me and found my eyes were super-dilated, which was an indication of swelling of the brain. A helicopter was called, and I was airlifted to Atlanta Medical Center. My brain was bleeding, so my skull was cut open by Dr. Paul King, and he fixed the problem. It was very serious and I came close to dying, but after the surgery I recovered a lot faster than expected.
That prompted your interest in growing in faith?
Being humbled like that helped me to look more into religion. I got involved with Fellowship of Christian Athletes and went to events I found fun and uplifting, but in a way that wasn’t centered on specific doctrines. It was more about community, modern “worship” music and positive feelings.
My general spiritual interest got the attention of my older brother, Davis. We’re very close, and usually he would influence me, but in this case, I was influencing him. He normally has a very rational way of seeing things, but my enthusiasm about spiritualty prompted him to look more deeply into the matter. As he learned about Catholicism, he became more committed to the Church. He developed a network of friends at the Catholic Center at Georgia Tech, so when I got to campus in 2013, I was plugged into his group of friends.
Davis and his friends told and showed me what being Catholic was like — why confession and Mass are important, what role the Blessed Virgin plays in our spiritual lives, why we rely on the Church for correct teachings, etc. What also helped my development was the extraordinary form of the Mass, which makes it more apparent that what’s going on is sacred and not man-made. These things have provided a solid foundation for hundreds of students, even to the point that about 10 graduates of Georgia Tech are studying for priesthood at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, one of two seminaries that the Archdiocese of Atlanta uses most.
How did you get to the point of forgoing your final season of eligibility for the seminary?
The first thing for anyone looking to finalize a vocation is to go to confession and to Mass. Being in a state of grace is the primary prerequisite for making any kind of clear vocational decision. After that, or associated with that, are Marian devotion, Eucharistic adoration and spiritual direction.
There were times of 100% certainty that I should be a priest, but then times of doubt. However, those doubting times were when I was so busy with schoolwork that I was not praying as much as I normally do. I wasn’t communicating with Jesus Christ, the High Priest, in a sufficient way, so my entrance into his priesthood necessarily would seem less certain.
What has been the reaction of coaches and teammates to your decision?
I told head coach Paul Johnson before spring practices in 2016 that I was planning on playing one more year and then going to the seminary. I was tearing up at the time, because I was thinking of how much football meant to me and how much I had put into it. Coach told me he appreciated my honesty, but that he wanted me to stay with the team and to give it more time — to go through not only last season, but this most recent spring’s practices. I did that, and the calling remained throughout, so that’s where we are today.
It goes without saying that talking to the head coach was an important thing, but also important were the strength coaches. People outside of college football might know it, but the strength coaches are the ones players spend the most time with year-round. The other coaches are out recruiting in the offseason while the strength coaches are always there. Naturally, this leads to the development of good relationships.
Coach John Sisk, who is our top strength coach as director of player development, was initially surprised when I told him, but was then super supportive of what I should be doing in life. That meant a lot to me, considering how close we get to the strength coaches.
I actually did not know about any of those athletes who’ve become priests or are pursuing or considering it. I wish I had known their stories, because then my decision would beave been much easier. I also could have talked with Patrick about the whole thing before we played Boston College last season. There’s still time for that, but no, the decision was based on other factors that I had discussed with my spiritual director.
I’ve become a more integrated, content man by learning and practicing what the Church teaches. I really enjoy sharing those teachings with others and have seen the amazing results that can follow. One humorous example involves my friend Harrison Butker. He entered college as the No. 2 high-school kicker in the nation, and I was just a little nothing who was not even officially on the team.
Well, I wanted to make the team, or if that didn’t happen, at least put my all into that goal. I didn’t act like a shy underling who stepped aside and let one of the top kickers out of high school act like he was too good for me. I would get in Harrison’s way, and he was annoyed by that. I was annoyed by his attitude, and it was safe to say that we despised each other.
Slowly, our working relationship became better, and Harrison noticed that I was a happy and thriving practicing Catholic. He asked me why that was the case, since he was Catholic but viewed the teachings to be constrictive. I answered, as best I could, lots of questions he threw at me, and he came to see how helpful the Church can be for finding meaning in life. He’s now much more appreciative of that and has shared his findings with his family, which has becoming more interested in the Church, as well.
And that’s the evangelization that you’d like to engage in as a priest?
I want to bring people close to Christ, and the priesthood seems like the best way for me to do that. The priesthood is an amazing thing, but I don’t think I should get credit or some award for pursuing it. If that’s my calling, that’s my calling, just like another young man might be called to marriage. If that’s the case for him, then he should pursue that vocation without expecting a pat on the back
I should also say that some of the news stories have made it seem like I’ve already been accepted to the seminary, but I won’t know for sure until probably late June. I did graduate from Tech last Saturday, so I‘m finished academically here, and I’ve also foregone my final year of athletic eligibility. However, getting into Notre Dame Seminary hasn’t happened yet, so we’ll have to wait and see.
I do know, no matter what happens, that God’s providence is alive in all things. Just one story here will make that super clear. My brother, Davis, who is a student at the University of Colorado Medical School, was back home shadowing Dr. King at AMC. They had just gotten out of a surgery, and Dr. King said to my brother that he had forgotten to tell him something. Around the time I arrived at AMC by helicopter back in high school, he was leaving after his shift that day. Well, he got into a fender bender near AMC and stayed behind, was called into emergency surgery and saved my life.
I’m sure Dr. King was less than pleased to have to stay behind at the hospital that day after work, but that turned out to be providential. With conditions like the one I had, timing is everything. Just a little later and I would have been dead or, at best, confined to a wheelchair or disabled in some other way. Yet I was supposed to live, like we all are, for the glory of God, with my story possibly involving the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book, Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015), contains numerous Catholic sports
interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register.