NORMAN — Just over halfway through a 20-minute interview on Monday night, Grant Calcaterra’s brave face and tough exterior melted into a flood of tears.
A seemingly innocuous question about the letter he read last week announcing his retirement from football took him to a place emotionally he probably hadn’t expected to go. He needed a moment to compose himself.
Some 30 seconds later, Calcaterra recounted his own experience in concussion protocol as a football player at the University of Oklahoma.
He said he was finally cleared from the progressive procedures and was given a clean bill of health, but “it was significantly longer than the ones I had before, so that was alarming.”
At that point, the idea of no longer playing football had set in.
Grant Calcaterra, a 6-foot-4, 227-pound tight end, a four-star prospect out of high school in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., an All-Big 12 Conference performer in 2018, would walk away from the game he loved.
Football had given him so much, and there was still the promise of more — a lucrative career in the NFL seemed a certainty. Even though he’s only a junior at OU, some draft projections had cast him as a potential first-round draft pick. That’s the kind of money that can offer financial security for generations.
But Calcaterra had given back to the sport, too — everything he could, and then some.
“It really came down to, do I want to have a bunch of money possibly playing football and be 50 years old but I can’t remember how to brush my teeth or something?” Calcaterra said. “Or, cut my losses, pride myself on having a decent career in college and maybe not be a millionaire? Be able to enjoy my family, be able to enjoy the people around me, my friends.
“That’s what I chose to do.”
Calcaterra declined to offer the exact number of concussions he has endured. But any athlete who has been concussed in a collision sport knows it’s probably not possible to count them all.
“More than usual, I guess” he said. “A number of times.”
Not even a decade ago, football players didn’t quit their sport because of concussions. Now, medical advancements, education, research — and perhaps not a small amount of fear — give prudent athletes reason to pause and consider their future beyond the game.
“That’s the big factor,” Calcaterra said. “There’s been no fear at all. I’ve sacrificed my body enough to this point. There’s bound to be some type of repercussions, whether it’s my head or some other part of my body. It’s never the fear part.
“Your brain is the part of your body that runs your entire body. It’s kind of an important thing. There’s been tons of research that’s came out and it’s still fairly pretty new. I guess I’m erring on the side of being safe.
“There may be something that comes out in the next five or 10 years about some treatment that you can do that can erase all the damage that’s been done. If that happens, I got unlucky. But I’m happy with how I performed, I’m happy with my career. It sucks, but I’m going to move forward.”
Calcaterra said continued consultation with OU head athletic trainer Scott Anderson, team physician Dr. Brock Schnebel as well as outside sources brought him to the conclusion that he would be better off without football.
“Those guys helped me tremendously,” Calcaterra said. “They sent me to different specialists to get different opinions. Gave me all the resources I needed to make an informed decision. So, yeah, shout-out to those guys.”
He said all the medical professionals he saw recommended he walk away.
“Nobody was in the position to tell me that I had to,” Calcaterra said. “Ultimately it was about 80 percent up to me.”
He said the concussion he suffered in practice before this year’s Texas game was his third in roughly a 12-month span. His most recent one before that came in practice last spring. Concussions in a game are one thing because college football Saturday’s can be a test of pure survival. Everything is full speed. The hits are real, and they are vicious.
But concussions in practice shouldn’t happen. It’s a more controlled environment, and it’s rarely full speed. That Calcaterra had them twice during a practice was a red flag.
“You don’t ever think that will be me,” Calcaterra said. “Even the one I had before this last one, I was like ‘Yeah, I’ll never get another one. If I get one, it will be five years down the road and it’s not a big deal because if you play for so long, you are bound to get hit again.’ So I never really worried about it. It was just kind of something that happened. I thought, ‘This isn’t good.’ ”
Now, Calcaterra looks at concussions through a different lens. He even offered a bit of advice to other athletes, a practical warning.
“I feel like if you don’t ever think about it,” he said, “you are doing yourself a disservice.”
And yet, when Calcaterra was asked if he would ever let his own children play football someday, he didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “I have a strong feeling that in the next 5, 10 at the most, years they’re going to have some pretty strong science behind this whole thing. And I think that given that, they’ll be able to protect players more.
“The game’s doing everything they can to protect players, but it’s just a violent game. That’s what I love about it. And it sucks that it has to be me that has to do this, but that doesn’t change the fact that I love football and I love everything about it. If my kid wants to play, I’ll definitely let him play. I think I’ll start him a little later than I started, but it’s just all about teaching kids the right way to play. I think if anybody wants to play football, they should.”
Calcaterra said he spoke with other football players who walked away from the game because of concussions, players like Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry, who played three seasons in the NFL, and UCLA tight end Jimmy Jaggers. They told him to trust his body and trust how he feels. But Calcaterra wanted advice from beyond the medical side of things.
“The biggest thing, I asked them a lot, ‘Do you regret your decision?’ ” Calcaterra said. “They said no. Ultimately your health is the most important thing you have. They were really supportive. They were trying to tell me to reach out with any questions I had. They were great.”
Calcaterra said meeting with OU coach Lincoln Riley to tell him he would be retiring “was tough” but ultimately uplifting.
“You know, when I walked in there, he knew what it was about,” Calcaterra said. “I told him, and obviously thanked him for giving me the opportunity and helping me become a better player, better person. He told me I was making the right decision. He told me if I had come into his office to say I was coming back, he would’ve been like, ‘Hey’ – he would have second-guessed it. He would have tried to tell me – make sure I’m safe, like any good coach would do. He told me he was proud of me. He told me he would do anything he could for me, whether it’s down the road in a career path or if I was to get into coaching. He was great. Just great.”
Riley arranged for Calcaterra to participate in last week’s Senior Night activities, and he even got to lead the team out of the tunnel onto the field for the TCU game. It was a moment he wants to cherish forever, and it was one of the highlights of a college career filled with them.
Calcaterra will miss the competition and the games, of course. He’ll miss the big catches and the touchdowns — his one-handed TD against Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game last year cemented his Sooner legacy, and fittingly came in an NFL stadium — but he thinks there are other things he’ll miss even more.
“Just being with my team,” he said. “A lot of things outside of football, like right now I’m about to go eat with some of my buddies from the team. I’ll miss all the workouts. All the time you put in you’re like, ‘Sh**, more workouts, more practice.’ But that’s really the things you love the most. Just all the time I spent with my teammates. All the relationships. Once I graduate in May I’ll be back home and I won’t see these guys every day.
“The big plays (too), but I’ve got video of that. I’ll be good.”
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander, and the Locked oN Sooners podcast on the Locked oN Podcast Network. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.