As a kid starting out in Pop Warner football in Chico, Calif., Roger Grant noticed something: A friend, a fellow running back, a youngster who'd matured more quickly than most, had a different style of running the ball.
He'd lower his shoulder on tacklers and run over them. "He did more damage than he received," recalls Grant. "I picked up that attitude."Now, it's hard to believe a guy who's 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds and elusive enough to run for 951 yards in eight NCAA Division I games can also dish it out, but Grant's sure he does exactly that, and Utah State Coach Chuck Shelton wouldn't argue.
"He's a tough kid; he wants people to know he's on the football field for more than just glory," Shelton says.
"They know he's there."
This represents a change in attitude for the coach. Many's the time this season Shelton's said of his junior-college recruiting prize, "He may not be durable enough for Division I."
"I'm plenty durable enough," snorts Grant. "No one can hit me hard enough to take me out."
Shelton now agrees.
"I'm very impressed," he says. "He's gotten through some very tough times." A banged-up shoulder had Grant on the sidelines at practice a couple times, and even for much of the Oregon game, and sometimes he wasn't full speed on Mondays. Shelton says that no longer bothers him because Grant rushes so many times he's bound to be sore on Mondays and because he's always ready on game day.
After a poor start to October at Oregon (four carries, -1 yard), Grant ran through Fresno State's vaunted rush defense for 197 yards, got 57 at San Jose in a game that dictated the pass, and finished with a 162-yard performance against UNLV. That gave him 415 yards for the month and made him the Deseret News Athlete of the Month.
To start November he added 141 yards last Saturday, leaving him just 49 shy of four figures with three games to play going into Fullerton Saturday. He leads the Big West and is 10th nationally.
"You win championships with people who come to play every week, and he's been able to do that," Shelton says.
All in all, another test passed for Grant.
In truth, that may be part of Grant's secret. He plays with an attitude.
He came to Utah State out of Butte JC because nobody else showed genuine interest, even if he was the California JC MVP with 1,200 rushing yards last season. "I thought I'd proved myself," he says. "They thought I was lucky."
So he's still proving himself. "Not to me or my friends but to people who didn't think I could play Division I," he says. It's important to him.
An example? Long Beach State "turned me down," he says. Grant ran for a USU-record 292 yards against the 49ers.
It infuriates him he wasn't able to do the same at Oregon, which passed him over both out of high school and junior college.
"I like people to read the paper and say, `We should've picked him up,' " Grant says. "What I lack in physical ability, I more than make up for in heart."
"He's one of the most complete players I've ever had," says Shelton, in his 29th year of coaching. "There's no football skill he can't master."
He runs pass routes properly, blocks anybody, is 1-for-1 for a touchdown passing and can return kicks if needed. Academically, he's tackling pre-law, hoping to become a sports agent.
"He's the best blocker we've had in a long time," says offensive coordinator Pat Behrns. "When he doesn't have the ball, he's something to watch."
Behrns helped recruit Grant, scouting him at Butte, in Chico. "I liked him better in practice than in games because of his work ethic and physical commitment. He's just a hard football player, loves to play in the mud and dirt with snot coming out his nose and blood all over the place," says Behrns, making Grant seem an All-Madden candidate.
Smallish, some-would-say-slow, Grant is one of the liveliest steppers in college ball today. "He has that skill to run at full speed and then accelerate," says Shelton.
"He's so good in a closet," says Behrns, noting Grant's knack for gaining ground with tacklers all around. "He makes some of the best two- and three-yard runs I've ever seen."
He has explosive-enough moves to have ripped off the league's longest (65 yards) and fifth-longest runs this season. He makes lateral cuts without breaking speed, a trait perhaps acquired in 12 years of playing soccer.
"If I wasn't playing football right now, it would be a tossup between soccer and baseball," says Grant, who originally went to Butte with a baseball scholarship as a center fielder - another place he excelled without stopwatch-stopping speed. "I've got game speed no matter what sport I'm playing," says Grant. He runs for purpose, not time.
A 10-yard run in which he knocks tacklers down is more satisfying to Grant than a 20-yard run untouched. "You've got to pay to tackle the best," he figures. He runs so low to the ground, all that's exposed are ankles and shoulders. "I take my legs away from people," he says.
That low style helps him hide behind blockers heading into a hole. "The first man normally never gets him," says Shelton.
"I know they have trouble seeing me behind Greg O'Banion, Charlie Smith, Joe Moore and Ed Silva. I try to use my linemen," Grant says.
If an opponent does get a good shot on him, Grant, a devotee of the Chicago Bears' Walter Payton, among others, likes to pop up quickly, pat the man on the backside and tell him, "Good hit."
It's psychological, he says. "They hit you as hard as they can, and you get up and walk away, and they say, `What do I got to do to hurt this guy?' They know you'll keep coming. They can't intimidate you."