Ryan Grant slowly ran off the field, the snow showers at Lambeau Field beginning to come down harder and harder. He was visibly upset, but it had nothing to do with the weather.
You’ll forgive Grant if he didn’t notice the precipitation; the start of his first career playoff game had just gotten off to the most horrific start imaginable.
The day was Jan. 12, 2008.
The Green Bay Packers, winners of 13 regular-season games and hosting a playoff game for the first time since Randy Moss gave the south end zone stands an interesting view, were in a bad way to start the NFC Divisional Round against Seattle Seahawks.
And Grant was mostly to blame.
On the very first play from scrimmage, Grant—who rushed for 947 yards over the final 10 games of the 2007 season—clumsily caught a pass in the flat, slipped to the ground and then fumbled when Leroy Hill smacked the helpless running back. Seattle recovered, returned the fumble to the one-yard line and scored one play later. 7-0 Seahawks.
Two plays into McCarthy’s first ever playoff game, and the Packers were already in catchup mode. To his credit, McCarthy never blinked an eye.
On the first play of the next series, McCarthy confidently gave his young running back a carry. Eight yards. Obviously, nerves had taken hold during Grant’s first fumble. Could you blame him? Before the Packers sent a sixth-round pick to the New York Giants for the still unknown back, Grant had been given exactly zero career NFL carries. The 23-year-old split time at Notre Dame and started just seven games for the Packers that season before starring in the biggest football game of his life.
The mistake was out of the way. The first run finished without issue. A lazy Hollywood writer would have sprung Grant for a touchdown on the next play. But this script wasn’t done sending its protagonist to rock bottom.
Given a second-straight carry on 2nd-and-2, Grant found a crease between the tackles and easily picked up the first down. But disaster was waiting at the second level. The ensuing collision with Seahawks safety Brian Russell dislodged the ball from Grant’s two-handed grip, and the Seahawks recovered his second fumble in 70 seconds at midfield.
Grant made his way to the sidelines, shaking his head with no clear answer for what had just happened.
Seven plays later, the Seahawks were again in the end zone. 14-0, Seattle.
“I thought, ‘Oh boy, this ain’t too good,’ ” Packers quarterback Brett Favre said. “This is the exact game I didn’t want to be in.”
Thanks mostly to a devastated backfield, the Packers brought back Grant this week. Such a reunion seemed unlikely given the events of the last four months.
Grant and the Packers never appeared to get close to an agreement this past offseason. Despite a strong finish to 2011, Grant was allowed to walk as an unrestricted free agent. If the two sides ever did near a new contract, it was never reported.
The reasons for the lack of a reunion were mostly straight forward. Grant would turn 30 years old during this season (ironically, Grant’s birthday is on Sunday), and most running backs that age struggle to find work. At the youngest position in a young man’s game, the Packers were understandably ready to move on.
James Starks and Alex Green, both players the Packers had invested draft picks in, were ready for the role. Or so it appeared.
Even when Starks went down in the preseason, Grant remained an afterthought of an addition. Instead of making the easy phone call to Grant, Packers GM Ted Thompson signed veteran running back Cedric Benson.
As was the case the entire summer, Grant waited. And waited. Precious few workouts came. Talks eventually looked like they were escalating with both the Detroit Lions and New England Patriots, but each opportunity fell through. He went all the way through the preseason and the start of the regular season without an NFL job.
Grant did eventually receive one opportunity—with the Washington Redskins in October—but that marriage divorced after just one game and one carry. Sadly, there are hundreds of stories that sound a lot like Grant’s that end with the player fading away into a forced NFL retirement. Grant would never admit it, but not playing again was slowly becoming a real possibility.
But then some cards starting falling Grant’s way. Benson suffered a dreaded Lisfranc injury in his foot on Oct. 7 and was placed on the IR with designation to return list. Nearly two months later, he was under the knife and completing season-ending surgery. A week later, Johnny White—claimed from the Buffalo Bills in mid-October—suffered a concussion against the Giants. Against the Vikings in Week 13, Starks was upended by cornerback Josh Robinson and limped off. He hasn’t practiced since and McCarthy expects him to be out “multiple weeks.”
Suddenly, the Packers were down to just Green and recently promoted practice squader DuJuan Harris at running back.
Desperate for help at the position, Thompson finally called Grant. By Wednesday, White was placed on IR and Grant was officially back with the Green Bay Packers. His first game back will come Sunday against the Detroit Lions.
“I feel good, football-wise. I’ve stayed mentally and physically involved and attached to the game,” Grant said. “I’m looking forward to it. … Right now it looks like a pretty good birthday gift.”
Prior to 2007, no player in the history of the Green Bay Packers had ever rushed for 200 yards in a postseason game. Even with names like Jim Taylor, Tony Canadeo, Paul Hornung and Ahman Green manning the backfields of numerous trips to the playoffs, the feat had never been done.
After two fumbles over his first three touches, Grant looked like the least likely candidate to be the first. In fact, few would have questioned the decision had McCarthy pulled Grant for first-year back Brandon Jackson.
But things slowly started turning around, for both the Packers and Grant. Favre hit Jennings for an unorthodox 14-yard touchdown on the Packers’ next possession to pull Green Bay back within a touchdown. A possession later, Grant ripped off runs of 26 and 15 yards before plunging in fron one-yard out to tie the game.
Then came the snow. Heavy, wet, field-erasing snow. The Packers grounds crew did everything in their power to even keep the yard markers visible. On many snaps, they lost that battle. At some points in the second half, the snow made viewing the game on television difficult. Imagine the world’s largest snowglobe, being shook harder and harder without end, and you get the visual for Lambeau Field that afternoon.
Yet as the snow kept falling, Grant continued piling up yards and the Packers slowly left the Seahawks in the rear-view mirror.
11 yards for Grant on the third scoring drive. 19 on the fourth. 29 on the fifth. 49 on the sixth. 32 on his final drive. With eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Packers were giving carries to Jackson comfortably up 42-17. Grant exited the game with 201 rushing yards and three touchdowns, statistically the greatest postseason game ever by a Packers running back.
Green Bay marched into the NFC Championship Game, it’s first since 1997. Grant’s comeback—from goat to playoff legend—was complete. His performance is now revered, not only because of the numerous gallops through a good Seattle defense and the unrelenting snow, but also because he reached the very bottom, pulled himself off the floor and only then delivered the most productive rushing game in Packers postseason history.
“I appreciate everyone sticking with it, staying with me,” Grant said.
The forecast Sunday calls for anywhere between three to six inches of snow in Green Bay. Unofficially, the chance of snow fall is 100 percent. The heaviest accumulation will likely come before the Packers and Lions kick off at 7:20 p.m. CT, but that’s beyond the point.
The setting Sunday night appears to be developing like another lazy Hollywood script. In Grant’s first game back with the Packers in almost a year, Lambeau Field will likely look as close to Jan. 2008 as it has since that playoff game five years ago. 200 yards isn’t on the table—Green will start and is expected to take a majority of the carries—but Grant will see action.
At least for Grant, the setting will be familiar.
“History tells you Ryan Grant plays well in the snow,” McCarthy said.
Grant insists his return is more than your average comeback tale.
“I didn’t come back here for a feel-good story,” Grant said. “I came back here to help this team and contribute.”
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.