After a summer in which it seemed that big-time college sports had run amuck, it’s easy to forget that most athletes and teams don’t.
Take, for example, Saint Mary’s (Calif.) men’s soccer coach Adam Cooper.
“I’ve got a team that literally is on automatic because I’ve got such good guys, especially my older guys,” the sixth-year coach said.
“It makes my life very easy and able to just focus on soccer.”
After talking to midfielder Justin Grider, you have no doubt.
A senior from nearby Concord, Calif., Grider spent this past summer in Alaska. No, not cruising the inside passage or fishing for halibut or hiking in the wilderness, but devoting his summer to those less fortunate. And it was the third time he’d done such a thing: Grider previously had trips to the Dominican Republic and the Philippines.
But in this case, consider that he was living with an 85-year-old woman with whom he still exchanges weekly letters and updates.
“Our school’s pretty big on service and it provides the opportunity to serve or volunteer,” Grider said.
The 22-year-old is a twin and this is the first time he’s not playing with his brother, Jordan, so much as spending so long a time apart.
Because Justin redshirted, Jordan graduated from Saint Mary’s a year ahead of him and is now in the Navy. But it was Jordan who went to the Dominican a few years ago and told his brother he needed to go, too.
“To be honest, without him talking it up, I probably wouldn’t have gone,” Justin admitted.
In the Dominican for a month with an organization called Kids Alive, Grider said he visited orphanages and, appropriately, played soccer with the kids.
“A lot of the kids are at risk or their parents abused them or their parents might have forced them on the street to beg,” he said, happy to have the chance to kick the ball around with them and “give them a chance to be kids. It was a very, very good trip.”
The following summer, he spent five weeks in the Phillipines teaching English and math.
And then this past summer, he worked through the Saint Mary’s College organization called CILSA, which is the academic center at the school that promotes “a culture of service and social justice education consonant with Catholic social teaching and integrating the three traditions of the college: Catholic, Lasallian, and Liberal Arts.”
Accordingly, other players on Saint Mary’s team have made service trips. In this case, Grider went to Alaska, to the Matanuska Valley, where he stayed in Palmer and Wasilla (a town better known as the home of Sarah Palin). He was taken in by Phyllis Sullivan, the aforementioned 85-year-old who has been on the forefront of social activism in the area.
“She had a little shack on her property on the lake, which was quite nice of her, and she had me over for dinner now and then. She was a godsend. She was great.”
Grider, working through various churches in the valley, was involved on different levels helping the homeless and the hungry, including the Food Pantry of Wasilla.
“The majority of my time was with an organization called Daybreak and I shadowed a social worker for 10 days. All of their clients are suffering from different mental illnesses and they were providing them the opportunities to get back on their feet and empower themselves from getting a place to live or finding the right job or settling bills and getting finances in order.”
No wonder his coach says simply: “He’s one of the best kids I’ve ever been around,” Cooper said.
When it was suggested to Grider that his work there must have been very rewarding, he deflected it.
“Yeah, but I don’t want it to be taken that it was for me. I was raised that it’s my responsibility to serve others and give to others whenever I can,” Grider said. “It’s not about me but about the people I worked with.”
It should be pointed out that the 6-foot-1 Grider is an excellent soccer player.
“Justin’s got a work rate that’s fantastic, his competitiveness is fantastic, he leads by example,” Cooper said. “He’s very versatile. He can play a number of different spots for us and he will do anything the team needs him to do, and that’s the most important thing right there. He will do anything the team needs him to do.”
Last season, he was one of just four players to start all 19 games and had two game-winning goals for the Gaels. This season the team has an interesting mix of youth and experience, including five fifth-year seniors, a handful of other seniors, and had a strong recruiting year with youngsters expected to contribute in a big way.
Grider, an economics major, wants to go to graduate school “and work for something like the World Bank, the IMF, an agency that helps promote economic development.”
You can only imagine he’ll continue to make a positive impact.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve taken away so far from all my trips and good fortune is that I actually truly believe that I learn from everyone, whether they’re 6-years-old or 15 or 60. I think everyone has certain gifts and abilities. Like I have no musical talent whatsoever but I have other characteristics. I’m athletic and I’ve gotten a good education and I think people need to use their gifts or whatever they’ve been blessed with or whatever they’ve earned for others who don’t have that.”