Perseverance, family support pay off for Ravens' top pick

The Baltimore Sun

Freshman year at Auburn could have been the effective end of Ben Grubbs' football career.

Like many small-town prep stars, he'd been the alpha dog on any field he'd ever played on - big enough to squash his strongest foes, quick enough to catch his swiftest.

But when he reached college, everything changed. He couldn't learn Auburn's complicated defensive sets. He felt uncomfortable playing from a down position instead of on his feet as a linebacker. Good grades in the classroom didn't come as easily as they had at Elmore County High.

One night, a despondent Grubbs called his high school coach, Travis Pearson. Pearson's wife handed him the phone with a worried look.

"I'm struggling," Grubbs said.

"You've got to stick with it," Pearson told him. Remember who Ben Grubbs is, he said. Remember the kid who never minded working for his success, who followed his brother through long weight-lifting sessions as early as junior high.

"Momma, it's not working out," Grubbs would say in daily calls home to tiny Eclectic, Ala. His mother, Deborah, who raised Ben and his brother while working as a mail processor 35 miles away, offered even simpler advice - pray. If he couldn't find answers by reading scripture, she added, he should go to Auburn's chaplain.

"It's hard to put into words because I wouldn't say I was looking for anything in particular," Grubbs said. "It's just the belief of knowing that when you put yourself in God's hands, things will work out. You may not know how exactly, but that's what faith is."

Football salvation came in the form of a switch to offense. Grubbs first impressed coaches with his blocking at tight end. Then he wowed them by zooming past more experienced players to start at left guard for a 13-0 team as a redshirt sophomore. Grubbs earned his business degree in four years and in his fifth, he established himself as the consensus best guard prospect in the land. The Ravens selected him 29th overall in last weekend's NFL draft and believe that Grubbs, 6 feet 3 and 315 pounds, could start right away.

Like many successful athletes, Grubbs, 23, believes his eventual success was rooted in overcoming failure. "That was really the beginning of my career," he said of his freshman year. "I don't think it can get any worse than that."

Grubbs' ability to turn back to his basic nature bodes well for his future in Baltimore, say those who've known him longest.

"I talked to him about this for an hour the other day and I told him you're going to a bigger city with brighter lights, but you're still Ben Grubbs," Pearson said. "You don't have to change that. And I think he knows."

Said Auburn strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall: "He was raised right. He's the kind of kid who will just come in every day and do what he needs to do. That might sound too good to be true, but he's one of those players you get now and again."

Eclectic upbringing

Ben Grubbs grew up with his mother and brother on a 10-acre patch of land in Eclectic.

Natives are used to explaining their town's name, which came from a founder who had pursued an eclectic course of study in school. With 1,037 residents, it's no metropolis.

"Yes, there is only one stoplight," Deborah Grubbs said with a hearty laugh.

Not that Eclectic is barren. You can eat barbecue at Old South or Cotton's. People come from all over to buy fabric at the Cloth Barn.

It felt more rural in the days when Grubbs' ancestors harvested cotton and wheat from the flat landscape. Elmore County is now one of the fastest growing areas of Alabama. Families are moving from Montgomery in search of safe, affordable neighborhoods and solid schools. New subdivisions have sprung up.

Nonetheless, teenagers in search of a mall or movie theatre must drive 35 miles to Montgomery or 50 miles to Auburn. Fun around Eclectic means conversation at a friend's house or over barbecue at Lake Martin. After school or a Friday night game, the older kids gather at the Kwik Shop gas station to socialize.

"It's Alabama man, the fresh air, the nice view," said Grubbs' older brother, Cedric. "It's a small town and there isn't a whole lot going on, so we had to stay outside and use our imaginations. I guess that turned out pretty well."

When Ben was very young, the Grubbs family lived in Georgia, where his father was stationed at Fort Benning. But his dad died unexpectedly after developing a blood clot in his leg when Ben was 5.

