By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published August 24, 2017
ATLANTA—Perseverance was Grant Aasen’s ally in recovering from a life-threatening injury, walking on to the Georgia Tech football team as a punter, and discerning the priesthood.
Aasen, who graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in industrial engineering in May, gave up his final year of football eligibility for the seminary. He will enter Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans this fall to begin study for the Archdiocese of Atlanta priesthood.
Football has been part of Aasen’s life since second grade. The youngest son of Mark and Tina Aasen of Fayetteville, he grew up a parishioner of Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City. Aasen, 22, never thought of being a priest as a child.
“It was really just never part of the conversation,” he said.
He noted his concentration was on sports and school and “figuring out those natural next steps that every kid my age is supposed to take.”
An injury as a sophomore at Starr’s Mill High School and later involvement in the Georgia Tech Catholic Center helped him focus on spirituality.
During practice in October 2010 at his Fayetteville school, the junior varsity running back was running drills with varsity players.
Aasen got a handoff and a player, nicknamed the Nigerian Nightmare, tackled him.
Ufomba Kamalu, who now plays for the Houston Texans, weighed 120 pounds more than Aasen.
“When I hit the ground, my head whiplashed off the ground which caused a pretty bad concussion,” he said.
The trainers checked him. He sat out of the rest of practice and a friend drove him home.
“I don’t actually remember how I got home,” he said.
Aasen was tired the next day but competed in the evening’s game at Northgate High School in Newnan. Northgate is next to a fire station, which was providential.
With more than a minute left in the game, Aasen went over to the sidelines and took his helmet off. He started to remove his shoulder pads, passed out and had a seizure.
“They were right on the scene,” Aasen said about the paramedics. “They saw that my left eye was very dilated. As a result of that, they realized this is pretty serious and decided to call the helicopter, which landed on the field and took me to Atlanta Medical Center.”
An MRI helped physicians determine the teen had a subdural hematoma, bleeding on the brain. Aasen underwent a craniotomy to relieve pressure on his brain.
“My first question when I woke up at the hospital was ‘did we win the game’?”
A coach drove Aasen’s parents to the hospital. They barely made it in time to see him before surgery.
“My parents signed a waiver for surgery. They didn’t know what was going to happen. It’s a parents’ worst nightmare,” he said.
The community supported them with prayer and visits.
“The waiting room was packed with players, coaches. Family members came in,” he said. “The outpouring of just prayers and support was obviously heard and much appreciated. I don’t think I’d be here without them.”
Aasen made an unheard of recovery, carrying on conversations within a couple of days and feeling well in a week. He knows ICU nurses often don’t see positive outcomes. He made it a point to visit them and the paramedics who were on the field.
“I just appreciate what they did,” he said.
A young mother was in the intensive care unit the same time as Aasen. She did not survive. He has been told one could hear sounds of her family crying.
“I was told that I started tearing up. That’s to put in perspective where I was,” he said. “She was dying in there. It’s a dark place.”
He knows that in the blink of an eye, his life could have been over.
“Its hard to think about it,” he said.
Older brother had a role
Many people said the recovery was a miracle, but it wasn’t until his pastor asked a question that he pondered it as more than a “crazy outcome.”
“I do remember Father John Murphy, the priest at Holy Trinity,” said Aasen. “He came up to me after Mass once. He said, ‘How does it feel to be a miracle’?”
That’s when it occurred to the young man; there was something greater at work.
Post-injury, Aasen had double vision for a time and needed physical rehabilitation. A scar on the left side of his head is a clue to his traumatic injury.
He never missed attending another game that season.
“I wouldn’t miss it. I loved the sport. I loved my teammates,” he said.
He decided to learn kicking and punting so he could still be involved in football. He also played lacrosse in high school.
In fall 2013, he was off to Georgia Tech, joining his brother Davis there, who introduced him to the campus Catholic Center. He initially selected biomedical engineering as his major, but switched to industrial engineering.
He enjoyed his professors and the environment at Georgia Tech, which helped him choose a path.
“Chances are I’m not going to remember lectures or specific equations, but what Tech really changes is the way you think,” he explained. “That’s what makes us so good at what we do. We’re taught to think differently.”
Catholic Center priests and students helped him to dig more deeply into the faith.
“My parents and I, we would always go to Mass on Sundays, but I didn’t quite understand what was going on,” he admitted.
Aasen said he didn’t know the difference between the Catholic faith and other Christian beliefs.
“Now, I do . . . fortunately for me,” he said.
