MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — We begin with chaos theory, and if you don’t have the time or inclination to wade through complex mathematics and interdisciplinary philosophy, let West Virginia quarterback Will Grier explain it.
“It’s the butterfly effect,” Grier said. “And I feel like I’ve been living in it for the last three years.”
The concept goes something like this: A butterfly that flaps its wings in Belize can cause a hurricane in the Pacific Ocean. Simply put, small actions can have large effects.
Or in this case, a coach who asks his quarterback to leave his team in Gainesville, Florida, can drastically change the fortunes of two men and two college football programs—and set in motion a magical season for that quarterback three years later.
Welcome to Grier’s chaos theory.
“Instead of letting things break you, look at failures as opportunities to get better. Become unbreakable,” Grier said. “It’s cause and effect and how you react to it. It’s incredible how it has all played out.”
Since that fateful October 2015 day when the NCAA declared him ineligible for using a performance-enhancing supplement without clearing it with the team’s medical staff, Grier’s life has taken many twists and turns: from being asked to leave the Florida program, to transferring to West Virginia, to getting married, to the birth of his daughter, to ignoring NFL money and staying for his senior season because he felt he owed it to Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen, to that improbable moment last weekend in Austin, Texas, where, if you didn’t believe in the butterfly effect before, you’re jumping in the deep end now.
There was Grier in a critical Big 12 game, flashing the Horns Down sign after a dime of a touchdown throw—off his front foot—and a game-winning, two-point conversion run. It came on a nearly identical play from the same spot on the field where a year ago against Texas in Morgantown he broke his finger on his throwing hand while he reached for the goal-line pylon, ending his season two-and-a-half games early.
He didn’t have to reach this time, strolling into the end zone on a quarterback read for the two-point conversion to beat the Longhorns, 42-41, and keep WVU’s College Football Playoff hopes alive—after Holgorsen went against conventional wisdom and played for the win.
Michael Thomas/Associated Press/Associated Press
Hey, when you’re riding the butterfly effect, embrace it and hold on for the white-knuckle ride.
Don’t buy it?
A play earlier, Grier hit David Sills V on a perfect slant for an apparent two-point conversion that also would’ve won the game. But Texas called timeout just in time to negate it. No big deal.
Next play, same play, same result—only instead of throwing the slant on the run-pass option, Grier kept the ball and waltzed around the left side into the end zone.
“Put the fate of the game in No. 7’s hands,” Holgorsen said of Grier. “That’s a no-brainer.”
It wasn’t so long ago when a different coach in a different situation reached the opposite conclusion, changing the careers of Grier, former Florida coach Jim McElwain and the football programs at Florida and West Virginia.
One decision, and so many fluttering reverberations.
Grier led Florida to a 6-0 start during his redshirt freshman season in 2015, including a 28-point win over No. 3 Ole Miss in a game that announced the highly touted recruit’s arrival in college football. A week later, the NCAA suspended him for the year for using the banned supplement Ligandrol, which was an ingredient in a protein enhancer he bought from a nutrition store.
During the press conference to announce the suspension, McElwain declared he would stick by Grier and that his starting quarterback would be back on the field with the Gators in a year. “An honest mistake,” he said of Grier’s supplement use.
Phil Sandlin/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
Away from the press conference, Grier said McElwain told him he probably shouldn’t be around the team for a while. When Grier returned in November to discuss his future, McElwain was more direct, telling him maybe it was time to move on.
McElwain, who was fired at Florida 28 games after his decision to part ways with Grier—with a 16-12 record in those games—is now the wide receivers coach at Michigan. He wasn’t available for comment but told Bleacher Report in 2016: “I’m glad he found a home. I feel horrible about what occurred. I’m excited that he has a place where he can go make a difference.”
But several former Florida assistants on McElwain’s staff said Grier’s departure had nothing to do with a banned supplement.
“It had everything to do with Mac wanting to win with his own guy,” one former Florida assistant told Bleacher Report. “Grier was [former Gators coach Will] Muschamp’s recruit. We were floored by it. You’ve got a guy that can win big in this league at that position? Those dudes are rare. Who cares if [Grier] liked hanging around his girl more than his teammates? That was the big knock on him; he wasn’t a team guy. Come on, man—because he liked spending time with his girl? We scored 38 on that Ole Miss defense with all of those NFL players!
“We knew right then it wasn’t just a big gamble—it was a decision that was going to bite us all in the ass.”
Last week, Grier’s wife, Jeanne, was able to get her mother to watch the Griers’ two-year-old daughter, Eloise, so Jeanne could travel to her first road game to watch her husband play. And wouldn’t you know it, the butterfly effect swooshed in for yet another “you’ve got to be kidding me” moment.
Jeanne and Will, who for two years have raised a child with all the beautiful craziness that goes with it (hello, no sleep), got their first game weekend alone together. Their parents live far enough from Morgantown that there’s no simple call for help or humble ask for a couple of hours of respite.
They’ve been through this up-and-down ride for nearly three years; through the dark days of Will’s suspension and the disruption of leaving Gainesville and starting over in a new place.
Then WVU 42, Texas 41 happens—a memory of a lifetime shared by 20-something parents—and yeah, you start to take this chaos-theory thing seriously.
