The education of Tony Grimes: How a would-be high school senior found a fit at UNC

Tony Grimes skipped his senior year of high school to enroll early at North Carolina last season, emerging as a breakout star after a bumpy start. AP Photo/Gerry Broome

IN NORMAL TIMES, Tony Grimes exudes a boisterous, outgoing personality. His dad, Deon Glover, operates a fleet of ferry boats that shuttle passengers between Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia, and Grimes and his twin brother, Tino, grew up working customer service, taking tickets and chatting up customers. Grimes' dad knows everyone, and by extension, Grimes did, too.

Even as a kid, Grimes was unmistakably confident, working on defensive back drills against NFL players when he was a sophomore in high school, talking smack the whole way. His Twitter handle, created when he was 15, is @757EliteDB. He's from "the 757" -- Virginia Beach, home to Michael Vick, Allen Iverson, Dre Bly and a host of other immense talents -- and Grimes, even at 15, was the elite defensive back.

But last fall, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, hardly represented normal times. After the state announced it was scrapping the high school football season due to the virus, Grimes, a five-star prospect, decided he would skip his senior year to enroll early at North Carolina. He trained all summer, took online classes to complete his degree, and in a flash, he was in uncharted waters.

Critics figured Grimes, who turned 18 in April 2020, wasn't mature enough to make the leap to college so suddenly. Heck, even at North Carolina, where Grimes represented the apex of coach Mack Brown's recruiting success, it seemed a far-fetched plan. While Ohio State's Quinn Ewers hopes to make the same jump this season, partly to cash in on new name, image and likeness rules, Grimes' decision to skip his senior season was virtually unheard of.

"I didn't want to take him," Brown said. "I thought it was too much pressure on him. I didn't want him missing his senior year. I didn't like any of it."

Try telling that to @757EliteDB.

A few weeks before departing for UNC, he pulled a prank on his parents, convincing them he had been arrested for shoplifting by using a Google voice app to mimic a collect call from jail. The punchline, in Grimes' mind, came when Glover shouted to his wife, Cynthia, "He's not ready! He's not ready!" It was a fitting satire of all the doubters, Grimes thought.

Then Deon and Cynthia dropped their boy off at North Carolina on a muggy August morning in 2020, and suddenly it didn't seem so funny anymore. Grimes lay in bed in his dorm on his first night in Chapel Hill, alone for perhaps the first time in his life, and the enormity of his decision hit him.

By year's end, Grimes was dominating at the Orange Bowl -- "not my complete swag, but I had swag," he said. At the start, the hotshot from "the 757" was just an overwhelmed freshman on a rebuilding team in a town where he knew no one, amid a global pandemic. Before he could regain the bravado that had made him a high school phenom, he'd need to face down a reality far more difficult than he'd imagined.

"I'm here by myself," he thought. "I can't go anywhere. My parents left. I have to wake up in the morning and go to practice. This all happened ... fast."

THE FIRST PRACTICE was misery. Ask Bly, now North Carolina's DBs coach, about Grimes' early efforts, and he'll jump from his seat and launch into a cartoonish impression -- hands on hips, knees bent, eyes wide, head wagging side to side. Coaches barked orders, and Grimes nodded in acknowledgement without understanding a word, too overwhelmed to process advice from the sideline. Receivers moved at hyper speed, and Grimes' feet seemed stuck in Carolina tar.

"I got tortured to the point where I didn't win one rep," Grimes said. "Dyami [Brown] and Dazz [Newsome] were catching every ball on me. I was looking at myself like, 'Oh, maybe I am a bust.'"

Grimes had no close friends on the team. He had bonded with recruits in the 2021 class, but those guys were still a year away from joining him in Chapel Hill. Grimes assumed teammates would peg him as the hyped recruit who thought he was good enough to skip a year of high school, and he didn't want that to become the narrative. Instead, he leaned too far in the other direction.

"I didn't want to go in there cocky or, oh, he's a five star," he said, "and I got locked into that."

At workouts, he snapped headphones over his ears, threw his bag in the corner and went to work without saying a word. Grimes remembers walking home to his dorm and every few days, one of the veteran cornerbacks would drive past, slow down and ask the freshman if he wanted a ride.

"Nah," Grimes said each time. "I'm good."

Then he'd put his headphones back on and trudge home alone.

There was little opportunity for socialization amid COVID-19 protocols, anyway. In his dorm at night, Grimes devoured the playbook. He had it down pat in just a few weeks, according to Bly. He'd get up early and head to the weight room for workouts. He had always been "the first guy in the building" going back to high school, and Brown even called Glover one day to rave about how much time Grimes put into preparation. But there was more to it. Grimes liked getting in early because he could work alone, and the preparation was something that felt normal.

