At Purdue University in the early 1990s, Ryan Grigson was going down the wrong path. The ways of the world had taken precedence over the ways of the Gospel for the 6-foot-6-inch, 290-pound tight end and offensive tackle.
Yet Grigson received a wake-up call that changed his life. He was almost fatally injured during a game and then spent weeks at the hospital in intensive care. Faced with his own mortality, Grigson became much more open to the fullness of the Gospel.
After being released from the hospital, Grigson eventually took up football again, but with a different mindset. He completed his collegiate career as a captain of the Boilermakers and then played two seasons professionally. Not wanting to leave a game that had been part of his life for many years, he embarked upon an administrative career in professional football.
The Highland, Ind., native worked as a scout with the St. Louis Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles, and in January 2012, he was hired as the general manager of the Indianapolis Colts. The team had posted a 2-14 record in 2011, but under Grigson’s management, they have registered three straight 11-5 seasons and have gotten progressively better in the playoffs.
Two years ago, they lost in the opening round; last year, they lost in the second round; and this year, they are hoping to go even further. In order to do this, however, they have to get past the AFC West-champion Denver Broncos in Denver, something no team has been able to do this season.
As the Colts prepared to take on the Broncos on Jan. 11, Grigson, a 42-year-old father of six, fielded questions from Register correspondent Trent Beattie.
You’re facing the AFC West-champion Denver Broncos in Denver on Sunday. What are your thoughts on that game?
It’s obviously going to be a great challenge. They are talent-laden across the board and have Pro Bowlers and even Hall of Famers at key positions. They can beat you in so many different ways that they’re a hard group to account for when game-planning. We will have to play our best football to this point to have a chance in their backyard, and we definitely can’t expect to come out of there with a win if we shoot ourselves in the foot with turnovers, penalties, mental errors, etc. So again, it will have to be an all-hands-on-deck mindset and a true team win to get it done out there.
What do you like most about working in the NFL?
The best thing about being in the NFL is competing and working every day for a Super Bowl victory. It’s a great challenge, but it gives me a certain drive and energy to push this organization in every way to try to attain it. No matter how difficult it can get, I love coming to work every day, and I try to keep in mind that there are only 32 of these general-manager jobs in the NFL.
Do you come from a devout family?
When I hear the word “devout” I think of my 91-year-old grandmother. She has been a strong example of the old adage that the best Gospel is lived, not preached. As long as I can remember, she has shown me a consistent example of what it means to be a good Catholic: whether it’s seeing her pray the Rosary every single night, never missing Mass, sending prayer cards to people and really just obeying the Golden Rule, but expecting nothing at all in return.
My mom was widowed at a young age, due to my father’s terminal brain cancer. She was left with two young sons to raise, but she never complained. She always had me and my younger brother, Dru [the director of college scouting for the Arizona Cardinals], at Mass, rain or shine.
Lastly, my godmother is someone else who helped to shape my faith throughout my life, with constant encouragement and reminders to stay the course, no matter what. I was basically raised by three strong women who took turns keeping me in line growing up, and, trust me, I wasn’t the easiest kid to raise.
Did you get in trouble at school?
I attended Our Lady of Grace School in Highland, Ind., from first through eighth grade. The priests, nuns and other teachers in that school taught me so much and showed me a lot of tough love as I went through some hard times with my family. Everyone responds differently to different types of teaching or coaching, but I definitely needed tough love as a kid, and the clergy and faculty at school gave me plenty of it.
We went to Mass every day, but, as a youngster, you space out and don’t pay attention sometimes. Yet, looking back, I think you still take away something subconsciously, even when you’re just sitting there. You’re hearing the word of God, being in his presence and receiving him in the Eucharist. Those cumulative days at Mass helped to mold my faith at its earliest stages, and I’m extremely grateful for that.
You have your own family now. What do you like most about family life?
It might sound kind of ordinary, but, to be honest, just being around my wife, Cynthia, and our six children — Sophia (12), Noah (10), Luke (9), Levi (7), Ava (6) and Jonah (newborn) — is what I like most. No matter the activity, I enjoy being close to all of them. I’m always showering my kids with affection, and I probably annoy some of them at times, but I want to make the most of the moments I have with them. You’ve got to do that when your job has a tendency to take up a lot of your time.