He was young enough that the loss didn't hit him as hard as his mother or brother, who is two years older. But Deborah remembered that her son grasped her leg tightly whenever she dropped him off at kindergarten. "I think he was afraid that I might never come back either," she said.

Grubbs remembers watching his mother cry without understanding the reason.

He said to her recently, "Raising us was hard, wasn't it, Momma?"

Yes, she replied. She'd given up almost everything else to focus on the boys.

"She means pretty much everything to me," Grubbs said.

Growth spurt

The family moved into a one-story house adjacent to the plot where Deborah's parents lived in Eclectic. She remembered two defining characteristics of young Ben. First, he loved to work with his hands. Even as a small boy, he was the Grubbs most likely to repair any household appliance. Second, the boy could eat.

Collards, cabbage, green beans, beef, chicken. It didn't matter; Ben Grubbs loved it all. "He and his brother loved to eat so much," their mother recalled, "that they'd finish dinner and go right to eating cereal or something. If I could just have back the money I spent on groceries for them, I'd be set."

Height ran in Deborah's family, and her husband's relatives were "big-boned." Combine that with the aforementioned appetite and she was hardly shocked when her younger son grew rapidly.

She urged her boys to play sports from an early age, because she didn't want them to "get out of hand."

Cedric Grubbs actually took to football before Ben, who was more prone to terrorizing Little League baseball opponents. No matter how far the outfielders stood from home plate, the strapping Grubbs sent the ball soaring over them with his left-handed stroke.

His nickname, "Big Hurt," was swiped from another Alabama product, major league slugger Frank Thomas.

By contrast, Deborah remembered her son's displeasure after spending much of a youth football game on his backside. "He said, 'Momma, I don't want to play any more football,' " she recalled. "And I think that was about the only night he got out there."

That would change in junior high. His brother was a serious player by then, working out to build his body for competition. And Ben Grubbs often tagged along. As he pumped iron, he sprouted past his brother and just about everyone else in town.

"He's one of the hardest workers I've ever seen," Cedric Grubbs said. "Nobody ever had to tell him to do anything."

"That was his life," Deborah Grubbs said of her son's practicing and lifting.

Elmore County High hadn't been a football powerhouse since the late 1980s, so as Grubbs cleared 6 feet and approached 250 pounds while retaining the agility to carry the ball and catch smaller foes, he stood out. He played on the varsity as a freshman, even though he hadn't fully devoted himself to football.

Pearson came to the program figuring he'd need to scare up some players. "I saw him walking around and I thought, 'There's a start right there,' " he said.

The hulking teenager told Pearson that his greatest ambitions still lay in baseball.

"I said, 'Son, you need to put that bat down,' " Pearson remembered. "I knew that if he was willing to put his hand in the dirt, he'd be able to write his own ticket."

Grubbs told the coach that his mother worried about his safety playing football.

"I told Mrs. Grubbs, 'As big as he is and as much as he eats, you should worry about the other kids,' " Pearson said.

Talk of the town

Despite the losing records, Eclectic loved its high school football. Residents packed the 2,000-seat stadium on Friday nights and attended practices by the dozens.

"The school is the center of everything the town does," Pearson said. "It is a really rural, small place that eats, sleeps and breathes football."

And Eclectic had never seen a football specimen like Ben Grubbs. That didn't mean major college football was on his mind. Elmore County hadn't sent many players to schools such as Auburn.

"I don't think it's really a factor for anybody who comes from a small town," Cedric Grubbs said. "It's not something anybody from here ever really did. A lot of people don't know Eclectic exists."

Grubbs got a few letters from Division II schools during his sophomore season. Then, he attended a combine for standout players from across Alabama.

"He was the biggest dude there," his brother said. "The college coaches had never heard of him, but here he was, this big, mobile 11th-grader who could play linebacker. They couldn't believe it. They loved him."

On offense, Grubbs barreled through defenses for touchdowns. On defense, he ran down smaller ball carriers and crushed them. He earned honor-roll grades as well.