The work began to pay off. He made a few plays, but only strength coach Brian Hess seemed to notice. If Grimes batted away a pass, he'd hear Hess roar from the sideline, "He's only 15! He's supposed to be in high school!" He was 18, of course, but that wasn't the point. Even when he won a drill, he was still the high school kid on a field with grown men.

Eventually the frustration boiled over. Grimes picked up the phone and called home: "Dad, I need to see you guys. Can you come?"

Then Grimes knocked on Bly's office door and informed his position coach of his decision. Six weeks earlier, he had made a joke of his father's reaction to that prank call. Now, he was ready to admit Glover was right.

He wasn't ready, he told Bly. He asked to redshirt.

IN CHAPEL HILL, Bly was the only true tie to home. Another hotshot defensive back from "the 757," Bly was a one-time star recruit, a college football Hall of Famer and a Super Bowl champion. Growing up, Grimes played on a field named after Bly. Grimes was in grade school when Bly last played in the NFL, but he said he'd still pop in old Madden video games just so he could play as Bly.

Grimes was a star recruit from an early age, getting his first offer from Virginia Tech in the eighth grade. By his sophomore year, he had offers in hand from Ohio State and Alabama. He was busy drawing up his official top-15 list while eating lunch on a visit to Texas A&M in 2020 when he got a call from Bly. UNC was rebuilding, Bly admitted, but Grimes could be the pivot point -- the recruit who changed the Tar Heels' trajectory.

Grimes hung up and stared at the names of the schools he had typed out.

"I figured, I'd just make it a top-16 list," Grimes said.

Now, with Grimes' hero as his position coach, it was something of a mixed blessing.

Bly was a legend, first in Virginia Beach as a high school star, then at North Carolina, where he was an All-American. But what sticks with Bly, years after his playing career ended, is that he might have done even more if he had been just a bit more focused, more committed. It serves as a lesson in how he wants to bring along this next future star from "the 757."

"I never let him know he arrived," Bly said. "If he made a nice breakup on a play, I said he should've intercepted the ball. Like, 'Homeboy, I had 13 of them my freshman year.'"

Bly saw something special in Grimes -- a rare mix of elite talent and a strong work ethic -- and he wasn't going to let him leave an ounce of potential untapped.

"What's the point of all this hype if you don't fulfill your obligation?" Bly said. "To me, there's an obligation that comes with being a five-star. There's an obligation that comes with being Tony Grimes. It's my job to help him fulfill his obligation."

Grimes didn't know it at the time, but after that first miserable practice, Bly called Deon in Virginia Beach.

"Your son will be starting by November," he said.

Grimes had looked lost and defeated, and it was still obvious to Bly that he could ball. Weeks later, Bly's belief had only grown stronger. Grimes wasn't going to redshirt. He was going to play, start, become a star.

But he didn't tell Grimes that either. Instead, when Grimes came to his office ready to give up on the season, Bly simply said, "You're going to be fine."

It was as if a veil was lifted.

"I thought, 'He's right,'" Grimes said. "Lock in, relax and let's get this money."

Deon and Cynthia visited Chapel Hill soon after. When they arrived, they didn't find the homesick kid desperate for a lifeline back to his old existence. They found Tony Grimes, the budding college football star.

GRIMES WAS IN eighth grade when he first met trainer Giavanni Ruffin, a former East Carolina standout who returned to his hometown of Virginia Beach and opened a gym that catered to dozens of high-profile athletes. Glover connected the pair, seeing a potential match between Grimes' determination and Ruffin's grueling TNDO -- "Take No Days Off" -- training program. Grimes made a quick impression.

"He told me he wanted to be great," Ruffin said. "And I told him it was going to take work."

The first session lasted well into the night. Grimes had always followed a typical conditioning routine of weight lifting and cardio training, but Ruffin had balance drills and mobility exercises, boxing, pushing sleds to develop explosiveness -- stuff Grimes had never seen before. It ended with Grimes tugging a rope tied to a car down the narrow street that ran through the business park outside Ruffin's gym, Grimes vomiting onto the asphalt the whole way.

"The next day, I woke up thinking, 'I don't want to go,'" Grimes said. "Then I said, 'No, you want to be great, the way people are talking about you, you've got to lock in.'"

Ruffin snapped a photo of his new pupil, doubled over and vomiting. He posted it to his Instagram page, partly to serve notice to others that his routine pushed athletes to their limits, partly to announce to the world what Grimes had told him a few hours before: This guy is going to be great.

