Will Grier's family is Instagram-famous, but the West Virginia QB is scrambling to duck the spotlight

Even as he lands on every Heisman short list for 2018, Will Grier is still in a self-imposed social media exile -- and focused on balancing football and fatherhood. Martin Schoeller for ESPN

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Aug. 20 College Football 2018 Issue. Subscribe today!

Will Grier sits in a bathtub and takes stock of his upended life. Everything in the summer of 2016 -- his new home, school and state -- feels unfamiliar as he reboots his football career with West Virginia after an acrimonious split from Florida. He and his soon-to-be-wife, Jeanne, had rented a Morgantown town house sight unseen, loaded a U-Haul and Jeanne's Maxima, and high-tailed it north, then navigated the boondock roads of the Appalachians to their new place. Will's teammates would later joke he lived so far off the beaten path that he had made it all the way to Pennsylvania.

In truth, Will doesn't mind the isolation.

Thanks to his instafamous younger brothers, he has seen firsthand celebrity and its attendant madness. Thanks to his own mistakes, he too has been scorched by stardom.

So there, in the tub, with phone in hand, he makes his isolation more complete.

"What were you doing in there?" Jeanne asks him.

"Look at this," he says.

He pulls out his phone and shows her his Twitter account. Or at least what is left of the feed. Will has wiped it clean.

Two years later, the Griers live more squarely on the grid, just 10 minutes from Mountaineer Field. Wide receiver David Sills, Grier's closest friend and one of his favorite 2017 targets, lives down the street. A couple of coaches do too.

But even as he lands on every Heisman short list for 2018, Will is still in a self-imposed social media exile. He's a phantom. And that's exactly how he wants it.

On a stiflingly muggy late-June evening in Morgantown, Grier, 23, is content to park his 6-foot-2, 212-pound frame on his couch, a polka-dot blanket draped over his torso and a toddler trapped between his knees. "She's a mess," he says with a laugh, then frees Ellie, his 19-month-old daughter.

Next to Will, on the couch, rests a plush Moana; a few feet away, a stuffed Olaf perches on a white cubby. ("We've watched all of these, like, five times a day," he says, waving toward the animated menagerie. "I'm a huge Despicable Me fan.") And on the TV mounted over the fireplace, Rapunzel from Tangled is frozen midsong, happily paused in her tower. As Ellie runs circles around the coffee table with Jeanne in her wake, Will -- stationary, mostly quiet -- practically recedes into the background.

WILL GRIER MIGHT be the anti-2018 star. But his family? His parents and his sister and, most dramatically, his brothers? They -- and their breathtaking, overnight fame -- are a quintessential 2018 American tale.

Will was the family's first known quantity. As a high school junior playing for his father and coach, Chad, in 2012, Will threw for 5,785 yards, was named North Carolina's Gatorade Player of the Year and committed to one of the top programs in the country.

He was a veritable football commodity, but in the spring and summer of 2013, his younger brother eclipsed Will's burgeoning stardom. Nash, then 15, posted a slew of looping, six-second comedy videos on Vine that went viral. More than viral. While Will would build on his football success -- throwing for 77 touchdowns as a senior and earning Parade magazine's player of the year honors -- his brother built his following. Nash now has 9.9 million Instagram subscribers and 7 million Twitter followers and is considered a tween-whispering tastemaker. In January 2014, as Will played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Nash traveled to Iceland to promote an app. He posted a video: "Come meet me ... at Smaralind mall in Reykjavik!" When the mall couldn't withstand the thousands who showed up, security shut it down. He accompanied Will a few weeks later to the Parade All-American banquet, and hordes in Times Square clamored for Nash, not Will. Later that same year, as Will moved to Gainesville for his freshman year at Florida, Nash relocated too -- to LA. Trips to Good Morning America, the White House Correspondents' Association dinner and Paris Fashion Week followed.