"Whatever I needed, wherever I put him," Pearson said, "he was the best-looking player on the field."

SuperPrep magazine anointed him one of the top 10 players in the state and Southeastern Conference powerhouses LSU, Alabama and Auburn battled over his services. He and his brother had grown up rooting for the Crimson Tide. But Grubbs felt more comfortable on his visit to Auburn. He and his mother prayed on it and felt certain God wanted him to don the blue and orange.

Switching to offense

Auburn coaches projected the quick and powerful Grubbs as a defensive end and that was fine with him - in theory. But in practice, he couldn't adjust.

"I was so used to linebacker, and I wasn't getting it," he said.

The coaches redshirted him after deciding he wasn't ready for SEC competition. Then, they flipped him to offense before his second season. Grubbs was skeptical and called Pearson, who said, "You're on the field, right?"

That was all the logic Grubbs needed to hear.

"I grew up," he said. "I was happy to do anything that would get me on the field. I knew how it felt to sit in the stands watching and I didn't want to go back."

Auburn line coach Hugh Nall saw in Grubbs all the traits of a promising young blocker - exceptional balance and body control, great flexibility in the hips, unusual bend in the knees and ankles. He also saw a kid who didn't say much but who never showed up late to meetings or loafed through workouts.

The sophomore's physical attributes allowed him to start at guard for a 13-0 Auburn team, even though his grasp of line technique was rudimentary. He was named the team's most improved lineman and realized then that he might have a shot at the NFL.

"I felt like I had to have done something right," he said.

Grubbs made All-SEC as a junior and formed a devastating left side of the line with another future pro, Marcus McNeil. After the season, he graduated.

That allowed him to focus more acutely on football as a senior, and he played better still, earning All-America honors.

After every game, he asked his brother for a critique. But Cedric believes his brother is hard enough on himself.

"He has always treated football like a job," he said. "Like I said, his work ethic is crazy."

'Still Ben Grubbs'

Even after 38 starts at Auburn, Grubbs faced criticisms of his technique from draft analysts. They praised his intelligence, quick feet and natural strength but said he could stand more consistency.

"People say he's fundamentally unsound and I say, 'You're right,' " Nall said. "But it's a difficult position, and he's only had three years to play and practice it. His best football is in front of him."

Other critics said Grubbs' body appeared soft.

"I saw that and I don't know where this stuff comes from," said Yoxall, the strength coach. "He's not a big, sloppy guy. He's a country-strong type kid. No, he's not built like a bodybuilder, but I can tell you, whenever we set a poundage goal for him in the weight room, he never failed to lift it."

Reservations aside, draft experts pegged Grubbs as the best guard available.

But Deborah's first instinct was to keep friends and relatives away during the selection. She didn't want her boy to face an audience if the day took a disappointing turn. "They came anyway," she said with a laugh. They couldn't resist her cooking or the chicken and ribs Cedric plopped on the grill.

She worried when the 20th and 22nd picks passed without a call. At one stage, Grubbs stuffed his cell phone in a pocket and shut himself in his bedroom. But finally, the phone buzzed and the caller identification read "Baltimore."

"That was a major, big thing around here," said Grubbs' pastor, Levi Morrow, of his getting drafted. "Especially because people know what type of person Ben is and they know the kind of family he comes from."

Grubbs said people in Eclectic now look at him as "some sort of icon."

"But I just tell them I'm still Ben Grubbs," he said. "They can always talk to me."

Grubbs has never lived in a big city and he promises to bring his small-town life with him. After Grubbs' rough start at Auburn, Cedric, who works at a plant near Eclectic that makes water meters, moved to be near him. He may do the same now, "just so he can see a familiar face when he comes home from practice."

College teammates such as McNeil have told Grubbs he'll thrive in the NFL. He certainly doesn't sound worried.

"I've lived in Alabama my whole life," he said. "This time, I'm ready for some change."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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