My Carolina Experience: Damion Grant
By Zoya Johnson, GoHeels.com
How many athletes do you know that can say they played their sport for just a year and a half before getting a full scholarship to one of the top universities in America? Damion Grant is one the very few who can.
As a native of Hope Bay, a small fishing town about 10 miles east of Port Antonio, Jamaica, he grew up playing soccer and cricket and running track. At 16, he left the island with dreams of playing basketball. He was given the opportunity to play in Kensington, Md., and then in New Hampshire, where he shone as a leader of his team despite his lack of experience on the court.
In his senior year, Grant led Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., to its first-ever appearance in the New England Prep School Class A Tournament, and he earned all-tournament honors at the Maine Central Institute's Tournament. Grant's athleticism as an agile, almost seven footer who could jump got him a few collegiate offers and visits, but once he took his visit to the University of North Carolina he knew he had to be there in the fall.
Thinking back on his visit to campus Grant says, "It was January 3, 2002. I don't know why I remember that date, but I remember there was an ice storm and there was no one on campus. I remember walking through campus with Coach Q (former assistant coach Fred Quartlebaum) and thinking how beautiful it was. Of course, I went to the Wake Forest game that night and we got blown out by like 30 points at home but still there was just something about it. I visited other schools and I was like, 'I have to be at UNC.'"
Coming into college, Grant had his sights set on playing professionally, but while in school he was plagued by injury so he was never playing at his full potential, nor was he ever fully healthy. During a summer session before his senior year Grant hurt his ankle and had to have surgery simply to be able to walk comfortably. It was then that he made the decision to stop playing basketball in order to be able to live a healthy adult life.
After hanging up his basketball shoes, Grant remembers being in a depressed state. Basketball had been the reason he'd come to America and up until his decision to stop playing, it made up a huge part of his life. Although he had made it a point not to allow basketball to become the only thing people knew him for, his dedication to the sport had caused him to put other aspects of himself on the backburner.
"I remember setting up a meeting with Coach Williams to let him know that I didn't think that I would be able to play the game of basketball anymore. He said something to me that has stuck with me to this day. He said that he has never seen someone fight so hard to be healthy, or fight so hard to give so much, but my body just wasn't able to keep up. I could tell that he was sad to lose me as a player, I was the biggest guy on the team and I was prepared to make a huge impact my senior year, but that wasn't God's plan.
"I had three key people that stuck by me after basketball, Brian Foushee, Jermaine McDaniel, and Jeremy Dewitt. Even though basketball didn't define me, I still had a goal that I knew I wasn't going to be able to reach and they knew it was difficult for me to have to give up the game. However, they never talked about me not playing basketball anymore, or what could have been. Instead we were always focusing on the future and where we would go from here."
Grant also attributes his growth and transition from athlete to working professional in the following years to his wife Candice, whom he met in college, and for Tar Heel point guard King Rice. Rice helped keep the young Grant on track by checking in with him and making sure he was focused on graduating, and when Grant thought law school was his next step Rice helped him get an internship at a law firm. Although going to law school did not pan out, Grant remains thankful to Rice for his mentorship and for opening doors that he would not have had access to otherwise.
Grant now works for an elite agent of US Cellular as a District Manager who has made a name for himself as a part of the company's leadership team. The four-person team keeps US Cellular moving in a progressive direction and also helps the company maintain its spot as the largest cellular agent in Eastern North Carolina.
For years, in his spare time, Grant has volunteered with a non-profit organization called Sports Evangelism and Missions based in Rocky Mount, teaching basketball clinics. A few years ago, he was approached by the founder of SEAM, Kenny Dickerson, who does sports clinics all over the world, about doing a basketball clinic in Jamaica. At the time, Grant said yes not really thinking there would be any follow through but two-and-a-half years later he has just returned from the organization's second year conducting the camp.
In the camp's inaugural year, the organization brought down old high school jerseys and shorts along with three volunteers. After noticing that many of the campers came to play in flip flops or no shoes at all, they made it a point to collect shoes and socks for the children who would be participating the following year. Thanks to donations from individuals and an organization called Samaritan's Feet they were able to bring down about 150 pairs of shoes this year. They also went from having three volunteers to 13, and through SEAM they were able to provide handbags filled with toiletries for the female participants of the camp as well as bibles and socks for all of the children.
Grant's humility about the direction the camp may take in the future says everything about him. "That's God's doing. Jawad Williams and David Noel have expressed interest and said they would want to be involved in it next year. I would like to see it grow into something I can do island wide and do it a few times throughout the year. I would also like to bring some of my old teammates or even some of the current guys to really see what life is like outside of their shell and be able to meet some of the kids that actually look up to them. They would be able to tell their own story and encourage another kid to look forward to something bigger than where they are now."
The next camp is set for the weekend of July 4, 2015, and they are always looking for volunteers and donations to make each year better than the last.
Grant feels a great deal of pride in his alma mater. "I think about my sons now and I go back and forth as to whether I would want to push them towards going to UNC or another school that they would prefer. It is something that's got to be good for you. You have to be able to walk on that campus and feel a connection the way I felt it, if you can then you know it's the place for you. I have not spoken to anyone that has been on UNC's campus and never felt that, so if I were to talk to a recruit I would say take the opportunity to visit campus. You wouldn't even necessarily have to walk through the Smith Center, just take the opportunity to walk through campus and the main quad; even though it's a big University you don't feel lost."
Although it may sound farfetched most of UNC's alums can attest to exactly what it is Grant means. If you were to ask most any UNC alum why they made the decision to come to Carolina they would say it had something to do with a gut feeling rather than one of logic or reason. Being at Carolina and truly appreciating all that it has to offer is something that is felt more than it can ever be explained.
"I'm thankful for the opportunity to have had an education and to graduate from the best university in the world. I'm thankful to have been a part of a historic and storied basketball program. I'm thankful to have played a part in adding to that history with the 2005 national championship, and I'm thankful for teammates that I still consider brothers to this day. I wouldn't change that for the world."