As viral matter does, Nash's fame spread: to the last of the Grier brothers, Hayes (5.5 million Instagram followers), who at 15 became the second-youngest participant on Dancing With the Stars; to their 9-year-old sister, Skylynn Floyd (1.1 million Instagram followers), who has had her own managed account since before she was 3; to their mother, Elizabeth Grier-Floyd (360,000 Instagram followers), who launched a lifestyle channel on YouTube. Chad, with a robust 210,000 followers himself, has kept his day job as high school football coach but firmly grasps that his family is now a brand. And that brand touches Will, with or without Will's buy-in.

"There's really never been a kid coming out of college with that kind of presence already," Chad says. "With that kind of marketing potential, with two brothers who can really move the needle."

Will, who was hardly shy in cameos for his brothers' clips, is proud of their success but not enamored by it, Chad says. "Nash and Hayes created this incredible following and all this power and influence and money and fame and opportunity. Will could've said, 'Hey, I'll do the same thing.' But I've never seen a hint of him wanting that."

CHAD GRIER STOOD on his front lawn in the suburbs of Charlotte. It was nearly 11 on a Sunday night in the spring of 2014, and he and his second wife, Will's stepmother, Nila, had just finished watching Revenge, like they did every Sunday. He was taking his goldendoodle, Lucy, out before returning when Chad heard someone shout in the distance.

"Get your hands up!"

Two men, clad in combat gear, with rifles trained on him, closed in and demanded that Chad get down on his knees.

"Who is Nash Grier?" they yelled.

"My son," Chad said from the ground.

"We have a report that he's holding someone hostage in your basement and your house is wired for bombs."

There was no hostage, of course, nor any bombs -- Nash and his family had been the victims of an elaborate and dangerous hoax. A 16-year-old from Scotland manufactured a hostage crisis, prompting a SWAT team to descend on the Griers' home in North Carolina. Will hadn't yet played a down of collegiate football, but his brother -- like Tom Cruise and Justin Bieber and Paris Hilton before him -- had earned a terrifying distinction: a level of fame that made him a target of swatting.

Will might want no part of a Kardashian-esque omnipresence on social media, but he has been, and will remain, material for the many family feeds. Will lit up the family's accounts as he led the Gators to a 6 -- 0 record as a redshirt freshman in 2015; even Skylynn's snaps of him were topping 80,000 likes on Instagram. Then -- unwittingly or not -- Will sledgehammered his success in Gainesville. On the second Monday in October, two days after he led the Gators to a win over Missouri, Florida announced that Grier was suspended for a year for violating the NCAA's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

"I was blindsided," he says. "Just ... dumbfounded."

His was an honest mistake, he insists. A dumb mistake but an honest one. He went to a local nutrition store, he says, and took an over-the-counter supplement, Ligandrol, without consulting Florida's trainers. He cross-checked the ingredients against the NCAA's banned substance list online and, finding no red flags, took the supplement. But the red flags were there. Ligandrol, and substances like it, have always been banned by the NCAA.

What came next, after the failed drug test, after the yearlong suspension, was a bruising, bloody divorce -- two warring sides with vastly different accounts of history. At one end, Grier, who says he wanted to remain a Gator, to practice with the scout team, diminished capacity or not. On the other end, Florida and then-head coach Jim McElwain, who said he wanted the same for Will. Still, Grier went missing -- a pariah, he says, of his coach's making.

"He was told from the get-go that he was not allowed around the team," says former Gators kicker Austin Hardin, Grier's best friend and roommate at Florida. "I witnessed it firsthand. Then it was told to the media, for some reason, 'We don't know why he isn't showing up.'

"I was sick to my stomach."

Chad flew down to Gainesville late that fall to meet with his son and McElwain. McElwain hinted that the Griers had demanded a guarantee of Will's playing time once he returned from his suspension; the Griers maintain that they did not ask for a guarantee, just an understanding of how the coach envisioned Will rejoining the team.

He would never rejoin the team. Will met with McElwain once more, a week or two later, this time on his own. Afterward, McElwain said that Grier requested a transfer; Grier says he was told a fresh start was best for all parties. (Asked to comment on Grier's departure, McElwain, who is now the wide receivers coach at Michigan, says, "I think a change of scenery has really helped him. I'm just happy for his success.") Two months earlier, Grier had been starting for the No. 8 team in the country. He thought he was just getting started; now he was starting over.