I think marriage, especially in a large family, has its challenges, but you learn so many valuable lessons. As a husband and father, I am constantly exposed in my human weakness, and it gets discouraging because you want to be better for them. Yet God is always there to forgive, strengthen and help to further mold you to get over each hurdle. All the lessons make you that much stronger for the next challenge.
It is such a blessing, but also such a tremendous responsibility, to be a husband and father. The difficult experience with my father’s death has helped me to deeply appreciate what it means to be a father. It’s not something I take for granted.
Was there a particularly tough time in your adult life that your faith got you through?
Without a doubt, I would say the toughest time was at Purdue, in 1992, when I got seriously hurt in a football game. The injury [a hit to his abdomen, which resulted in pancreatitis, kidney failure and then pneumonia] almost cost me my life; and then it put me in the hospital for a long time. For a good while, I was on machines in intensive care, and my body was so beat up, but my spirit was willing, so it was a time I feel God used to truly get my attention.
I had been a young kid away from home and slowly going down a wrong path, but during my time in the hospital and afterward, I really had a thirst for Scripture, and I opened up my heart and mind completely to the Good News. I prayed more than ever before and just had a better sense of what it means to be a Christian man.
You hear the expression that there’s faith in foxholes. The hospital stay was kind of the same; because when you’re faced with being that sick, I don’t care who you are, you want to go to heaven and not the other destination. So being in the hospital was a wake-up call for me, and I was certainly changed forever because of it.
Even when the world and my job get the best of me today, it doesn’t take long to remember what I learned in the hospital bed all those weeks: that we are nothing without God, and there is no hope when he is out of the equation. However, no matter the state of your soul or your current state of affairs, if you’re still alive and willing to bring him into the equation, he can make everything right.
What are some of your favorite aspects of the Catholic Church?
I love the sacraments, especially the sanctity of the Mass. I have also recently been trying to go to confession more often. I find it healing to speak to someone about faults and missteps. It is humbling, and it isn’t easy to do, especially when it’s face-to-face, but it is cleansing and therapeutic, making it worth the effort.
I also appreciate the order and the history of our Church. I’ve always marveled at the unbroken succession of popes since St. Peter the Apostle. Whenever the Church has gone through turbulent things in my lifetime, I’ve found solace in the fact that incredible history and deep roots are there.
One aspect of Church history is found in sacred architecture. I’m not opposed to new church buildings, but I am traditional at my core, and I personally like being in some of those beautiful, old churches when I pray. When it comes to places of worship, I want to be in one that looks worthy of housing Christ’s body and his blood.
I heard that you have a devotion to Padre Pio. How did that come about?
Like many other saints, I was introduced to Padre Pio by my grandmother. She gave me a book about him when I got married in 2001, which was before he was canonized. The book sat on my shelf for about three years, and, finally, one day, I grabbed it when I was headed out on a scouting trip.
Padre Pio has a long history in my family, it turned out. My great-grandmother actually had a picture of him in her house many, many years ago and knew of all the miracles happening with him over in Italy. Her parish priest actually advised her to take the picture down because I guess the Church hadn’t investigated all the things going on, so there was still some controversy.
I was especially drawn to Padre Pio because of the stigmata. If someone bears the wounds of Christ, I figure he or she is obviously close to him or he chose that person for a special mission. The phenomenon of stigmata is a fascinating topic, and Padre Pio’s whole life is fascinating. He also endeared himself to me for the simple fact that he liked to enjoy cold beers with friends. There was a normalcy and humanness about him, despite his extraordinary life and circumstances.
While I was with the Philadelphia Eagles from 2004 to 2012, our training-camp site was just 20 minutes from the Our Lady of Grace Shrine and Padre Pio Spirituality Centre in Barto, Pa. I would go on pilgrimage there with whoever wanted to come along. This included a great friend and co-worker stricken with brain cancer like my late father. My friend’s cancer has been in remission for eight years now, and he has a strong devotion to St. Pio, still going on pilgrimage every year and placing petitions for me and my family. St. Pio has definitely enriched my faith, and I know that, through his intercession, I’ve had prayers answered.
Ever since I was given a lives-of-the-saints book as a kid, I’ve been fascinated by those holy men and women. In many cases, they were very ordinary people who became extraordinary because they let God fully reign in their hearts and minds. This complete surrender is inspiring, and, while it is certainly a challenge, it is what we are all called to do.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.