When Ryan Grigson was a sophomore at Purdue in the early 90s, a vicious hit vs. Minnesota not only nearly cost him his football career, but his life.
But the offensive lineman battled back; after spending two weeks in intensive care and many more months rehabbing, he returned to the field, finished out his Boilermaker career and played a couple seasons professionally. But it's his second career, as an NFL executive, that had him at Purdue Monday night. There, the Colts' General Manager was presented with the Drew Brees Mental Toughness Award. He was one of several honorees at the 2013 Joe Tiller Chapter of the National Football Foundation honors dinner.
"I think the injury probably set the tone for his success as a general manager in the NFL," longtime Purdue athletic trainer Denny Miller said of Grigson, who suffered kidney failure, pancreatitis and eventual pneumonia in 1992, while introducing him to the crowd at Purdue's Memorial Ballroom in the Union. "He's smart, has tenacity. He gets after it and sets his goals. He came back as a starter and team captain his final year and the rest is history."
Grigson, who is entering his second season as the Colts' GM and was the NFL Executive-of-the-Year in 2012, was honored.
"It's a very flattering day for myself and my family," the Highland, Ind., native said. "Everything is close to home, which makes it even more special. The award is humbling and the namesake of the award is what mental toughness is all about and I'm really happy to be associated with it all."
Grigson wasn't the only awardee. Diver David Boudia was presented the organization's highest honor, the Golden Medallion Award, following such others as Neil Armstrong and Drew Brees.
The Olympic gold medalist was happy to be recognized for his accomplishments over the last year.
"It's definitely unique to be honored at a football foundation event," he said. "But it's obviously a great honor to receive a great award like that. What's more important is that it not only recognizes my accomplishments, but my coach, Adam Soldati's as well, my parents and especially my wife who has given a lot to help me get to wear I am. And obviously the old gold and black, too."
Two high school athletes were given the Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award: Justin Miller of Eastside High School was the northeast Indiana representative, while Ryan Spesard of Carroll represented the northwest. Noble Kizer, the son of former coach and AD Noble Kizer, was named a Distinguished American, with his father. Jamie March, the wife of Munster High School coach Leroy Marsh, was given the Arnette Tiller "Service to Football" Award. The Bernie Flowers Award for Outstanding Contribution to Amateur Football went to Mark Ebelhar of West Lafayette Little Girdiron.
Miss Indiana and Purdue Golden Girl MerrieBeth Cox received the "Purdue is Proud of You" Award, while Cooper Fulmer of Winamac and Patrick Mackey of Central Catholic High School got the Courage Award. The two, bonded by their battles, are fighting leukemia. They received the first standing ovation of the night - the second went to Boudia - although Cooper, 6, wasn't able to attend as he receives treatment.
Theirs was the most touching moment of the evening. But there were light ones, too, most provided by former coach Joe Tiller. The now-retired boss, who will be inducted into Purdue's Hall of Fame in 2013, sometimes was salty and almost always humorous during his 10-minute introduction of the Kizers.
He joked that Purdue only ran a spread offense because wife Arnette couldn't keep track of the ball in a Wing T. He also - jokingly? - rescinded the open offer to all Purdue fans to visit his Wyoming home at any time, alluding to the many visitors he's had in.
Current coach Darrell Hazell spoke too, pointing out his comments might not be on the level of Tiller.
"Don't think I could get away with what Coach Tiller was saying," he said. "We've got to get to the Rose Bowl first."
Hazell's brief speech to the few hundred in attendance was the latest this offseason, as he tries to galvanize the fan base. He says he was recently at a local elementary school, telling the kids of the importance of maintaining a positive attitude.
The message might have been received, sorta.
"By the time I get back to my office, I have an email from my secretary that says 'The first graders thought (you were) Barack Obama,'" he said, laughing.
But Hazell quickly turned back to business, pointing out that most players are now on campus working out.
"We're starting to get ready," he said. "We have an eight-week stretch before we get ready to play again, and we're excited."
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