Published November 14, 2009
COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and Maryland emerged from their locker rooms Saturday wearing camouflage uniforms with military values such as “Duty,” “Honor,” and “Courage” on the back in place of names to honor those who have served.
Few understand as well as 26-year-old Gamecocks long snapper Matt Grooms, who served four years in the Marine Corps.
Grooms spent six months in Kuwait outfitting and fixing transport trucks in Iraq. He was nearly killed by a virus and was rattled by an American missile that exploded too close to camp. Still, he said it was “the best four years I’ve had.”
Grooms and his Gamecocks teammates lost to No. 1 Florida, and Maryland, which lost to No. 20 Virginia Tech, also sported different uniforms — desert and black camo. The jerseys and equipment will go up for auction, and some of the money will help The Wounded Warrior Project, which aids wounded service members.
Terps defensive lineman Travis Ivey said the military connection adds a dimension to the game.
“Knowing we’re playing not just for ourselves, but for wounded veterans, I think it will encourage us to persevere because that’s their life,” he said.
When it came time to try to return to the football field, Grooms drew inspiration from Tim “Pops” Frisby, South Carolina’s 40-ish former Army Ranger receiver who played for Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier.
Grooms’ football days looked done after Marlboro County High School. A so-so offensive linemen with average grades and no college options, Grooms followed older brother, Donald, into the Marine Corps in August 2001.
After basic training, Grooms shipped off to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina where he worked as a mechanic on military trucks. Soon, though, his direction changed with the Sept. 11 attacks. “We knew we were going to war,” he said.
Grooms, a corporal, was deployed to Kuwait for a six-month stint in 2004. He mostly stayed at camp, repairing five-ton troop transports and Humvees. But he was rarely out of sight or earshot of gunfire.
“You could see the little flashes all the time,” he said.
As his four-year hitch ended in 2005, Grooms considered a military career— until a faulty U.S. Tomahawk missile blew up a building on base and rattled Grooms’ nerves.
Once home, Grooms wasn’t sure what to do next. He worked at a hospital, yet couldn’t shake his desire for football and remembered Frisby, the 20-year veteran who walked on to the Gamecocks and shared his story with late night hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman.
“If he could do, then I could stick it out, too,” Grooms said.
Grooms moved to Columbia and spent two years improving his grades at a technical school, dropping by South Carolina practices for inspiration. He enrolled at South Carolina in spring 2008 and went to a walk-on tryout, where he caught the eye of then special teams coach Ray Rychleski.
When he showed up for spring workouts, the once-in-shape Marine was about 90 pounds or so over his Parris Island weight and not ready for gassers. He blacked out during 100-yard wind sprints and staggered to the sidelines.
The next day, Grooms got so dehydrated, he left practice in an ambulance. And Rychleski, now the Indianapolis Colts special teams coach, figured he’d never see Grooms again.
Grooms got on a workout plan every bit as intense as boot camp. And a few months later, Grooms was a trimmer, stronger, focused athlete ready to go.
“I lost weight, gained a bunch of speed, really felt good,” Grooms said.
The improvement showed, and “Groomsy,” as coach Spurrier calls him, earned his spot.
Grooms isn’t South Carolina’s only vet. Walk-on linebacker Matt Ansley, 20, spent 18 months served on the front lines in Iraq with the Army Reserves as a gunner. A request to speak with Ansley was turned down.
Every so often, Grooms gets questions from teammates about life in Iraq. Sometimes, they touch nerves. “They don’t understand,” Grooms said quietly.
That’s a bond for the veterans, who inspire others to follow them back onto the football field.
Although he last played four years ago, Frisby continues to receive letters, e-mails and calls from ex-military men turned players grateful for his example.
“It’s often not too late to do anything,” he said.