Larry Grantham: A Man Among Men

By on February 4, 2013
Share Button

Side story: He was following instructions and healing according to plan from throat cancer when his heart began to beat out of rhythm and cause problems with breathing and an irregular pulse. He landed back in the hospital where he met Dr. Judson Colley of Jackson Heart Clinic. Dr. Colley became a new fan, a huge cheerleader, and the one who helped put Larry on the stable path to yet another recovery.

Atrial Fibrillation, which was Larry’s diagnosis, can be a chronic condition and one where there is not a one-size-fits-all remedy. Treatment is very much trial and error and certainly helped when a patient is very “patient” understanding that the remedy will likely involve trying several things before finding the magic formula. Dr. Colley, like so many others, was drawn to Larry’s winsome personality and his cooperative spirit. There was an instant connection—as there seems to be often where Larry Grantham is involved.

Football is ever a topic that breaks the ice and opens the relationship, but it’s Larry’s attitude and his transparent and authentic heart that forges the lasting friendship.

Larry Grantham’s resume is, by anyone’s standard, quite impressive—Ole Miss Sports Hall of Fame, Ole Miss Team of the Century, MS Sports Hall of Fame, New York Jets 1969 Super Bowl Champ—and those are just a very few mentions from a very long list of accolades and trophies. He is easy to find on Google or Wikipedia, and he is the first to tell you, in his very unassuming and soft-spoken manner, that in many ways he has lived every little boy’s dream. In the beginning, it seemed to be just that—a dream that had little chance of coming true. His journey had its share of closed doors, but quite a few open windows. And his life gives evidence that when God has a plan, the opportunities WILL come your way. When God opened the window, Larry did his part to climb on through!

But while some former celebrity athletes never quite find a meaningful path when the glory days fade, Larry’s days are filled with a mission, “to help as many people as I can, any way I can, for as long as I can.” As a recovering alcoholic who has not had a drink in 26 years and as a faithful member of Alcoholics Anonymous, he is a support system to a host of friends who check in with him every day to tell him they are not drinking.

As the fourth of six children born to Carl and Mabel Grantham in the tiny community of Gatesville in Copiah County, his childhood love was sports. All sports. What he lacked in size, he made up for with a natural skillful agility and an uncanny ability to see everything happening on any athletic field at once, plotting his movement based on his teammates’ and his opponents’ positions. This God-given talent was noted throughout his career by coaches, players, and sportswriters! In Larry’s mind, that ability kept him from injuries. He had no “blind spots.”

In addition to being very present at the Gatesville Baptist church every time the doors opened and fulfilling the family expectation to walk the aisle and get baptized before the age of 12, the Grantham kids attended grade school in Crystal Springs. Larry played every sport during the year, attending after school practices each day, even though being a member of the team meant missing the school bus and having to walk the eight miles home every night. He laughs when he says that when he tells that part of his story to people, they always ask why he didn’t catch a ride with someone. His answer is always the same, “I lived so far out at the end of a road that nobody was ever going in that direction!”

His father Carl, a World War II vet, returned from service with a lung disease. Carl worked hard to provide for his family, but Larry knew that if he had any hope of attending college it would be up to him to get some kind of scholarship. His football team tied for championship in the Little Dixie Conference during his senior year. Ole Miss came scouting but told him he was just too small for college ball. Mississippi State offered him a one-year tryout, but his dad nixed that idea saying that if he got hurt, there would be no scholarship and no way to continue his education. Larry was headed to junior college as his only apparent option, but because his 18th birthday did not fall until the following September, he was eligible to play American Legion baseball the summer following high school graduation.

The Ole Miss baseball coaches Tom Swayze and Buster Poole happened to be in the stands one night when Larry had a particularly good evening. They signed him for a baseball scholarship on the spot. But a few days later that door seemed to slam shut when they called to say they did not have the funds for a full scholarship but could do a half scholarship. The remaining tuition was still beyond Larry’s reach since there were five other Grantham children his parents were trying to feed, clothe, and educate.February_Cover3

A few days passed and Ole Miss called with another offer. They could give him half of a scholarship in baseball and half of a scholarship in football. That is how Larry Grantham became an Ole Miss Rebel for life! He became a key player in the successful 1957, ’58, and ’59 teams and was named to the All SEC football team in 1958 and 1959 when Ole Miss defeated LSU in a Sugar Bowl rematch game. The regular season contest that year is remembered for Ole Miss’ defeat when Billy Cannon made his famous 89-yard punt return—but as Larry points out the Ole Miss defense gave up only 21 points the entire season. Larry never got the attention in the national press that his teammates Charlie Flowers or Bobby Franklin received, but he was never out for himself, and even then, the values that had been instilled in him as part of a large, loving, God-fearing, family served him well both on the field and off.

