A Punter’s Prayer

Starr’s Mill High School alum Grant Aasen is forgoing his final season as a punter at Georgia Tech to enter Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. (Photo Courtesy of Georgia Tech athletics/Danny Karnik)

Football nearly ended Grant Aasen’s life. Now, he’s stepping away from the game for good.

The moment Grant Aasen is most remembered for at Starr’s Mill High School is a picture etched into the brains of everyone who witnessed it — and erased from the memory of the man who lived it.

“They didn’t really know if I was going to be dead or not,” Aasen said.

On Saturday, May 6, Aasen graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in industrial engineering, forgoing his final year of football eligibility to pursue a future in ministry. As a sophomore in high school, Aasen could never have foreseen becoming a punter or a priest. Now, there’s a chance he might become known for being both.

There was an ambulance nearby, but the determination was quickly made that Aasen needed to be airlifted to Atlanta Medical Center. With less than two minutes remaining between Starr’s Mill and Northgate, Starr’s Mill led comfortably, thanks in part to two Aasen rushing touchdowns. The scoreboard, however, was an afterthought, as Aasen laid on the sidelines, unconscious from a seizure.

The day before the junior varsity game on a Wednesday in October, Aasen, a sophomore at the time, took a handoff right up the middle at practice. A defensive lineman brought Aasen to the ground, and his head whipped to the turf. His injury was not deemed serious enough to miss game time the following day, but it turns out he should’ve taken more than a day to recover.

‘I hated kickers and punters before I became one’

When Aasen reached the hospital, he was immediately carted off to surgery. A few hours after surgery, he woke up. The first thing he asked: “Did we win the game?”

A week after surgery, Aasen was home. The initial recovery was quick, but Aasen still felt the effects of short-term memory loss.
Since second grade, Aasen played running back and linebacker, but after his injury, he was unable to play contact sports. Aasen still wanted to play football, however he could, so he learned the position where his head was least likely to be hit.

Aasen started learning how to punt from then-senior Matt Hubbard, who became a punter at Georgia State. The change of positions wasn’t easy, as Aasen learned the very first day of trying to punt.

“I was pretty terrible,” Aasen said. “If I’m going to be honest, I was bad, but I didn’t have a choice.”

Like a perfectly-placed punt that lands on the 1-yard line, Aasen bounced back. He had friends on the football team, and he was set on finishing high school on the team with them. He’d practice his punting every day, and eventually he went from terrible to really good.
After Hubbard left, Aasen fought for the starting position his junior year. Starr’s Mill head coach Chad Phillips quickly noticed Aasen wasn’t just going to be filling up a roster spot as a punter.

“That athleticism transferred over to punting, and he killed the ball,” Phillips said.

It wasn’t only pure athleticism, nor was it an innate love of punting, that drove Aasen to excel at his new position. When Aasen puts his mind to something, he’s all in on it. After the injury, punting was what Aasen would devote as much of his time as possible to mastering.
As Aasen spent more and more days practicing his punting, he began to shift his perspective of the position that he held back when he was scoring touchdowns and tackling ball-carriers.

“I hated kickers and punters before I became one,” Aasen said. “You just assume that they don’t work hard.”

Aasen taught himself to be a punter at Starr’s Mill High School after an injury nearly cost him his life. (Staff Photo by Christopher Dunn)

‘Never seen a kid work so hard’

When Aasen began punting, he didn’t think about playing in college. After making it into Georgia Tech by his own academic merit, he was determined to make the team as a walk-on. On his first and second tryouts he didn’t make the team, but Aasen still pursued joining the team. He’d carry footballs across campus to the student fields, practice in the student gym, whatever it took to get accepted to the football team as a walk-on.

“I just said I’m going to do it no matter what,” Aasen said.

The third tryout, in the fall of his sophomore year, Aasen said it would be his last time attempting to make the team. He’d spent so much time on punting, and if it didn’t work out this time, he’d have to move on to something else.

The team took two punters as walk-ons that fall, a fate Aasen didn’t see coming when the football staff brought both punters in to tell them who made the team.

“I was in shock,” Aasen said. “I didn’t really know what to do.”

Aasen immediately told his brother Davis, who was a sports medicine student working with the team at the time. He called his family and explained to them an experience he now recalls as surreal.

Phillips said Aasen would’ve been a star player for Starr’s Mill had he been able to finish his high school career at the position he started at, but after making Georgia Tech’s team, he had achieved what he originally set out to do when he began playing football.

“You’ve never seen a kid work so hard,” Phillips said.

‘The Panther and the Priest’

Aasen, an industrial engineering major, only started one game in his Georgia Tech career. It was a game against Mercer, and Aasen remembers it vividly.

“It went 42 yards, but it got a little bit of a roll so I got lucky,” Aasen said of his lone career punt.

Still, knowing now that he’d only punt in one meaningful game, Aasen wouldn’t take back all the work he put in to get on the team because the experiences he shared with his teammates were worth it.

Here’s the kicker: Aasen started in the spring game this year, and he believes he would have won the starting job this upcoming fall had he stayed in school, since the starting punter was graduating. Instead, Aasen took a different route.

During graduation on May 6 inside McCamish Pavilion, someone pulled aside Aasen and his good friend Harrison Butker, a kicker who was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in this year’s NFL Draft. Their faces were displayed on the Jumbotron, and an interviewer introduced the two Yellow Jackets special teams players.

“You’ve got two guys from Georgia Tech football,” the interviewer said before asking them a question. “You’ve got the Panther and the Priest.”

Aasen was flattered, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to be known as a priest. Not yet, at least. Aasen has decided to pursue further schooling in the ministry, and applied to Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, but he’s not yet sure where it will lead him.

For Aasen, it wasn’t an easy decision, but one he knew in his heart was the right one. He doesn’t want to be known as a priest yet, but if that’s where he ends up, he said he wouldn’t mind being known as the Punting Priest.

“That’s not the first time I heard that,” Aasen said with a laugh. “I wouldn’t mind if that stuck.”

Aasen goes back to Starr’s Mill every so often, training the school’s kickers and punters and giving them advice.

One of Starr’s Mill’s players who Aasen has been able to work with, kicker Michael Lantz, is going to be a junior next season but is already drawing interest from top schools including Florida, Texas, and Ohio State.

When the opportunity arises and the Starr’s Mill football team is facing some type of adversity, Phillips will tell his players about Aasen’s journey.

When Phillips thinks of Aasen, his mind first drifts to the seizure on the sidelines. But what’s more, he remembers Aasen’s never-give-up attitude and the sacrifices he was willing to make to play at the Division-I level and the bravery in his decision to embark on a new path.

“We’re proud of him. We’re rooting for him, and we’ll always keep up with him,” Phillips said. “It’s a great story.”

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About

Justin Fedich is a reporter for the Fayette County News. He has been a reporter for various papers around the Southeast, including the Athens Banner-Herald and the Selma Times-Journal. Justin is a graduate of the University of Georgia with a degree in digital and broadcast journalism and a sports media certificate.


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