Which is how Grier found himself in a bathtub in Morgantown two summers ago.

It makes a kind of sense, retreating from the public eye via Twitter cleanse. Just six months before, Will had seen Nash face and atone for a public backlash of his own making: an old Vine in which a 15-year-old Nash used an anti-gay slur that resurfaced in a very public feud with Modern Family actress Ariel Winter. Now a failure in judgment shadowed Will too. And when you live out your worst mistake publicly, for the whole world to see? You might want the world to see a little less the next time.

AS FRESH STARTS go, West Virginia seemed like a promising one.

The Mountaineers would have an opening at quarterback by 2017, when Grier would be eligible to play again. And Grier coveted the chance to play for an offensive tactician like coach Dana Holgorsen. So while other schools showed interest once Grier's transfer from Florida was certain -- among them Ohio State, Miami and South Carolina -- Grier made the call shortly after visiting Morgantown in March 2016.

"I just wanted to play for Dana," he says.

He spent his first season at West Virginia on a forced hiatus, serving out his suspension, and his second exceeding expectations. When Grier broke a finger on his throwing hand in November, ending his season, he had passed for 3,490 yards (No. 4 in the country at the time), 34 TDs and 32 completions for 30-plus yards (both No. 2).

The family descended on Morgantown last year -- his father and stepmother, his brothers, his mother and sister and stepfather -- bringing their 17 million combined Instagram followers with them. When Nash retweeted a West Virginia highlight video of Will lobbing a touchdown bomb, littered in the comments among the typical football-fan swooning were exultations -- I LOVE YOU! -- to Nash. The quarterback at the heart of it all still kept the spotlight at bay, clinging instead to his quiet, sequestered existence. It's part of why after the 2017 season, when he arrived at the NFL crossroads, his decision to spend one more year in West Virginia didn't feel like settling.

Will had been hearing from agents all fall. He had forwarded them all to Chad. "What do you think?" he'd ask his father. And so Chad flew to Morgantown in December to present Will and Jeanne with a 25-slide PowerPoint presentation -- titled "West Virginia vs. NFL: 12/7/2017." Chad presented assessments on his son that he had mined from NFL general managers and scouts. He offered bullet points on the competition at quarterback for the 2018 NFL draft. He laid out financial implications of Will going 42nd in the draft, 30th, ninth. In the end, the consensus among NFL experts to Chad: Will was not a first-round draft pick, at least not yet.

Exactly one week after Will and Jeanne huddled with Chad in their living room, Will announced his decision. He'd return to college for one more year.

"Last year it was all so new," he says. "We feel so much better about everything now."

This summer, unlike last, Ellie is sleeping through the night, and that makes him feel human again. For the first time in his collegiate career, he'll be playing for the same staff for two years in a row -- and man, he loves that staff. Holgorsen brought offensive coordinator Jake Spavital to Morgantown in January 2017 specifically with Grier in mind. Grier is not needy, Holgorsen explains, but he wants to break down film with his coaches and pick apart schemes -- and Spavital would be Holgorsen's best proxy. (Grier and Spavital, a fellow new father, have grown so close that they trade parenting tips.)

"The place I'm in now is great," Grier says. "It makes a lot more sense."

Grier keeps a composition book at home, and he takes notes on the daily habits he wants to focus on. Chief among them: meditating every day. (His practice of choice: NovoTHOR, a full-body light therapy pod, at the stadium for 20 minutes each morning before workouts.) Only in the past year has he discovered the value of mindfulness and guided meditation, and he extols their virtues to anyone who will listen.

Last season, the night before every game, he'd steal away with Mike Brumage, an assistant dean at West Virginia's School of Public Health, to meditate. Though he works with a host of athletes one-on-one, Brumage says that Grier is unique. "I've worked with many players who were very engaged," he says. "There were players that would never miss a session before a game if I were available. But Will has kind of done this on his own, to a degree which I didn't think was possible."

If it was a home game and the weather held, they'd sit outside on a veranda at the team hotel overlooking the Monongahela River. For 20 minutes, Brumage would tell Grier to shut out the outside world and notice his posture, the way his feet connected to the ground beneath him, his breath. He'd walk Grier through the game ahead, the crowd, the elements, the noise, the attention. "It's next-level stuff," Grier says. "Life-changing. I should've done it a long time ago. It would've helped ... everything."

