There’s a sequence in the movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” when Harrison Ford attempts to pass a series of Biblical tests so he can reach the Holy Grail. The most significant is when he emerges at the edge of a chasm and, after consulting his spiritual CliffsNotes (“Only in the leap from the lion’s head…”) realizes he is being asked to step off the cliff.
A Leap of Faith.
So he steps off the edge and, because he’s Harrison Ford, a stone bridge suddenly appears below his feet, he crosses the canyon, reaches the Grail and saves the world from the Nazis.
Which brings us to Grant Aasen. The Georgia Tech punter decided to forgo his final year of eligibility to enroll in seminary with the intention of being a priest. His real life decision doesn’t have the fictional global implications of Indiana Jones. But after suffering a head injury as a high school running back that nearly took his life, returning as a punter because he loved football too much to give it up, enrolling at Tech, walking onto the team and finally being on the verge of a possible starting job and a scholarship, his leap of faith was significant. And real.
Referencing the movie scene Tuesday, Aasen said, “It sounds corny but it was pretty much like that. I don’t know how this is going to end but I’ve got to do it. It was hard. It was really damn hard.”
He is sitting in an office at the Edge Athletics Center. There is a 12-inch scar in the form of a hook that starts near the top corner of his ear, travels up the skull, then makes a sharp left and stops at the forehead. But he’s here and he’s lucid. He was told there was “less than a one percent chance” of being normal after a head injury. He was a sophomore running back at Starr’s Mill High School in Fayetteville when, on a carry during practice, he was tackled by teammate Ufomba Kamalu. Kamalu, nicknamed “The Nigerian Nightmare,” was 6-5, 280. Aasen was 5-11, 165 pounds. (Kamalu played atMiami and now is with the Houston Texans.)
It was a clean tackle but the impact caused Aasen’s head to hit the turf hard. He never lost consciousness. But near the end of a game next night, he left with a bad headache, sat on the bench, then collapsed and had a seizure. He had suffered a subdural hematoma. Doctors later cut open his skull to stop the bleeding and relieve the pressure on his brain.
He was 15 years old.
But this was the only tragedy: “We had to push off my driver’s permit for a while.”
He recovered quickly. He was in the hospital for a week, suffered from short-term memory loss (“My friends told me I would tell the same story six times.”) but ultimately came out on the other side healthy. When he returned to school, he was determined to play two more years of football, but, after playing running back and linebacker, switched to the relative non-contact position of punter.
He wasn’t great. But he was determined to make it as a walk-on in college. So he enrolled at Tech, tried and failed at an open tryout in 2013 and again in the spring, before winning a spot as the No. 3 punter just before the 2014 season. He was on track to win backup duties in 2015 but suffered a bad ankle sprain after running a fake punt 60 yards in a scrimmage. This past season, he got into one game: a 42-yard punt (mostly on a roll) against Mercer that he shanked.
“Nerves,” he said.
He would’ve been No. 1 on the depth chart going into camp this year, battling an incoming freshman. He likely would’ve held on place kicks. After the long journey, “My dream would’ve been fulfilled,” he said.
But something changed after the injury. He grew in spirituality, became more educated on the precepts of Catholicism.
“It’s not like I was at the (Pearly) Gates and He reached out to me and told me to do this,” he said. “But I had I never grasped the magnitude of what happened. Like, I should’ve been dead.” It led him to re-evaluate his purpose, and that took him down the religious track.
How the leap to priest?
“I approached it like football. I’m not going to half-ass it,” he said.
He’ll be a cool priest.
Actually, seminary teachers told him not to focus on the priest thing just yet, that one of every three changed their mind after two years. But with a year of eligibility left and having just graduated, Aasen had to make an immediate decision on football.
He first told Tech coach Paul Johnson of his post-college plans in the spring of 2016, then this past spring told Johnson of his impending graduation, seeking feedback. Johnson suggested he go through spring drills before finalizing his decision. He did — and he did. But it was emotional. Aasen teared up when he told Johnson.
“There’s still a big part of me that says I wish I wouldn’t have done that,” he said. “But having some regret doesn’t mean it’s the wrong decision. It’s just not an easy pill to swallow. I was hanging with some of the guys last night and I thought, ‘I miss this. I miss football.’ This past year I would’ve been able to accomplish everything I wanted to do. My whole dream was coming to fruition.”
But he made this turn for some reason. That's why they call it faith.
Subscribe to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast with the AJC's Jeff Schultz and WSB’s Zach Klein on iTunes. Episodes also can be downloaded from on-demand link on WSBRadio.com.
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