When Larry participated in the 1960 Hula Bowl, the post-season invitational game that was something of an all-star game for collegiate standouts, he was named Most Valuable Player. He definitely earned the respect of the professional scouts who had previously considered him “too small” to play in the Pros. Instead, both the Baltimore Colts and a brand new AFL team, the New York Titans, drafted him. Larry chose to go with the Titans.

Three years later, the Titans became the Jets, and Larry was there serving as team captain for seven of those remaining 10 years of his career. The Super Bowl victory over the favored Colts in the 1969 game was at that time, “the happiest, most fantastic moment of my life.” Who could have ever thought that the boy who was “too small to play” at every level would walk away with the game ball in a world football championship! To this day, he is something of the alumni team leader who keeps up with the guys he played with and keeps them all abreast of each other. They are a tight-knit fraternity who would literally take the shirts off their backs to help a teammate who needed a hand.

Life After the Limelight

Looking back, Larry’s subtle seduction into alcohol addiction should not have come as a surprise. He says, as a professional football player he had a lot of free time, extra money in his pocket, and he and his football cohorts spent a lot of time sitting on bar stools in New York City, talking football and being treated like celebrities. “We had a nucleus of about 40 guys, and at least 25 of them drank pretty heavily.”

It was 1972 when the football career ended, and at age 35 he returned to Mississippi to start a successful business. As a salesman, he traveled a lot, a fact that did not do much to discourage his drinking habit. But he thought he could handle alcohol fine for a long time. In the beginning, when law enforcement would pull him over for erratic driving, they would recognize his name, take one look at his Super Bowl ring, start talking football and let him go without so much as a slap on the wrist.

Eventually, however, his luck ran out. There came a point when nobody could look the other way. Larry says, “I realized that drinking was just too much a way of life for me. It was way too important.” It was affecting his family and every other aspect of his daily life.

February_Cover5The first step of the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Step Program says, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” He decided to do something about the unmanageable part of his life and put himself in a two-week treatment program in Brinkley, Arkansas. That was in 1986. He has not had a drink since, and the same tenacity that launched his unlikely football success story, is evident in the way he has embraced his own recovery—and the recovery of others.

His past achievements in football gave him an instant platform. His active role in AA led to many speaking opportunities, and he became a kind of one-man ministry in befriending and going the extra mile with anyone who struggles with addiction. When he was invited to speak at an AA convention in Kansas City 12 years ago, the CEO of Freedom House, a recovery facility in Glen Gardner, New Jersey, was also a speaker. Fred Reihl says, as the head of a non-profit, he is always looking for a celebrity to get interested in helping him raise funds for the program.
Freedom House boasts a better than 90% sustained recovery rate for the men who complete their program. He was thrilled to hear that a former New York Jet player would be speaking in a time spot close to his, and he hoped whoever this guy was would be the guy he had been hoping to find to help the Freedom House program. He says he was not prepared for the Larry Grantham he met.

“First of all, I was expecting a hulking 240-pound linebacker, rather than 180-pound Larry.” As others before him had learned, there is nothing “small” about Larry’s heart. He knew in short order that this was the man he had been hoping to find! Any doubts Fred had vanished with the first conversation they had. There was an instant connection, and it was as if the two had been childhood friends. Fred says he was always inviting sports figures to come to New Jersey and speak to the men enrolled in the program at Freedom House, but few ever took him up on it. He had learned to “half listen” when someone promised to come, take a look, and meet the men in the program. Larry was different.

Fred has since learned that “If Larry Grantham says he will do something, he does it—and not halfway.” He went up to Freedom House the first time and fell in love with the place. His ability to connect with the residents was amazing, and he delighted in letting them try on his Super Bowl ring while assuring them that if he could get sober and stay that way, then anybody could.

Before Larry left, Fred told him about a golf tournament Freedom House had been putting on the last few years. It had never really turned a profit, but maybe Larry would consider lending his name to the tournament and calling on a few of his former Jets teammates to come in and play. That could raise money to help defray the expenses of offering this recovery program to those who could not pay. Larry was on board, but Fred says he had absolutely no idea how hard Larry was going to work to make it happen.

