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OU football: Grant Calcaterra's homecoming — from premature birth to veteran Sooners tight end

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Grant Calcaterra

Junior tight end Grant Calcaterra before the game against South Dakota Sept. 7.

In the spring of 1998, Diane Calcaterra had to go see her physician in Cincinnati, Ohio. After experiencing three miscarriages before, she was feeling worried in the early stages of her pregnancy.

Diane wanted a child so she could give her 5-year-old and oldest son, Nick, a sibling. She thought she was having another miscarriage. Instead, it was something life-changing.

“I thought I was miscarrying again,” Diane said. “But I went into the doctor, and he did an ultrasound and said, ‘Well, no. I see one heartbeat, I see two, I see three.’”

Relief.

Diane was having triplets and told her husband, Chris, right after learning the news. But Diane also knew the sad reality of the fact that triplet pregnancies have a higher risk of complications.

“The chances of losing one were pretty high,” Diane said. “It was a little bit of a reality check.”

Diane had a full-time job, a child to take care of and was bed-ridden just eight weeks into her pregnancy. She was also hospitalized five times throughout the duration of her pregnancy.

Then, on Dec. 4, Grant, Andrew and Claire were born eight weeks early. The delivery went fine, but the babies had issues of their own. Grant stayed in the hospital for 10 days, Andrew for 30 and Claire for 31. Within a month of being born, Grant had triple hernia surgery.

“It was very emotionally challenging before, during and after,” Chris said. “Because after, they all had their issues. Grant having triple hernia surgery at 1 month old. ... You put a 1-month-old under anesthesia, and that’s not good. And the challenge of raising and taking care of three newborns — it was hard.”

After growing up and living healthy lives in Santa Margarita, California, all three are in college now. Claire attends the University of Colorado and Andrew is at Ohio State.

Grant is the Sooners’ starting tight end and one of their best playmakers.

In his two years at Oklahoma, the junior has racked up 558 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. He’s proved to be a threat not just with his size, but with his catching ability and speed unusual for a tight end. He made arguably the biggest play of the year last season with a one-handed snag in Oklahoma’s 39-27 win over Texas to clinch a fourth-straight Big 12 title for the Sooners. He’s widely considered a sought-after NFL prospect.

Now, in his junior season, Grant is a key piece of Lincoln Riley’s offense. He’s caught passes from now-Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, now-Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray and, this year, from Alabama transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts. He adds experience to a team that’s poised for another conference championship and a third consecutive College Football Playoff appearance.

Saturday, Grant returns to California in the Sooners’ game against UCLA in the Rose Bowl, 200 miles away from Santa Margarita. It’ll serve as a homecoming, as his parents — along with their closest friends and family — will make the trip to Pasadena to see their son, who’s grown from a 3-pound, 10-ounce premature infant to a 6-foot-4, 240-pound Sooner.

“Every day, we’re very grateful and blessed to know that he is doing well at something that he so passionately enjoys,” Diane said. “When you see your child just excelling and doing well at something that they truly enjoy and have a talent for, it’s very rewarding.”

Ball.

At 11 months old, Grant sat in a high chair and held up a ball, looking at it in awe.

“Ball,” Grant said. It was his first word.

“He held it up like you hold up the ball in the end zone,” Diane said with a laugh. “That’s how he kind of started.”

And just like that, Grant was introduced to sports. As he got older, his parents noticed his size difference compared to other kids. He was growing a lot faster than others, and it translated to his athletics.

Chris can’t help but think of two instances when Grant was in grade school where he showed his athleticism at a young age.

In a recreational football game, Grant, playing quarterback, picked up a bad snap from between his legs and ran 70 yards for a touchdown. Another time, when he was playing linebacker, he made a sack that made the audience gasp.

“We thought he killed the quarterback,” Chris said. “The game stopped.”

In his football career leading up to his days at Santa Margarita High School, Grant played receiver, quarterback, linebacker and running back. He also played basketball and lacrosse, but after his sophomore year, football became his only focus.

Rick Curtis, Santa Margarita’s head coach during Grant’s sophomore and junior years, used him as a receiver. He noticed his size, along with his determination in the weight room.

“His work ethic was just unbelievable,” Curtis said. “He gained confidence with just every workout he had. He was, without a doubt, one of our big leaders in the weight room.”

Curtis has a favorite Grant story of his own.

In the second game of his junior season, Grant and the Eagles were playing rival JSerra Catholic High School. Santa Margarita was without its starting quarterback K.J. Costello, now Stanford’s starting quarterback, due to injury. They were favored to lose, but Grant took the game over. Backup quarterback Richard Wagner connected with Grant on two drives, both times resulting in the junior receiver making a catch on the 35-yard line and taking it to the end zone.

“People could not believe his speed,” Curtis said. “I think that’s when he kind of came onto the scene against JSerra, with those two touchdowns. He split their defense, and we won the game.”

Chris said that’s around the time offers from colleges started coming in. While remaining a key veteran to the team going into his senior year, Grant racked up offers from schools such as USC, Oregon, Ohio State and Oklahoma.

When Curtis left to become the athletic director and head football coach at Capistrano Valley Christian Schools, Rich Fisher came in to coach Grant’s senior year. Fisher coached under Les Miles as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma State, was a receivers coach at Colorado — where he played college ball — and was a receivers coach at Nebraska in 2015. It was with the Huskers that he tried recruiting Mark Andrews out of high school.

When he watched Grant after becoming Santa Margarita’s head coach, he immediately saw the similarities with the now-Baltimore Raven.

“When you’re in this business long enough, players start reminding you of other players,” Fisher said. “Players you coach remind you of other players. And then, when you recruit down the line, and if they’re in the game long enough, they remind you of players that you had in your room. I immediately thought of Mark Andrews when I saw Grant and saw him play.”

