CAIRO — Having trouble with your running game? Well, Steve DeVoursney has a solution.
Just do what he did here at Cairo High School: Survey your roster, find the biggest guy on your team, put him in the back of a pistol formation and hand him the football.
That’s how it went down for the Syrupmakers last fall, and the results were instant. DeVoursney decided to give Walter Grant Jr. a look running the football in Week 3 of the season. What followed was 10 wins in a row for Cairo before the season finally ended with a 17-13 loss to Jefferson in the quarterfinals of the Class AAAA state playoffs. The Syrupmakers were 11-2.
Of course, DeVoursney wasn’t throwing an ordinary big guy into his backfield. His guy Grant happened to stand 6-foot-4, weigh 230 pounds and run a 4.7-second 40-yard dash. As in, laser-timed.
It made for quite a few cool video highlights.
“Our offensive line was really young and, for whatever reason, we just couldn’t get going offensively,” said DeVoursney, who’s in his third season at Cairo after logging a perfect record and winning a state championship at Griffin. “You put a 6-4, 230-pound guy at running back, your running game gets better. That’s what we did. [Opponents] had to start putting more people in the box to stop him, so that’s kind of what got it going for us.”
That wasn’t all Grant did. His primary position for the Syrupmakers was middle linebacker. He also played outside linebacker and defensive end and, really, anywhere his team needed him. It’s Grant’s play on defense that brought recruiters from all over the South to this extreme Southwest Georgia town.
But getting to tote the rock was a nice perk for Grant.
“Like the third game of the season, [the coaches] told me, ‘We can’t run the ball that good; we need you,’” Grant said. “I said, ‘All right, Coach, whatever it takes to win.’ So I did it.”
And he did it quite well. Despite not playing running back in every game and sitting out two games to rest a knee injury after Cairo had clinched a playoff spot, Grant finished with 512 yards on 82 carries and scored 7 touchdowns. He also threw a touchdown pass.
“He liked that stretch play,” DeVoursney said, “that outside zone where you could bounce it or slam it up in there. He had pretty good vision and instincts. He’s a good athlete.”
Said Grant: “The only problem was me being so tall. I had to learn how to get low ‘cause everybody was trying to get my legs.”
Grant won’t have to worry with that anymore. He chose to play for the Georgia Bulldogs, and last time we checked, they have the running back position covered. They’re in good shape at linebacker as well, but Grant is hoping to find his way on the field as a freshman. He graduated from Cairo High last Friday and was among the Class of 2017 signees that reported to UGA’s campus over the weekend.
Under the radar, sort of
Grant was an interesting study as a football recruit. In the end, the 4-star prospect’s decision came down to Alabama and Georgia. But he held offers from Florida State, Florida, Auburn and Clemson, among several other major programs.
Still, Grant never really commanded the national attention that’s afforded an elite athlete of his ilk. He received no invitations to play in the U.S. Army or Under Armour All-America games, or any of their lesser cousins.
The all-star snub is something that annoyed Grant just a tad.
“It bothered me a little, but once it got down to it, I was like, ‘I’ll be all right either way,’” Grant said. “I decided I was just going to get myself better. I worked real hard with our strength coach David Johnson, working out, staying in shape, getting stronger.”
Grant has since established the Cairo High power-clean record of 355 pounds. And he weighed 242 pounds when he left home Saturday bound for Athens.
Indeed, Grant’s recruitment wasn’t one that brought dozens of coaches to this distant outpost. But it brought all the ones that mattered. Grant couldn’t go wrong with his choices.
FSU is just across the state line, a half-hour away. Auburn and Florida, each about three hours away, came after him hard. Clemson, coming off a national championship run, gave Grant a hard sell.
But from the jump, it was Alabama and Georgia that intrigued Grant the most. He’d grown up a Bama fan, and Kirby Smart had recruited him since Grant was a ninth-grader.
So Grant knew his opportunities were great whether he was invited to national showcases or not.
“I was in the Atlanta area forever and what happens is you have so many schools coming into Atlanta and you have so many camps and combines that kids go to,” said DeVoursney, who coached at Griffin for 13 years. “They’re seen and they get stars and they get all that stuff. And coaches are going to fly into Atlanta and do a 30-minute radius around there and then fly out. Whereas in South Georgia, there’s not that many. If you come to Cairo, it’s going to take you 30 minutes to get to the next school, then 30 minutes to the next and the next. It’s just hard to hit as many here. And there’s none of those combines around here either, no Nike Sparq or anything.”
That was OK with Alabama, FSU and Georgia, the three schools that had Grant on campus for their camps. They knew what kind of prospect they had in Grant, and it was a full-on battle to land him.
Where Grant might end up became the talk of the town.
“Everybody kept asking me what I was going to do,” Grant said. “I’d be at a gas station and they’d see me and they’d ask me, ‘What you thinking?’ I’d be, like, ‘I don’t know yet.’ But in my head I was leaning toward Georgia.”
Grant figured out a cool way to make the big reveal. He was sitting out the Syrupmakers’ regular-season finale against Northside-Columbus last November to rest up a sprained knee for the playoff run. It was Senior Night, so when Grant was recognized along with his family members, he revealed his commitment to Georgia.
The Cairo marching band followed up the announcement with a rendition of “Glory to Ol’ Georgia.” We found out later they also were on the ready with the Alabama fight song, “Yea, Alabama.”
Grant explained his decision.
“It was really academics,” he said. “When I sat down with my mama and my sister, we talked about what I wanted and what I was looking for. They were most interested in what the academics were going to be like and how that was going to look. They knew football was going to work out, but what I would I be doing academically and after football? I liked both of them as far as football.