He's banking on that. After the upheaval at Florida in 2015, then the foreignness of West Virginia in 2016 and the whirlwind -- new baby, revitalized career -- that followed in 2017, he finally feels grounded.

But if all goes well, his world will continue to change this fall.

"I've never put expectations on a guy like I'm putting on him," Holgorsen says.

Sitting in his office, Holgorsen shrugs, then points to the nine photographs he has mounted over his mahogany desk. These are his prized nine guys, the players he's circled to carry this team in 2018. But one picture, hanging dead center, is slightly bigger than its counterparts. It's of Grier, suspended in midair, hurdling a Virginia Tech defender. Holgorsen's disheveled vibe -- a wispy comb-over and scratchy twang -- belies the calculus of his decor. "You tend not to make the wall" -- let alone the spot of honor -- "if you're a s---head," he says.

It's why Holgorsen is comfortable authorizing a full-throttled media blitz for Grier's Heisman campaign, a proactive push the coach has never greenlighted before. West Virginia unleashed online the "seven pillars of Will Grier" -- touting heady attributes like "the will to prepare," "the will to love," "the will to finish." (The one thing Grier is neurotic about is the number seven. He's "not superstitious, just a little 'stitious,' " as Chad says -- enough to set every alarm so that the digits add up, or subtract, to seven.)

Holgorsen believes that the Mountaineers, who finished 7 -- 6 last year, would have been 8 -- 4 with a "better bowl game" had Grier been healthy the whole season and 4 -- 8 without him entirely. His teammates believe too: When Grier opted to return for his senior season, his two most prolific pass catchers, David Sills and Gary Jennings, joined him. Analytics experts are falling in line: He is Pro Football Focus' highest-graded returning quarterback (91.7). And the NFL's scoutarazzi are flocking. Grier is Mel Kiper Jr.'s second-ranked quarterback for 2018, behind Missouri's Drew Lock, and another league scout projects him as a mid-first-round draft pick, with a good chance to rise higher.

"He's not a guy who's going to wow you with his athleticism," the scout says. "But he will probably be a solid starter."

Grier is a 20-1 preseason favorite to win the Heisman, and college football's brand names -- the Baker Mayfields and the Saquon Barkleys and the Josh Rosens -- are gone. The sport's spotlight is there, so why not Facebook the highlight videos and Tweet-storm the stats, figures Holgorsen. Hell, build a whole damn website to promote the guy. Will Grier, reluctant star, might not blast himself into the social media stratosphere. But the maelstrom of celebrity savants around him, and their millions of minions, sure will.

WILL GRIER IS on a small boat on a stormy sea when a violent wave crests overhead. The current is rough, and it rocks him. It's loud, and water is spraying everywhere. He's both deafened and blinded by the chaos. But he knows if he can just maneuver his boat 50 feet farther, he'll find calm waters. Relief from this turmoil. A break from the storm.

He snaps himself out of it.

He had been visualizing "Under the Wave off Kanagawa." It's a famous woodblock print by the Japanese artist Hokusai, and it depicts a menacing wave threatening to swallow whole the boats in its path. Brumage sent Grier a snapshot of The Great Wave because it's summer now, just a few months before the 2018 season, and Grier will soon face his own storm. In small ways, that fervor has already arrived: in the double takes Jeanne senses in the checkout line in Target; in the drivers who deliver takeout dinners to the Griers' home and then request a photograph with Will; in the Mountaineers fans who camp out at the Pittsburgh airport all day, knowing Grier will arrive soon, in the hopes of getting his autograph. Morgantown is a little less secluded these days.

The season looms, beginning with the season opener back home in North Carolina, where all of this -- the family, the football and the fame -- started. Grier's great wave begins with Tennessee in Week 1.

Perhaps later there will be a Heisman run. Maybe a draft push after that. Grier knows the danger of being swamped by the chaos, so he refocuses on this image and the guided meditation Brumage provided: There is always a path to peace.