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Dons lineman is center of attention

11/22/2014, 12:30am PST
By Don Norcross, Special to the U-T

Senior is a budding Renaissance man who plays the piano and has been accepted to Yale

Cathedral Catholic center Jacob Van de Grift is talented on and off the football field. He has been accepted to Yale.

Jacob Van de Grift kicked his knees high in pregame running drills, quite the sight from a 6-foot-5, 290-pound center.

“He is the absolute hardest worker,” said Cathedral Catholic head coach Sean Doyle.

Van de Grift was emotional, yelling, pointing at teammates, pumping them up before their quarterfinal Open Division home playoff game Friday night against Torrey Pines.

“It’s win or go home!” he hollered.

The Dons are going nowhere. On a chilly night, Cathedral slammed Torrey Pines’ offense in the freezer, pitching a 27-0 shutout. Shy by nature, Van de Grift, a three-year starter who will play in college, explained his pregame vibe.

“You’ve played four long years with your brothers,” he said after the game. “Meeting them in the weight room for 6 a.m. workouts. Potentially, especially for guys who won’t play in college, it’s their last game. You want to play the game of your lives.”

When talking football, Van de Grift sounds very much like a machismo lineman.

On what he likes about center: “You’re that first guy out (of the huddle). Kind of like a scout in the military.”

On being an offensive lineman: “You get to physically demoralize whoever’s in front of you.”

Stereotypes aside, the 17-year-old senior is well-rounded, a budding Renaissance man. He plays the piano, has been accepted to Yale, longs to be a surgeon specializing in sports medicine, but plans to concentrate on business, too.

Being a private school, the Dons draw players from throughout the county. The eve-of-game team dinners are hosted at players’ homes and one evening head coach Sean Doyle was hearing this elegant piano solo.

“A classical piece,” Doyle said.

He was stunned to see his hulking, near-300-pound lineman at the keyboard.

Said Doyle, “He was just sitting there, playing away.”

Van de Grift can play 63 songs by memory, ranging from Beethoven to Ray Charles to John Legend. He wrote a college essay on how playing the piano calms him.

“It’s my refuge,” he says.

Van de Grift says his intellectual bent comes from his father, an attorney. Athletics (he plays rugby and pushes the weights in track and field) lean to his mother’s side. His uncle, J.D. Dudek, a former USD wide receiver, pulled Jacob under his wing at a young age.

“Sean was getting to be a little fatty,” said Dudek, a successful real estate developer who lives in Coronado.

So Dudek began taking Jacob to his Lake Arrowhead cabin, working him out.

Jacob lined up for children’s’ triathlons by 10. He ran a half marathon at 13.

“I wanted to get him running,” Dudek said. “Athleticism starts with the feet.”

Dudek has survived three bouts of leukemia, two requiring bone-marrow transplants. He’s writing a book entitled “Raw Hope.” Lessons to his nephew reach beyond athletics.

“J.D.’s motto is never, never quit,” Van de Grift said. “So I enjoy life for what it is. It’s so short. You want to make the most of everything. Enjoy your family. Enjoy your friends. Enjoy football.”

The Dons’ season continues next week against Helix. Van de Grift will be bullying Scotties off the line. His braces shining through his face mask, he’ll be pleading with teammates again.

Yale can wait. There’s more high school football to be played.

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