Mostly, Grady Jarrett had been leading a quiet career. Built like a post office letter box, he seemed just about as flamboyant as one, too. All that speed and flash on the Falcons’ defense, someone had to do the hard trench work on the interior of the line.
Utility doesn’t often grab a lot of attention. No one steps on a yacht and says first thing, “Gee, what a spiffy anchor.”
Then, Jarrett went and blew up in the last game of the 2016 season. Had as many sacks in that single night as he had in all the 18 games preceding it. Put Tom Brady on his celebrated keister three times, twice over a span of 83 seconds in the fourth quarter in what should have been a defining sequence.
Suddenly the international media corps was scrambling to identify this wrecking ball who was included in none of their pregame analyses.
And murmurs arose in the press box: Do we really have to give at least a moment’s thought to making Jarrett the most improbable Super Bowl MVP since the NFL hijacked the Roman numeral?
It was strange being Grady Jarrett at Super Bowl 51. Here he had a transcendent game in a global event. And, yet, his team would sacrifice a 28-3 lead to satisfy the New England Patriots’ unquenchable title lust and to write a new entry in the log book of soul-sucking defeats.
“We shared some tears afterward,” said Jarrett’s mother, Elisha Jarrett. “Still, he felt great about his performance.”
A contradiction of emotions fogged his brain. “I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you it was a euphoric feeling having that success in that moment,” Jarrett said. “But I definitely wanted more than anything to get that win for my team, for the city. Being an Atlanta guy (Rockdale County High), it meant that much more to me personally.”
Last week it was Falcons minicamp time, an exercise in page-turning with this team and this defense looking to glue itself back together and do something memorable with the rest of 2017.
The question in Jarrett’s case is what will he make of his unique Super Bowl experience? And what does that one game do for the perception of him as a player and for his personal expectations?
In just his third season, Jarrett already has found a voice in the community. He has latched onto various anti-bullying efforts, making that the centerpiece of his speeches to school kids around the area, as well as the one he made a year ago to the Georgia State House.
His profile-raising performance in Houston is sure to help drum up interest in his first charity golf tournament back in his home county next Thursday, as well as the kids football camp at Rockdale County High that will follow that weekend. Tying a Super Bowl sack record is a terrific promotional tool.
The NFL defensive tackle, of course, had all the physical tools to be on the other side of the bullying divide. Or, at least, be an impartial observer to the cruelties of youth as he kept to the high school athletic clique.
But, Jarrett said, “As a kid I always had a soft spot for people who felt they might have been left out. I was always attracted to the person who wasn’t the most popular. You get a deeper connection when you sit down and talk to someone who just wants someone to talk to.
“It has been good connecting with kids and talking about being a good person and not falling into being “Mr. Popular.” At the end of the day, life is about how you treat people.”
At a little more than 6-feet tall and biscuit or two more than 300 pounds, Jarrett has long fought the idea that he is not stout enough to be an effective impediment at the core of the defensive line. But leverage and quickness have been useful equalizers for him.
In the world of more fathomable proportion, back when he played youth football, they took to calling Jarrett “Truck” for the way he routinely ran over other people’s children. And, yet, he developed the habit of circling back around at the end of the play and giving a hand up to those he leveled.
“By the time he was in junior high I told him, ‘You know, it’s your job to take ’em down. You don’t have to pick ’em up,” his mother said.
Lesson learned. To the best of anyone’s recollection, at no time did Jarrett hoist Brady to his feet and straighten out his wrinkled jersey.
A new season brings new notice to the player previous known as “that consistent guy in the middle,” or “the one to go to for quotes on former Clemson teammate Vic Beasley Jr.”
Jarrett kind of blew his cover in February in Houston. So now what?
“I see him trying to find small ways to find that edge in his game and building on that,” coach Dan Quinn said. “Building on that connection with his new position coach. New techniques. Things to study. Things to look at. He’s going for it in the biggest way.
“He looks healthy. He looks strong. Very fit. I see his arrow really going up.”
Added the new defensive line coach, Bryant Young: “Grady has definitely picked up where he left off. Nothing is different for him in terms of his work ethic. That’s always been there. He’s a young guy who is really growing.” (On the work ethic front, when his mother called to check in with Jarrett rather late Wednesday night after the second day of minicamp, he answered from the Falcons’ weight room.)
Guess who took the most snaps on the defensive line during the 2016 regular season (630). That along with the potential Jarrett demonstrated in the biggest game lends him plenty of credibility for a role that Quinn is measuring him for now — a leader.
There are openings, especially with the venerable Jonathan Babineaux out in free-agent limbo. A third-year guy with some field cred could go a long way up the Falcons’ defensive organizational chart.
Jarrett seems fine with the charge of being a leader. “Been that my whole life,” he said.
There are other, non-management priorities to which Jarrett must attend.
Like returning to the trench and rooting out the important play, whenever that opportunity may present itself to a working stiff in the middle.
Jarrett will be bringing a very healthy attitude to the task. Look under every helmet at Flowery Branch, and you would be hard pressed to find more quiet confidence than what Jarrett possesses. “That comes with having success and wanting more success,” he explained.
“Everyone has a vision of how they want to be — then they have to make it a reality,” Jarrett said. “Put the work in. Put the time in. I have a vision of how I want this year to go for me and I’m just going to keep my head down day in and day out and keep working.”
At least one Falcon got something quite useful out of that otherwise crushing night in Houston.
Said Jarrett: “(The Super Bowl) makes me set a standard I have to hold myself to or try to surpass. I feel like it’s the beginning for my career, just kind of scratching the surface of what’s to come.”