Jonathan Grimes wanted to play football. His dad wanted him to wait a year. But Grimes, driven and relentless even at age 7, wouldn't take no for an answer. So Gregory Grimes made his son an offer: You can play football if you take up the piano.
Thus began the twin pursuits of a young man who would go on to become one of the most accomplished performers in the history of William and Mary football.
Grimes, a senior from Palmyra, N.J., will leave William and Mary with a degree in music and a handful of school records for rushing and all-purpose yardage. He achieved both with a rare combination of zeal and humility that was evident from the day he arrived.
"One thing that's never changed about him has been his work ethic," Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock said. "He works hard every snap, whether we're out there in shorts, or whether we're in pads, or whether we're playing in the fourth quarter of a game. It's the same thing. He strives to improve, strives to do better and plays hard, practices hard and prepares hard and does everything the way you'd want him to do."
Grimes defies easy categorization, athletically and musically. Though he plays in a jazz ensemble at school, his list of influences is so broad across multiple genres that he wouldn't even attempt to name a few of his favorite performers or those who have had a significant impact on him.
"There's so much good music out there," he said, "if you don't take time to listen to it, you'll never know what you might like."
When the Tribe plays on the road, it's not uncommon for him to sit down in hotel lobbies that have pianos and start noodling away for teammates and random passers-by.
Though Grimes plays and enjoys a little of everything, he is partial to gospel, because it appeals to him spiritually as well as musically. He grew up in the First Baptist Church of Riverside, N.J., and regularly attends church in Williamsburg.
"There's so many different kinds of gospel," he said. "You've got slow, worship songs and then you've got praise songs. It envelops all kinds of different styles. I really like playing tunes like that because they have a stronger meaning than a lot of tunes that are played now. When you play a gospel song, it's just a greater magnitude and a more powerful song."
Much like Grimes' football career. He is a 5-foot-10, 200-pound package of power, speed and desire. He runs between the tackles. He is capable of getting to the edge and running away from defenders. He catches passes. He willingly and effectively blocks in pass protection and for teammates downfield. He returns kicks.
All as a marked man, since William and Mary's passing game has sputtered much of the season.
"I'm pretty much used to it, because it's been that way for the last couple years," Grimes said. "As long as the other guys on the field are doing their job, it really doesn't matter what the other team does. If we execute well and take care of what we've got to do, whatever we run should work."
Yeah, but …
"To do what he's doing when you know defenses are keying on him, it's unbelievable," Tribe running backs coach Brendan Nugent said. "His ability and his grit to basically say, I don't care who's there; I'm going to make this work. That speaks a lot to his character, as well. It doesn't matter what they throw in front of me, I'm doing to do what I need to do to get it done. It comes down to a matter of wills, and he's going to will himself to get it done, no matter what."
Nugent said that the coaches have had to rein in Grimes during practice because he would take every carry the full 100 yards and then sprint back to the huddle for the next play.
"He doesn't need every rep in practice and he knows he's not going to get every rep," Nugent said, "but he still busts his butt on every rep he gets just to make sure he gets the most out of it."
Grimes eclipsed Derek Fitzgerald's career rushing record (3,744) earlier this season and is 99 yards away from 4,000, with three games remaining. Last week against Towson he became just the fourth player in CAA history to crack the 7,000-yard all-purpose barrier (7,048). The other three, Villanova's Brian Westbrook, New Hampshire's Jerry Azumah and UMass' Marcel Shipp, all played in the NFL.
Grimes has rushed for 791 yards this season, third in the CAA before Saturday's games. He is the runaway leader in all-purpose yards, averaging 200.4 per game in rushing, receiving and kick returns, after back-to-back 300-plus-yard games against New Hampshire and Towson.
Beyond the dry numbers, Grimes is a model of productivity. He gets three yards when it appears that nothing's available. He routinely transforms short gains into big plays. For example, in a 24-10 win against then-No. 6 New Hampshire, he took simple swing passes out of the backfield and turned them into 72-yard and 50-yard touchdowns.
"He's got a great ability to make the first guy miss," Nugent said. "Very rarely do you see him get tackled by the first guy who gets there. Even if the guy has a good angle or gets a good shot, he keeps the legs driving or he's going to spin off. It usually takes more than one guy to bring him down."
Grimes has been making people miss since he was a true freshman in 2008. The Tribe staff planned to redshirt him, but multiple injuries at running back dictated that he play. He rushed for 929 yards and led the conference with 162 all-purpose yards per game on the way to being named Offensive Rookie of the Year.
"I would never think about having so much success my first year," he said. "Now, when you look at how it's gone, it seems like everyone expects the best. Why not expect the best? Try to practice like the best, try to play like the best. That's the standard."
It's a standard set by his dad. Gregory Grimes played quarterback at Morgan State and set the bar high for his son in all areas.
"He's a perfectionist," Grimes said. "He likes things to be perfect, and if they're not, we do whatever we can to try to get that way."
Even with all that Grimes has accomplished, he is blessedly devoid of the diva gene that so many skill players possess. He speaks with the soothing tone and cadence of a late-night FM disc jockey. Asked his proudest achievement, he didn't hesitate.
"Being part of last year's team that won the conference championship," he said. "That would definitely be the best. When we got those rings and saw how happy the alumni and everybody were, that was a good moment."
Grimes' passions, football and music, don't appear compatible, if only because the beating that a running back's hands take doesn't lend itself to dexterity on the piano.
"I've been fortunate not to break any fingers or dislocate anything," he said. "It's usually a mild sprain or a couple cuts here and there, but nothing terrible."
Grimes said there are similarities in his twin pursuits.
"You learn the basics in both of them," he said. "In piano, you learn where to get your hands, chords, scale of keys and all that. Eventually, you put your own style into it. You get your own kind of swag on the piano and your own sound.
"The same with football. You learn the basics, the basic steps, the basic reads. But once you break out into the open, who's going to tell you how to break a man down, or when to use a stiff-arm? That's when you put your own style into it."
Grimes' style is one the Tribe is unlikely to see again for quite a while.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times