Relax.

Grant made his unofficial visit to Norman in April 2016, during spring practice. Then-Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops walked Grant out to the center of Owen Field.

“Grant, we’ve had 17 straight years of sellouts,” Chris recalls Stoops telling Grant. “Imagine 85,000 people cheering and yelling your name.”

Grant committed to the Sooners that same month.

Stoops was adamant about Grant coming to Oklahoma. He even visited Calcaterras' home in Santa Margarita in December 2016. Chris, Diane, the triplets and Fisher were there for Stoops’ living room visit, to show he was all in for the rising tight end. Grant enrolled early and arrived on campus in January 2017.

Then, one summer morning in 2017, Chris got a phone call from Grant. Stoops had retired after 17 years as the Sooners’ head coach.

“The AD, the president and the head coach had been together for 17 years. And so he was pretty fired up in a bad way, a negative way,” Chris said.

Chris was surprised, but not concerned, because before Grant showed up to campus for his unofficial visit in April 2016, Lincoln Riley — then OU’s offensive coordinator — already had his name at the top.

During Grant’s April 2016 visit, Riley took Grant and Chris to his office, and where the list of tight ends were, Grant’s name was at the top, with three names under him.

“They treated Grant like their first choice,” Chris said. “And at some schools, Grant was kind of the second choice.”

With this in mind, Chris knew Grant was going to do just fine at OU.

“Calm down,” Chris recalls telling Grant. “It’s gonna be Lincoln. This is succession planning. Nothing’s gonna change. You went to this school because of the offense that they run, and Lincoln Riley’s going to run the same offense. Just relax.”

Riley kept his promise when he took over the program for the 2017 season by giving Grant above-average playing time for a true freshman tight end, while also having Grant learn under Andrews, then a junior. Grant caught for 162 yards and three touchdowns in 2017.

He proved to be the frontrunner as it became more apparent that Andrews would leave for the NFL. But through Andrews, Grant would strike up a friendship with now-Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. The two ended up being important for Grant’s development at OU.

Mayfield’s advice.

On a Sunday morning in 2017, Chris was reading the paper outside his home in Santa Margarita when he was joined by now-Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. The future Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick wanted to offer some advice.

Just four weeks into the 2017 season, the fifth-year senior had become close to Grant, a true freshman. Chris and Diane knew that the two had struck up a friendship, but just how serious it was became apparent when Grant called them and said that he was bringing Mayfield to their house to come and spend a few nights during the bye week, after they’d beaten Baylor, 49-41, in Waco.

Mayfield wanted to let Chris know he saw something in Grant’s football career that, at the time, was just getting started.

“He basically just said, ‘Hey, Grant’s a special player. There’s going to come a time when people are going to come out of the woodwork. He needs to choose his friends wisely. He needs to be careful about agents,’” Chris recalls Mayfield saying. “‘He’s going to do really well, but you need to look out for him.’”

It was eye-opening to Chris, who had already known of his son’s potential on the gridiron.

“I would say that I didn’t have that kind of realization that Baker did,” Chris said. “I knew that he was special, and he was doing better and playing more than we had anticipated, but hearing Baker say it meant a lot.”

Mayfield has since become close with all the Calcaterras. He and his wife, Emily, have been guests at their new renovated home. Grant was an usher at the Mayfields' wedding in June.

But it wasn’t always that way.

When he arrived as an early enrollee in the spring semester of 2017, Grant was homesick. He'd left his high school friends behind as they were finishing their senior year. Moving from California to life on the plains of Oklahoma was a transitional move Grant had never experienced before.

“It was quite different,” Diane said. “And I think he also missed being at home. He had never been away from home that long, and it was far. Our conversations with him were, ‘Hey, this is something you’ve worked for and something you’ve wanted.’”

But when in need of consolation, Grant looked to Andrews, who had been his sponsor during his December visit to campus. Through Andrews, Grant would befriend Mayfield.

Mayfield even invited Andrews and Grant to the Heisman ceremony, where he became Oklahoma’s sixth recipient of the award. When Mayfield held the trophy, at one point he pointed up at the balcony where Grant and Andrews were sitting.

“The three of them became super good friends,” Chris said. “Mark was a big brother to him. They get along and they’re a lot alike. They’re still close. It was very important.”

Homecoming.

In 2018, Mayfield and Andrews were drafted into the NFL, and Grant became the starting tight end. Thanks to them, Grant now calls OU “a second home.”

He’s won two conference championships and has made two College Football Playoff appearances, while proving to be a go-to tight end in Riley’s offense, considered the best in college football. What he learned under Andrews and Mayfield prepared him for a sophomore season in which he tallied 396 yards and six touchdowns, including Oklahoma’s biggest play of the year.

The Sooners were up 32-27 with under seven minutes to go in the Big 12 Championship against Texas. To put the game away, Kyler Murray threw 18 yards to Grant, who made a one-handed catch in the end zone for a touchdown that would make the score 39-27.

Chris and Diane were in the stands.

“I was in tears,” Chris said. “We both had tears in our eyes.”

The play sealed Oklahoma’s fourth-straight conference championship. But Grant and the Calcaterras are hoping that’s not the peak of his story at OU.

In what could be Grant’s last season, OU’s match against UCLA will serve as a celebration for friends and family attending. Chris said 35 to 40 people close to their family will make the trip from Santa Margarita to Pasadena to see a glimpse of Grant’s career — which has a good chance of ending in another conference championship, an appearance in the College Football Playoff and a trip to the NFL.

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Caleb McCourry is the assistant sports editor at The Daily and is a junior at OU majoring in English. He's covered football, basketball and volleyball. 

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