Jets rookie undrafted free agent Anthony Grady hopes to once again put a picture of his late grandmother up in his locker. It may seem like a small thing to most people, but to Grady it will signal that he's made it.
But even if a picture of Peggy McLelland isn't up in his locker quite yet, he always carries her in his heart.
Grady grew up in Arkansas in a home where his father, Kevin, was the only parent. His mother lived in Texas and wasn't a part of his home life. But he had a grandmother in the house, a woman he remembers waking up before dawn and often falling asleep at midnight. She who worked a full-time job even at an age most of her friends were retired and frittered away their days watching television, playing golf or in social activities.
“Not grandma,” Grady recalls.
His father had his own landscaping business and worked long hours, so grandma had to be a full-time mother to Grady in addition to her full-time job as a file clerk at the local hospital. Her grey hairs were far from indicative of a woman with “so much energy.”
“She was pretty much my backbone,” Grady told Metro New York. “Anything I ever needed, she was there for me. Growing up, she was always a big part of my life — cooking, cleaning. She drove me to school, she picked me up. She worked a full-time job from 2 to 11 p.m. She was tireless.”
Then one day, it all changed.
When Grady was in middle school in 2006, McLelland received a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, more commonly referred to as bone cancer. She had surgery in the hospital where she was on staff. The surgery was supposed to remove the cancer and prolong her outlook.
Instead, the operation triggered the spread of the cancer at a faster rate throughout her body. Instantly, McLelland took a turn for the worse. She died six months later.
“I was too young perhaps to fully understand it and appreciate it,” Grady said. “She was the one who took me to school, made my lunches. She was everywhere, she was everything. She touched every part of my life. It all happened fast. I was young and I don't think I could realize it — it's funny to say — but really appreciate those final days with her. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about her — what she meant to me.”
Life changed after that with Grady's father needing to adjust his schedule to be home more, and Grady in turn remembers long waits after school while he had to wait for his father to get done from work. He bummed rides home with friends and filled up time with sports, always lots of sports.
Football was part of the healing process for Grady after the passing of his grandmother. He readily admits the gridiron was in many ways therapeutic for him. It gave him a healthy outlet as he dealt with his grief.
He'd go on to play college football at Missouri State where he excelled as a defensive end, including earning all-conference honors. After a strong pro day, several teams showed interest the 6-foot-7, 289-pound end. But the Jets staved off the competition and landed the player as an undrafted rookie free agent.
Now he plays for McLelland, nearly 10 years after her fight with cancer.
In the middle of the locker room at the team's facility, the Jets have brought in roughly 20 locker spaces for rookies and tryout players. Grady occupies one of these spots on the far end of the locker room — a nondescript locker space that looks out of place for someone as hulking as the rookie defensive end. These lockers will be gone by the time the team returns from training camp in upstate New York. Many of the players who used them during offseason workouts and minicamp won't be here come Week 1, so they rarely decorate the lockers.
Grady knows this, but the uncertainty also fuels him.
He hopes to move in permanently, most likely as a member of the practice squad to start. If and when he gets that official locker, likely flanked by veteran players on either side, he will feel settled in.
“That's why I put up my photos of grandma,” Grady said. “Not till then though. Not till I'm here for good.”
Seated in a plastic chair outside his locker, he taps the right side of the locker, near the shelf where his helmet would go.
“It goes right here,” Grady says. He pauses and musters a little smile. “If I make it, she goes right there.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.