By Dave Hooker (Contact)
Originally published 10:39 p.m., July 4, 2009, on GoVolsXtra.com
Eddie Gran and his family didn't wait until Independence Day to shoot off fireworks.
Let the rest of the world celebrate July 4th. The Grans had July 1, 2009.
That's the day their daughter would have been 10 years old.
Sydney Gran was born with a rare disease called Holoprosencephaly, which caused Sydney's brain to stop developing within the first three months in the womb.
Doctors said Sydney would probably not live six months. She lived nearly six years.
"Nobody ever wants to lose a child; but what she did and her courage and how she battled so many times and how she changed so many lives, it's awesome," said Eddie Gran, Tennessee's first-year running backs and special teams coach.
That's perspective talking. When the Grans first brought Sydney home from the hospital, they didn't have that same point of view. Daily, they dealt with the raw emotions exposed by the realization they would eventually lose their daughter.
"We were waking up every day wondering if she was still going to be breathing," Gran said. "You go through the night thinking 'Is this going to be the day?' "
That day came on May 31, 2005. The loss was incredible. But the effect that Sydney had on her family and other children like her is still being felt.
Still Feeling Sydney
After weeks of agonizing pain, wondering when their daughter would pass away, the Grans finally spoke to the team chaplain at Auburn, where Gran was serving as running backs coach. The pain had become too much.
The chaplain encouraged Gran and his wife, Rosemary, to give up - to realize they couldn't bear such a cross. They were told they needed God to carry it for them.
Eddie and Rosemary knelt down and everything changed.
"It was the most unbelievable thing that ever happened to us," Gran said. "We had faith for the first time in our life. It was amazing how everything changed."
That devotion gave the Grans peace - and much more.
"She saved my life," Gran said of Sydney. "I know I have eternity now."
Through Sydney, the Grans said they grew closer to God, dedicated their lives to Jesus Christ and received an incredible gift from the little girl in the wheelchair.
"Her spirit is still going on," Gran said. "She gave me the greatest gift a child could give a man."
Ask any one of Gran's three other children what is the most important thing in life and they'll answer with their faith. Gran changed as much as any in his family.
Others around Gran saw the difference in him: the way he coached, led his family and lived each day. One of the first to notice the change was Clyde Christensen, who was coaching for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and met Gran at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting.
"He just kind of redirected his life and redirected why he does things, just kind of a recommitment to the Lord," said Christensen, who is now the offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts. "He got serious about how he was going to coach and the model that he was going to be for his players and his children and how he was going to run his house.
"When Sidney did go to be with the Lord, he had something to fall back on. His relationship with the Lord brought him through the thing. That's the only way he could make it."
Sydney did not help only her family. She helped - and is still helping - other families through The Sydney Gran Foundation, a charity designed to support children's hospitals and other families whose children are facing serious illnesses.
That foundation has raised well over $300,000 through book sales and galas full of celebrity guests.
The goal is to reach the $500,000 mark, which will allow the charity to be endowed.
"Then it runs on its own forever," Gran said. "We're pretty excited about that. We want to make sure we hit that goal."
The next phase of fundraising will take place in the Grans' new locale.
"Next year in Knoxville we're going to have something because Children's Hospital is a phenomenal place," Gran said. "There are a lot of people here that have heard the story and want to help. They want to get involved."
Gran is quickly learning that Knoxville is worth all the hard work it took to get himself here.
Eddie Gran never got antsy as waited for a job offer after Auburn fired Tommy Tuberville following a 5-7 season in 2008. He had a plan to take the one job in the market he coveted most.
"I kind of held onto Tennessee," Gran said. "I didn't pursue much (else) when I … got the interview (at UT). This thing lasted a long time, probably longer than most interviews."
Gran didn't even follow up on other coaching vacancies. He was already committed to UT.
"I didn't want to go take (another) job and then Tennessee say 'Coach we want to hire you,' " Gran said.
Gran understood that first-year UT coach Lane Kiffin wanted to make sure he hired the right staff. But that didn't mean Gran was going to sit back patiently and wait while Kiffin considered other candidates.
"I bugged the heck out of Lane now," Gran joked. "I texted him. I called him. And I wore him out. I think he might have hired me because he was tired of answering the phone."
In truth, Kiffin eventually saw Gran for what he was - a perfect fit for a program looking for a running backs and special teams coach who could recruit.
