Scott Fowler

Back from a ‘dark place,’ QB Will Grier lives out a childhood dream with the Panthers

Will Grier glad to officially be a Panther

Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback Will Grier is glad to be back on the field and working to help the team win games next year. He is also happy to be a member of his hometown NFL franchise.
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Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback Will Grier is glad to be back on the field and working to help the team win games next year. He is also happy to be a member of his hometown NFL franchise.

Will Grier’s first practice Friday morning as a Carolina Panther was rainy and unremarkable.

What was remarkable, however, is that Grier was there at all.

It wasn’t that many years ago that Grier was sitting alongside his dad and his other relatives in Section 229 at Bank of America Stadium, cheering for Cam Newton while wearing his Steve Smith jersey.

It wasn’t too long after that when Grier was Parade magazine’s national player of the year in high school.

And it wasn’t too long after that, according to his father Chad, that Grier was in such a “dark place” that “he didn’t know if he was ever going to play football again.”

This season, though, the Panthers’ third-round draft choice in 2019 (and fifth overall QB selected) will back up Newton on that very same field. Grier’s journey from Davidson Day School to Florida to West Virginia has turned one more surprise corner, and now he finds itself right back in the Charlotte area again.

“I’m going to work hard and be coachable,” Grier vowed after that first practice Friday with rainwater dripping down his beard. “I think that’s important. Fit into the system. Do whatever it takes to help the Panthers win.”

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Carolina Panthers rookie Will Grier (3) throws downfield during a drill in the first session of rookie camp at the team’s practice field on Friday. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

While Grier’s life looks just about picture-perfect now – he will be playing football for his hometown NFL team, with a wife who is a former NFL cheerleader and their 2-year-old daughter Eloise both awaiting him at their new home in Charlotte’s Cotswold area – it hasn’t always been that way.

It was less than four years ago, in the fall of 2015, when Grier’s life crumbled shortly after he had led Florida to a 6-0 start and a top-10 national ranking.

Grier failed an NCAA drug test then because he took a performance-enhancing substance called Ligandrol, which he had bought at a nutrition store. Grier said didn’t check with the University of Florida’s athletic trainers before taking the substance, a costly mistake he has owned up to repeatedly. That positive test meant he was suspended from NCAA competition for a year.

Although Grier thought about staying in Florida, it didn’t work out. Chad Grier, a former East Carolina quarterback and a longtime high school football coach in the Carolinas, said then-Florida coach Jim McElwain made it clear through his actions and words that Will would be better off transferring.

“The short version is McElwain didn’t want him,” said the elder Grier, who is now the head football coach for Oceanside High in Mount Pleasant, S.C. “It was tough for Will to hear that. It was the first time in his life as an athlete where he really felt unwanted. That’s really when he was kind of doubting himself.”

‘He went to a dark place’

Will Grier spent more than a year in football purgatory after the suspension.

“I learned a lot,” he said Friday of that period. “I grew up a lot. But it was all kind of my journey in growing and maturing, and it got me to where I am today.”

Grier’s parents divorced when he was young. His father coached him for the majority of his life until college (most notably, in his national record-setting, 837-yard, 10-touchdown performance for Davidson Day during a 104-80 playoff win in 2012).

Will Grier DDS
As a senior at Davidson Day School, Will Grier threw for 4,989 yards and 77 touchdowns; won a state championship; and was named Parade National Player of the Year. Jeff Willhelm

Chad Grier said he still regrets not helping his son more during the time immediately after the suspension, saying he “grossly underestimated” the impact it had on Will.

“It was devastating,” Chad Grier said. “And I didn’t realize this was going on. I’d say, “Will, how are you doing?’ He’d say, ‘I’m good,’ and I believed him. That was a failure on me, as a parent. I should have recognized that, literally in a matter of hours, his whole world was taken away from him ... He went to a dark place.”

During his suspension, Will Grier leaned on girlfriend Jeanne O’Neil, the former Tampa Bay Bucs cheerleader who would eventually become his wife. His father helped him renavigate the recruitment process, as there were no shortage of suitors once it became apparent that Grier would transfer. Ohio State and Urban Meyer came close to getting him, but West Virginia and coach Dana Holgorsen’s pro-style offense won out.

Grier had two excellent years for the Mountaineers. He picked up the nickname “Touchdown Jesus” in 2017, when his hair was long, and ended up throwing a total of 71 touchdown passes and finishing fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2018.

Although his younger brothers Nash and Hayes surpassed him for several years in publicity due to their status as social-media stars, older brother Will made a lot of headlines himself – the good kind – his last two years in Morgantown.

4 other QBs go first

For the draft, the Grier family gathered three miles away from the stadium at the house of Will’s uncle. On Thursday night, Chad Grier said, the family “thought it was kind of 50-50” as to whether Will would be drafted in the first round.

He wasn’t. Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray (No. 1, to Arizona), Duke quarterback Daniel Jones (No. 6, to the New York Giants) and Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins (No. 15, to Washington) were the three first-round QBs. Some draftniks questioned Grier’s arm strength, although he says he never has.

In the second round, only one quarterback (Missouri’s Drew Lock at No. 42 to Denver) was taken. Carolina at No. 100 and New England at No. 101 were the last realistic shots in the third round. If that didn’t happen, “It was going to be time to wait until Saturday (for rounds 4-7) and order up some more barbecue,” Chad Grier said.

But the Panthers chose Grier, marking the first time they had used a draft choice on a quarterback since picking Newton No. 1 overall in 2011 (when Grier was a high school freshman).

“This is about depth and bringing in young guys and developing young guys,” Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said after Grier was drafted. “This has nothing to do with Cam Newton. Cam Newton is our starting quarterback and franchise quarterback.”

A ‘positive’ collaboration

Will Grier is being very careful not to rattle any cages in his first months on the job. He gets that Newton remains the man in Charlotte – although Newton is also coming off January shoulder surgery. Grier has said at every opportunity he is just here to learn and to help Carolina win.

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Carolina Panthers rookie Will Grier (3) gets instructions from quarterbacks coach Scott Turner during the team’s rookie minicamp Friday. Grier, 24, was the Panthers’ third-round draft pick in April and the fifth overall quarterback selected. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

At 24, Grier is old for a rookie but young enough that he and his Davidson Day teammates played in Newton’s 7-on-7 tournament in Charlotte when Grier was still in high school (Davidson Day won it that year).

“Will has texted with Cam already,” Chad Grier said. “The thing about Will is that when he was at West Virginia and had to sit out (during the NCAA-mandated suspension), a lot of people don’t realize that Will was the scout team MVP that year, as chosen by the defense.”

Quarterback Will Grier, the Carolina Panthers' third-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, tees off at the Wells Fargo Championship Pro Am on Wednesday, May 1, 2019, at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, NC. Grier grew up in the Charlotte area.

Continued Chad Grier: “Of course he wants to play, to contribute. But Cam’s an NFL MVP. Cam’s a guy that Will was watching and pulling for while sitting in the stands. Cam’s a special talent. He does things that really not many people in the world can do … I think what Will is going to try to do is push Cam in a positive, collaborative way.”

At the least, Grier’s presence will make the preseason games a lot more interesting. At the most, if Newton gets re-injured he could be called upon to direct the team in the most crucial games of 2019.

“I’m not trying to prove anything,” Grier said. “I’m just here with the Panthers, trying to help them win.

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Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”
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