“I’d been knowing Coach Smart a long time. I knew him when he was at Alabama. I was in like ninth grade and I was talking to Coach Smart. When he went back to Georgia, that’s when I started to thinking about them. I knew him better than anybody.”
Syrupmaker through and through
Walter Grant Jr. has lived in two places in his life, Cairo, Ga., and Cocoa, Fla. He actually spent a lot of time riding up and down I-75 between the cities. The halfway point on the 313-mile drive between the two locales on I-75 is Gainesville, Fla. If only the Florida Gators knew.
That Grant eventually came back to Cairo for good had everything to do with football.
Grant is the son of Walter Grant Sr. and Suprina Joiner. They never married but worked closely together to raise their children. Grant has two older siblings, each of them six years older than the other. LaQuinton “Mickey” Williams is 25 and Quanesha “Shan” McCullough just turned 31.
When Grant Jr. was 6, he moved to Cocoa with his mother, who was getting married. But his heart always remained on Cairo.
“When we moved down there, everything was OK at first,” said Mrs. Joiner. “But after a while he got kind of homesick. I moved back [to Cairo] for a little while, then I went back to Cocoa. He had family down there [in Cocoa] but he had more in Cairo. He wanted to be like his older brother. We went back and forth a lot.”
Cairo High School is very much the center of the universe in this town. It used to be syrup — specifically cane syrup — but the Roddenberry’s plant was shut down years ago (contrary to popular belief, there is no relation between Karo Syrup and Cairo, Ga.). That’s the derivation of the school’s unique mascot.
Both of Joiner’s older kids graduated as Syrupmakers. And Williams also was a standout football player at Cairo High. He ended up attending St. Augustine College in Raleigh, N.C., on a football scholarship but, according to most accounts, probably could have played at a higher level had he chosen. He was 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, and played both running back and defensive end.
By the time Grant Jr. reached middle school, he was old enough to have a strong opinion about where he was living. He wanted to move back to Cairo and become a Syrupmaker himself.
His older sister stepped in to help out. She took in Grant and promised her mom she’d raise him like her own.
“We’re 12 years apart and when my mom worked I used to babysit him and my other brother, who is now 25,” McCullough said. “I used to babysit both of them. I’d cook and feed them and get them where they needed to go, as a big sister should. I’ve always supported my brothers in anything they do. I joke with them all the time, ‘I raised both of you.’”
Joiner worked for 12 years as a manager of a Steak & Shake and almost always had a full-time job to balance with being a mother. Same for McCullough, who works as a pharmacy technician at Archbold Medical Center in Cairo. Her husband Brennan works for the city. They have two children of their own, 10 and 5 years old.
Meanwhile, Grant’s father, Walter Grant Sr., is a truck driver. As such, he has to spend long stretches on the road. That wasn’t conducive to raising a preteen.
However, Grant Jr. decided to move in with his father once he was old enough to get around on his own. Throughout his upbringing, Grant Sr.’s spread in nearby Calvary, Ga., about 15 miles southwest of Cairo, always has been one of his favorite retreats. It’s out in the country, where Walter would hunt and fish on the farm. And at different times Grant Sr. raised livestock and various other animals on his land that needed tending. He grew vegetables as well.
“I’m really from the country,” Grant Jr. says proudly. “My Daddy had horses, goats, chickens, some of everything. I grew up feeding them, running around with them. I had chores. I always had a 4-wheeler and dirt bikes and stuff like that. I always liked to go riding. I had a couple of friends who liked to go hunting and fishing, so I did stuff like that.”
Grant Jr. said one of the things that attracted him to the Bulldogs was there were so many other “country boys” on the team who share his interests, such as Tray Bishop, Jake Fromm, Richard LeCounte and Charlie Woerner, among others.
He’s a ‘Baller’
The only other thing Grant likes better is ball games, as in sports that require a ball in order to be played. He played baseball and basketball in addition to football, and excelled at them all. He was on an AAU travel team through the ninth grade and played varsity basketball his ninth and 10th grade years. He eventually gave it up to concentrate on football.
Grant’s skills were rooted in the front yard of his sister’s house in Cairo. What would start with Grant and his older brother tossing the football back and forth would soon attract cousins and friends from around the neighborhood and morph into a full-fledged game.
At the time, Grant was still the little guy. But that wouldn’t last for long.
“I didn’t get babied, even though I was the baby,” he said. “My brother has always been on me about growing up and maturing. I just always tried to hang with him. I just kind of picked up what he did, my brother and my cousin.”
Meanwhile, Walter continued to grow. He was always taller than everybody else in elementary and middle school, then he slowly started to fill out in high school. He has always looked on the lean side and has moved that way, too.
“When you look at him, he looks like he weighs 180. He’ll probably put on 40 pounds up there [at Georgia],” DeVoursney said. “He’s got long arms. The NFL hand-span or whatever it is they measure, his is 10 inches. So he’s got all that. Physically he’s a good combine guy.”
Only he didn’t get invited to many.
No matter. As of this past weekend, Walter Grant Jr. is a Georgia Bulldog. They believe they can figure out a thing or two to do with him.
Most projections have Grant as an outside linebacker. It’s a position at which Georgia is well-stocked at the moment, with seniors Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter leading the way. But he could also play inside linebacker or defensive end.
Or, again, maybe he could play all three.
“He could be the guy that’s an inside ‘backer on first and second down, but on third, he slides outside and rushes the passer,” DeVoursney said. “That’s what coaches like for that 3-4. He’s a hard guy to find.”
Said Grant: “They told me it’d be a little bit like what I play here. I could play inside or outside or stand-up end. It’s basically the same thing I was doing here, except for playing offense. I don’t know how it’s going to work out. I don’t what I’m getting into. I’m just going.”
And about that the Bulldogs are very glad.
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