"I wanted him to understand that I felt like I was the best person for this," Gran said. "I had done it for so many years. I also felt like I could bring something to the table in South Florida in recruiting.
"I felt like it was a great fit."
Kiffin eventually gave in and hired Gran on Jan. 16. The resume helped. The harassment didn't hurt.
"I saw his recruiting skills," Kiffin said in an e-mail response. "He was relentless."
Kiffin hadn't actually seen anything yet. Gran would soon prove to be a natural salesman in recruiting.
Eddie Gran took a job with Mass Mutual Insurance fresh out of college. Then his college coach at Cal Lutheran came calling a month later, asking Gran, a former receiver, to coach in the afternoons.
"I was in sales so I had my own schedule so I'd get up real early. I'd go and sell and do my deal until about three (o'clock)," Gran said. "Then I would go coach in the afternoon. After about three weeks, I was getting there at noon. After about six weeks, I was getting there about 10 a.m. It was a no-brainer.
"Putting that tie on everyday, that just wasn't my cup of tea. Being out with the players, developing those relationships, there was no question what I wanted to do."
However, Gran missed sales - until he realized he didn't have to give it up.
"You get the sales in recruiting," Gran said. "That was a passion for me. I do like to sell. I got it all."
If Gran ever doubted that recruiting was important, he was reminded when he got his first big break - when he joined the coaching staff at the University of Miami in 1990.
"We won a national championship and I saw the players there," Gran said. "The way those guys played the game, the speed of the game. It changed from everywhere I had ever been."
Gran followed another Miami assistant, Tuberville, to Ole Miss. Tuberville eventually became Gran's mentor. The protege was taught to work hard, recruit and recruit some more.
"Our first meeting at Ole Miss … he said 'You know guys, we can all coach. If there's a problem with coaching, I can help fix it. But if you can't recruit and you won't recruit, then I'm going to have to fire you.' " Gran recalled. "Those words stuck with me. In recruiting, you can outwork people.
"I'm smart enough to know that great players make great coaches."
Gran has tried to outwork the competition ever since. That can be a bit more difficult in one of the most talent-rich areas in the country.
Eddie Gran's recruiting area has rarely changed since 1990 - even when he changed jobs.
Gran is in charge of South Florida, period.
"I spent two years at Miami and everywhere after that, that was my recruiting area," Gran said. "I've been down there about 17 years."
Kiffin calls Gran's ties to South Florida "unbelievable".
"I've never seen a coach with such a deep relationship in a certain part of the country," Kiffin said.
It's an area unlike most any place in the country. It's a place where it's not unusual for a school to have ten Division I prospects in one year.
For much of his career, Gran focused on just three counties while many coaches focused on three time zones. Gran has tried to add other areas, like Georgia, but found that Dade, Broward and West Palm Beach counties are enough.
"You have plenty to do in those three counties," Gran said.
And plenty of in-state powerhouses to battle, such as Florida, Florida State and Miami.
"They're going to get pretty much the first pick," Gran said. "Now you're going to go in and battle for a few of them. You've got to pick and choose your times.
"You'll have a reason why you can get in it with a kid. At the University of Tennessee, you can battle. We have a lot of great things to sell."
UT won such a battle recently - against Florida - when the Vols landed receiver Nu'Keese Richardson from Pahokee High School. Richardson had been committed to Florida before UT made a last-second push and he signed to play for the Vols.
Then Kiffin made those well-publicized, less-than-flattering comments about life in Pahokee. Upon Gran's return to the rural, small town during the spring evaluation period, he was asked to leave the school until Kiffin's apology satisfied school administrators.
Finally, Kiffin apologized and Pahokee administrators relented.
"When it all came down, everybody started thinking about it 'This is about the kids, about them getting scholarships and continuing their education,' " Gran said.
Gran is already producing in South Florida again. He has three commitments for the 2010 signing class (offensive lineman Jose Jose, kicker Michael Palardy and linebacker Ralph Williams). Gran also convinced dozens of South Florida prospects to travel to Knoxville for UT's camp in June.
Salesmanship will only get a recruiter so far in South Florida. A great recruiter has to be part private investigator and all talent evaluator.
While Gran will battle the "Big Three" schools in Florida for some prospects, he's also looking for the lower-rated player undervalued by recruiting services that is ready to blossom. After all, every prospect can't earn five stars.