He credits Father Josh Allen, chaplain, and other priests who served at Tech with being teachers.
“The Catholic Center is where I’ve learned everything, for the most part, and observed . . . what good Catholics, really solid, practicing Catholics look like,” said Aasen.
Graduates, some with children of their own, come back to the Catholic Center for Mass. It’s fairly common to see a student trained to be an aerospace or nuclear engineer contemplating a religious vocation, he said.
From marriage to careers to religious life, “you see the whole spectrum of living the Catholic lifestyle,” noted Aasen.
Struggle to make the team
Father Allen emphasizes that a student’s first week on campus usually determines his or her college lifestyle.
“So we really try to grab all the Catholic students right away and get them plugged into Mass at the Catholic Center and growing those relationships, which luckily for me my brother did for me without me knowing it,” said Aasen.
Wanting to play football at Tech helped keep him on a straight path.
“I love it,” he said about competition. “That’s the beauty of sports, just that struggle between you and your opponent or between teammates, always trying to push each other, and just working as hard as you can no matter the odds.”
As a punter, he got a late start. Most college punters have been kicking for years and have played soccer, which helps.
“So I knew I was way behind, and had to make up a lot of ground. That drove me to put in the extra hours on the field,” said Aasen. “And I think that’s carried over a lot in my studies and really into my faith.”
As a freshman, he bombarded special teams’ coordinators with emails to determine tryout dates.
“It was brutal. I did not do very well,” he said. “After they told me I didn’t make the team, I was pretty devastated and told them I’d be back in the spring.”
He carried a bag of footballs as he crisscrossed campus, worked out on the track and grass fields and in his dorm room.
“You see the glory of college football, but the amount of work that goes into it, the sacrifices everybody has to make, the early morning hours . . . there’s so much preparation to get to the Saturdays,” he said.
The second tryout in the spring was only a little better, but Aasen was not deterred.
The following fall, he returned and made the team.
“That was a surreal moment for me,” he said.
Aasen has great memories, including a victory against the University of Georgia in Athens and bowl games. He will miss friendships, and relationships with coaches most of all.
“That’s the hardest part of knowing I had a year left . . . just being with those guys,” he said. “For every single person I’ve talked to, there’s been nothing but support.”
He bounced questions off Father Allen and visited Notre Dame Seminary on spring break with his father.
“It just felt right. I’m going to find the same fraternal aspect that I found on the team in seminary. It’s just going to look a little different,” he said.
Several priests have offered encouragement about seminary, telling him, “The brotherhood you’re going to feel there is bar none.”
Coach supports decision
It has been baby steps for Aasen, whose prayer life began as a high school senior. Every night he would pray consistently an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be. He now prays the rosary and attends Mass daily, going to confession regularly. These practices, in addition to having a spiritual director, are the “biggest pillars” in discerning a vocation.
“You’ve got to go to the source to figure out where you gotta’ go,” he said.
Life as a Christian is different than what the world tells you to do, said Aasen.
“It’s not easy. It’s been painful leaving the team,” he said. “Some days are better than others, having that hope for the future and kind of just that blind trust. That faith kind of kept me positive.”
It was difficult telling head coach Paul Johnson he would be pursuing a different calling.
“God let me know that it was time. And he let me know at the right time,” said Aasen.
He held his emotions in check until he left the coach’s office.
“So he walked on the football team and continued to work and really had gotten himself in the position where he was gong to compete for a starting job this fall,” said Johnson. “We had several conversations, and in the end he told me he felt like his calling was to leave now and go, and we fully support that.”
The coach believes his former player will be successful.
“Grant’s a very humble guy and he’s very personable,” he said.
Johnson said it’s remarkable that the young man overcame injury and, through a different platform, became part of the team.
“I’m certainly not going to get into a contest with a higher being as to what your calling might be,” the coach said.
The Catholic Center has daily Mass, confessions and four Sunday Masses, serving 1,000 students. Adoration is available 18 hours daily. Students can receive regular prayer instruction and attend Bible studies and formation programs. They are encouraged to participate in social activities.
The center has a tradition of priestly vocations. Some 30 priests are graduates, with 15 serving in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. There are 14 alumni in formation for the priesthood or religious life. More than 25 men and women attended a discernment retreat in February.
Aasen said it has been inspiring to be around other young people at the center, who all have so much going on in their lives.
“Yet their main focus is their Catholic life, their spiritual life, figuring out how to be a better Catholic, how to be a better daughter or son of God,” he said.