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“We’ve been through so much, so young, and we’ve watched each other grow through it,” Jeanne said. “It’s really fun to see where we are now as opposed to where we were when it all started. There was grieving there for Will when we left Florida. It was hard to watch him go through all of that. But it was everything to see him come out of it on the other side as the most amazing person.”
While Grier found himself sitting out the 2016 season at West Virginia, Florida was mired in another year of poor quarterback play, which was dragging down another talented team. Since Tim Tebow graduated after the 2009 season, the Gators have had a string of average quarterbacks—a situation that remains the case—that has led to a lost decade for the once-proud program. The only time during that span Florida looked like it found a quarterback was the six-game stretch Grier played in 2015.
Ironically, Grier said the last time he met with McElwain to try to clarify his status at Florida, the coach was two hours late because he was recruiting quarterback Feleipe Franks, whose high school was three hours away in the Florida Panhandle.
Franks was benched last weekend in the middle of yet another home loss (this time to then-SEC-winless Missouri) for a program that once had one of the best home-field advantages in college football.
It didn’t take Holgorsen long to zero in on Grier, who he knew from the quarterback’s legendary high school career in Davidson, North Carolina (Grier once threw for 837 yards and 10 TDs in a playoff game). The SEC still had its rule against in-conference transfers, so Grier couldn’t transfer to South Carolina and play for former Gators coach Will Muschamp, his first choice.
Grier looked at Ohio State and Oregon, but took multiple visits to WVU once Holgorsen got involved. Playing in Holgorsen’s offense was the initial draw, before the butterfly effect showed up yet again and sealed the deal.
When Cal fired coach Sonny Dykes in January 2017, it left Jake Spavital—one of the game’s top young offensive minds—on the market. Holgorsen hired Spavital as his offensive coordinator and got him, in part, because of Grier.
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“Dana called and asked me to be his OC, and I said, ‘Is Will going to be there?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ and I said: ‘Heck yeah. I’m in,'” Spavital said. “I had other coaching options that were legit and paid more, but I couldn’t pass up coaching a talent like Will.”
And coach him he has. With 16 seconds to play last weekend at Texas, it was Spavital who called the daring deep ball into quarters coverage—where only a perfect throw would beat it. And it was Spavital who decided to employ the same two-point conversion run-pass option on the second attempt and put the game in Grier’s hands.
When Grier arrived in Gainesville in 2014 as Gatorade’s North Carolina Player of the Year, he had to add weight and get stronger. He was already one of the best athletes on the team, and wild video clips of him doing standing backflips and dunking basketballs were all over the internet.
Then he hurt his back while lifting weights in the summer, and the idea of his playing as a true freshman was shelved. It was then that the butterfly effect initially took hold.
Muschamp said Grier would’ve eventually won the starting job as a freshman, and the Gators would’ve become a different program were it not for the injury. Then he took it one step further.
“We’d still be [at Florida] if he hadn’t got hurt,” Muschamp said.
But Grier did get hurt, and Florida continued to struggle at quarterback, which eventually cost Muschamp his job. Then McElwain arrived, Grier made a mistake and everything changed.
He went from getting run off McElwain’s team to getting run out of the WVU football offices because it was late and Grier was still watching game tape while sitting out during his transfer season.
And wouldn’t you know it: Even his first game at WVU came with complications. Because Grier was suspended midway through the 2015 season and sat out 2016 under NCAA transfer rules, he still technically owed the NCAA a half-season (six games) of suspension because the transfer rule didn’t automatically eliminate the suspension—until WVU won an appeal and Grier started the 2017 opener.
“There are endless what-ifs that have really made me have an appreciation for my journey and everything I have experienced along the way,” Grier said. “It has molded me into a complete person. You go through that, and things don’t faze you anymore. It’s hard for anyone or any situation to rattle me, as a quarterback and a person.”
Ray Thompson/Associated Press/Associated Press
Early this summer, Grier and Sills took a road trip to Sills’ home state of Delaware. Get in the car, head north and bond for a weekend.
If anyone understands Grier’s wild ride, it’s Sills, whose own butterfly effect began when he was 13 and Lane Kiffin offered him a scholarship to play quarterback at USC—an offer that Steve Sarkisian, who wanted him to play wide receiver, later pulled. That led to Sills’ signing with WVU and having Holgorsen move him to receiver, to his leaving WVU for junior college to try one more time to make it work as a quarterback, to returning to WVU as a receiver, to—like Grier—becoming a projected first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft.
“Whenever I think my ride has been wild, I take a look at Will’s and it kind of puts things in perspective,” Sills said. “When he talks, he has everyone’s attention.”
Grier has played 19 games for WVU over the last two seasons, and the Mountaineers are 14-5 in those contests. He has thrown for 6,108 yards and 62 TDs, and has become what he knew he could be all along: a game-defining quarterback.
WVU, meanwhile, is four games from a Big 12 championship and a possible spot in the College Football Playoff.
How about that for the ultimate butterfly effect?
“I have been through enough where nothing rattles me now,” Grier said. “I feel in complete control in every situation.”
No matter the chaos.