"There are some three (star prospects) in there that end up being fives and being fours," Gran said. "Here's where you become a really good evaluator."
The key, Gran said, is assessing whether or not he and the Vols have a shot.
"You're either in or you're out," Gran said. "There's really no in between there. It makes it real simple.
"You've really got to do your research. You can spin your wheels on a kid. If you didn't know he was going to stay in Florida, you've done a lot of work for nothing."
Florida is changing. On one hand, prospects are more likely to leave than ever before. On the other, more schools are scavenging the state.
"Everybody's in there now," Gran said.
Gran knows he'll have to recruit to win at UT. He'll also have to coach. A quick check of his resume shows he can do that too.
Gran has coached some of the most dominant SEC tailbacks in recent memory. Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown, Rudi Johnson and Deuce McAllister come to mind.
"I had heard Eddie was a fabulous recruiter, but I didn't know him as a coach," Kiffin said. "As I researched him more, I discovered he was a great coach. He had 10 backs in the NFL including five first-round picks."
Gran has some new superstars to mold. Incoming freshmen Bryce Brown and David Oku are already household names in Knoxville.
Both were considered two of the best tailback prospects in the nation in the 2009 recruiting class. Some believe that Brown was the best overall prospect in the country.
Brown showed up on campus a month early to acclimate himself to college life. That has already impressed his position coach.
"He's doing it on his own and most of our freshmen are," Gran said. "That's what really separates guys like that.
"Ronnie Brown, Carnell Williams, Deuce McAllister, that's what they had. You don't just come out and it falls into place. It's all about work ethic."
Brown has stood out.
"His work ethic is unbelievable," Gran said. "That's why he'll have a chance, because of his maturity."
While mentoring other great tailbacks, Gran coached under Tuberville for 14 years at Ole Miss and Auburn.
"Fourteen years is a long time to be doing something a certain way," Gran said. "It was difficult at the beginning but, like anything else, sometimes change is good."
The change compared to last season has been great. UT and Auburn followed similar paths in 2008. Struggling offenses led to the dismissals of two longtime SEC coaches who had both led their programs to undefeated seasons.
"You never want to be looking over your back," Gran said. "It's tough. It was tough on the Tennessee staff and the Auburn staff. That's just a bad situation.
"Coaches go through it all the time. It's kind of a slow death when stuff like that happens to you. It's not very fun."
Gran admitted that last year's disastrous season on the Plains shook him - but not too much. He's faced far worse and is better prepared to handle adversity than ever before.
"What helped me is my faith and I've got a strong-willed wife and she knew God was going to take care of us," Gran said.
A Prayer Answered
The Grans received much more from Sydney than doctors ever thought they would. She was never supposed to smile, laugh or sit up on her own. She did all three.
The smiles were bittersweet. They often came just before or just after one of Sydney's many seizures.
Even so, the Grans appreciated every little grin.
"It was awesome," Eddie Gran said "To see her smile, it kept life in perspective."
The Grans had a simple prayer for the inevitable that their daughter was facing.
Gran wanted to be home when his daughter passed and said he prayed that his other daughters would be elsewhere. After all the seizures, the Grans expected a traumatic event.
Fate seemed aligned against those prayers on May 31, 2005. All of the daughters were home and Gran was leaving for a speaking engagement.
Then Rosemary's parents popped in and offered to take his two older daughters to dinner.
They left with the girls and Gran was 15 minutes down the road himself when he got the call.
He quickly returned home to see his wife in the pool trying to cool Sydney, who had trouble regulating her body temperature.
Sydney's temperature was 107 degrees when Gran sensed that this could be the end of his daughter's long battle. Both parents huddle around Sydney.
"We both said goodbye," Eddie said. "It was like she fell asleep."
There's a portrait of Sydney hanging on the Grans' mantle. She's in her family's hearts every day. And when July rolls around, the Grans always celebrate the life that changed them forever.
After the Grans shot off fireworks on July 1, they honored another tradition.
On the way home, they stopped for chocolate milkshakes - Sydney's favorite.
Tennessee running backs coach Eddie Gran poses for a family picture shortly before the death of his daughter, Sydney, in 2005. Clockwise, daughters Lucy Grace, Hannah and Dillan, wife Rosemary holding Sydney.
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