The first year Larry’s invitation brought in 24 of his former teammates. Eleven years later Freedom House boasts such names as Joe Namath, Don Maynard, Emerson Booser, and others that have been part of the tourneys that have raised about $1.7 million dollars to help Freedom House. Fred notes the camaraderie that exists among these former Jets. He attributes a great deal of it to Larry’s ability to connect with people. He cares on a level that makes everyone want to be his friend.

Larry continues to make visits to Freedom House. He has made over 20 visits during the last 12 years. Fred says, “I would call Larry Grantham a man among men. Over the years there has never been a request he said, ‘no’ to.”

February_Cover4

Health Challenges

Larry’s two-a-days and years of tough physical workouts seemed to carry him for a lot of years. He confesses that he really did not hit the gym or pay great attention to his health post football. He was blessed with good genes and having worked his body so hard for so long, he rode on that effort for years after the gridiron. Eventually, however, his negligence seemed to catch up with him.

He was living in Olive Branch and not feeling his usual fit self. He went to a doctor for a hernia repair that turned out to involve much more. There was something amiss in the GI tract, and the doctor ended up taking a portion of his small intestine. But that was just the beginning. When he came home to recuperate, he began to have problems with eating. His throat was raw and painful. He stepped on the scales one morning and saw that his weight had dropped to 140 pounds, and he knew instinctively that he was much sicker than he had imagined.

He called his daughter, Leigh Anne, who works for a Jackson physician, and she told him to get in his car and come to Jackson that instant. She was able to get him scheduled to see a cadre of doctors on short notice. He was diagnosed that very weekend with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Larry’s fearful spirits were lifted by oncologist, Dr. Bobby Graham, who told him, “This is not only treatable, but it is curable.”

Months of debilitating chemo followed, but so did remission. Larry continued to work the AA program and to encourage and be involved in the lives of recovering alcoholics. He is one who always sees the glass “half full” rather than “half empty.”

By the time he came to the last of his chemo treatments, he had racked up an astronomical medical tab. Even with great insurance, the outstanding balance was enough to bankrupt him. Larry says his parents had taught him well that a responsible person always pays his bills. He came to the agonizing decision that the only way he could pay down his debt substantially was to sell the possession he most valued—his Super Bowl III ring.

With a little research he discovered a memorabilia dealer in Las Vegas who came highly recommended. Victor was honest and knew how to get top dollar for something like Larry’s ring. The two corresponded, and the ring went on an Internet auction site, and the bidding began.

When Larry’s friends at Freedom House discovered Larry’s intentions, they immediately began their own fundraising efforts to buy back that ring. They contacted a sportswriter at the New Jersey Star-Ledger who wrote a story on the former Super Bowl champ and his plight.

Meanwhile, Larry was having second thoughts, too. He called Victor and asked if he could pull the ring from the auction. Victor was sympathetic, but he explained why that was not possible. The bidding had progressed too far; and his credibility and reputation were at stake here.

Days passed, and Larry’s angst grew. One morning he dropped to his knees in front of his couch and surrendered the situation to God. He prayed that God’s will would be done in every area of his life and that he wanted more than anything to be at peace with whatever God’s will was.

“You know,” he says, “Every time I have gotten even a little away from my upbringing and away from God, He has a way of setting in place circumstances that only He could set in place.” Such divine interventions affirm to Larry the reality of God’s protective care and redemptive love.

Not even one hour passed before the telephone rang, and it was Victor, the memorabilia dealer. He and his wife had gone to a funeral in Pittsburgh and he had picked up a Star-Ledger in an airport. He had read the story about Larry. He shared that he and his wife were also in recovery from alcohol addiction, and they were so moved by Larry’s courage, compassion, and character that they agreed the right thing to do in this situation was to send the ring back.

What are the odds a memorabilia dealer from Las Vegas would happen through an airport on the east coast on the one day in 365 that a personal story that affected him and an ex-professional football player/client from Mississippi would appear on the front page of the sports section?

And the happily-ever-after ending includes the fact that the $15,000 the Freedom House had raised to buy back the ring went toward Larry’s medical bills!

Today

At 74, Larry’s recoveries—from addiction, from cancer, and from a heart crisis—inspire those around him. He brags that his “numbers” are perfect, and his focus continues to be “helping anybody and everybody that I can, in any and every way I possibly can, for as long as I can.”
You will find him on Sundays either at the First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs or at Pinelake in Brandon where he visits quite regularly.

“Family is everything to him,” his friend, Linda, tells me. He is the proud father of a son and a daughter, and grandfather to six grandchildren who bring him great joy. Three sisters and one living brother round out the family circle, and life is very, very good. God has been very, very good to Larry Grantham.