CONYERS, Ga. — When it was over, everything that wasn’t incinerated smelled of ash and water. Each of the three dozen family and friends at Grady Jarrett’s draft party had survived without a scratch, but the same couldn’t be said for the youth football trophies and game-worn jerseys. There would be a consolation prize for the ages on Saturday, but not before a hellacious Friday night in Georgia.
Draft festivities began on a high note, with Grady and his mother attending an NFLPA event in Chicago Thursday night and returning to their suburban Atlanta home the following morning. The former Clemson defensive tackle was expecting to be selected in the second round, and he believed the hometown Falcons were a possibility at No. 42 overall. Elisha, an administrator at Georgia State, invited more than 30 friends and family to her house to watch Round 2 on Friday night. On Saturday, they would celebrate Grady being drafted with a backyard pool party.
The 42nd pick came and went, with the Falcons choosing cornerback Jalen Collins out of LSU. As the Texans were on the clock with the 43rd selection, several people mentioned they smelled something funny in another room (Grady recalls the timeline down to the pick, because he was sure the Falcons would take him at 42). Elisha rushed to the kitchen thinking she’d left a burner on. Nothing. Then a cousin saw a flicker of light upstairs where the youngest children had been playing. Grady and Elisha sprinted the stairs to find a wall in the game room in flames.
“I think several of us smelled it at the same time,” Elisha says. “We ran upstairs, and it was basically engulfed.”
As smoke filled the second floor, they frantically searched for any remaining children. Children as young as six had been playing in the room minutes prior. Says Elisha: “They were sitting on the stairs. It was an anxious moment.”
Grady’s agent, Carmen Wallace, ran for a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, but it was useless. Grady’s childhood home would burn for as long as it took firefighters to arrive.
“We ran out of the house,” Grady says. “It was uncontrollable. Just to watch a piece of your house on fire, it’s a feeling of hopelessness. You can’t do anything but pray to God and hope it doesn’t spread.”
With nothing to do but wait, partygoers paced at the end of the driveway, watching the flames shoot up through the roof, setting several nearby trees aflame. The room containing all of Grady’s athletic trophies and uniforms was all but destroyed.
When firefighters arrived minutes later, several partygoers helped them pull hoses from the trucks. By the middle of the third round, the last flame was extinguished; for some, the collective focus turned back to the draft. Those who weren’t too anxious sat in lawn chairs around the driveway. Others paced.
“I was texting teams but with the issue of no power, we were conserving,” Wallace says. “There were a lot of teams where you were thinking, this could be it.
Seven fire trucks regrouped and retreated. Neighbors stood in awe of the aftermath, but the Jarretts stayed glued to their phones in the driveway.
“With every pick we thought he would go,” Elisha says. “The stress level was heightened.”
Grady’s cell never rang with one of those blessed unfamiliar area codes. House in shambles, and second-round dreams up in smoke, Elisha and Grady reserved hotel rooms and planned to watch the conclusion of the draft the next day at a cousin’s home in nearby Covington.
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The Falcons asked former Pro Bowl linebacker Jessie Tuggle, Grady’s father, to help introduce their fifth-round pick remotely from Atlanta. Elisha is the driving force in Grady’s life, but he has a good relationship with Tuggle.
When the fourth round began at noon, Grady didn’t know what to think anymore. He was a three-year starter at Clemson who finished his final season with 73 tackles and an All-ACC nod, but interior linemen from schools like Washington State and Delaware State were being chosen in front of him. One NFL personnel man later chalked up Jarrett’s slide to widely-held doubts he could be a three-down tackle in the NFL. Grady had achieved a significant degree of authority between the lines, but now, between the fire and the draft, he’d lost all control.
“The further I fell the worse I felt,” Grady says.
Tuggle introduced Falcons season-ticket holder Kimberly Newman to read the pick, then stood to the right of the podium. He was stoic as Newman, to everyone’s surprise (including Tuggle’s) read: With the first pick of the fifth round, No. 137 overall, the Atlanta Falcons select Grady Jarrett, defensive tackle from Clemson.
A smile washed over Tuggle’s face and he began pumping his fist. A tiny sliver of Covington exploded.
“It was euphoria,” Wallace says.
“We erupted,” Grady says.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” Elisha says. “He was totally surprised, like everyone else. He had no idea it was going to be his son’s name. He was ecstatic. We all were.”
Jessie Tuggle, just before (left) and just after (middle and right) his son was announced as the Falcons’ pick. (Courtesy NFL Network)
Grady will join Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, a man he came to respect during the pre-draft process. He will be reunited with Clemson teammate Vic Beasley, Atlanta’s first-round pick. And most importantly, he won’t have to leave his mother’s side this offseason as she weighs her options (the rebuild will take approximately six months).
“Me going to Atlanta really lifted a lot of people’s spirits,” Grady says. “It was just what I needed.”
Less than 24 hours after watching his childhood burn, Grady began life as a pro.
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