"I put him through hell," Ruffin said, "and he kept fighting, kept coming back and wanting more."

That's what Tar Heels defensive coordinator Jay Bateman was waiting to see out on the practice fields at UNC. By midseason, Grimes had started to win his share of battles against quarterback Sam Howell and the Tar Heels offense, but Bateman was wary of giving him more than he could handle. He had seen early failure ruin careers, and Grimes was too precious a commodity to risk until the coaches were absolutely certain he was ready.

The moment arrived in early November during a passing drill in practice. Receivers coach Lonnie Galloway wanted the corners to play off the line, giving Brown, Newsome and the other wideouts some space to run. One by one, the veteran DBs failed to corral Carolina's receivers. Finally it was Grimes' turn. The receiver went in motion, then turned upfield. Grimes grabbed him and knocked him to the ground. On the sideline, teammates went wild -- offense yelling at defense, defense whooping and hollering, "Do it again!"

So they lined up again. This time, the receiver tried to use Grimes' aggressiveness against him, running a vertical route he thought would leave the freshman in his dust. Instead, Grimes covered him like a blanket and knocked the ball away.

Bateman looked at Bly and grinned.

"I think he's ready," he said.

A week later, UNC was down big to Wake Forest, and the Tar Heels' defense looked like a mess. Bateman figured it was time to see what Grimes could do.

Grimes played 26 snaps in the second half -- all but five of them in coverage -- and allowed just a single completion for nine yards. Before Grimes took the field, Wake Forest had completed 73% of its throws, averaging 11 yards per pass play. After Grimes entered, the Deacons completed only 8-of-16 throws -- just 3.5 yards per dropback -- and UNC erased a 14-point deficit to win 59-53.

"We put him in," Bateman said, "and from that point, I think he played every snap the rest of the way."

AS A HIGH SCHOOL PROSPECT, Grimes' talent was so immense his trainers refused to let him work against athletes his own age. He'd run drills against college stars and NFL receivers when he was 15 and 16. Aaron Johnson, Grimes' DB trainer in Virginia Beach, remembers sending Grimes out to cover Arizona Cardinals receiver Greg Dortch during one workout, earning a derisive laugh from the NFL speedster. The first throw, Grimes draped himself on Dortch, broke quickly on the ball and knocked it away. Dortch fumed.

"I shouldn't be out here with him," Dortch yelled, refusing to match up with the teen again. "He's in high school."

It was a common refrain. Older receivers got beat and got mad, then ultimately became believers.

"Afterward, Dortch is like, 'OK, that guy's pretty good,'" Johnson recalled. "You watch him play, and you realize he's going to play on Sundays. And then those guys start giving him pointers because they know he's going to be the next big thing."

So, no, Grimes wasn't intimidated by his first college start, a top-10 showdown at Notre Dame on Nov. 27. What he felt, maybe for the first time since he'd gotten to North Carolina, was a belief that he unquestionably belonged on that field.

On the other sideline, Notre Dame thought it had a chance to pick on the freshman, who should have been back in Virginia Beach prepping for midterms. Irish quarterback Ian Book attacked Grimes' side of the field early. It reminded Grimes of all those NFL guys he had shown up when he was 16.

"The whole week I was thinking, I'm ready," Grimes said. "They don't know what I can do. They don't know what they're about to experience. Just locking in and thinking, 'I'm a beast.'"

North Carolina lost the game, a 31-17 offensive slog, but Grimes held his own, surrendering just 19 yards of offense over 33 snaps in coverage. There was one ball, an out route that Book thought he could loft over the freshman DB, that Grimes swatted away, his arm seeming to stretch to some impossible length.

Two weeks later, Grimes picked off his first pass during a blowout win against Miami to wrap the regular season. While many of UNC's biggest stars opted out of the Orange Bowl, Grimes used the stage as something of a star turn. He didn't allow a completion over 61 snaps, breaking up two passes and adding a sack of Texas A&M's Kellen Mond to complete the performance.

"Those are the moments Tony's looking for," UNC safety Trey Morrison said. "Those are the moments he's been working for his whole life."

LONG BEFORE UNC, Grimes understood the obligation, as Bly later described it, to live up to expectations. His step-brother, Aaron Glover, was a local football star, too. He went on to play college ball at Liberty, flashed NFL-caliber talent, then had a child and his priorities shifted away from football. Deon and Cynthia always made sure Grimes remembered the story, a fable about the precarious nature of potential.

"I told my parents, 'I got this. No matter what, we're going to be good,'" Grimes said. "And I hold that on my shoulders. That means something to me that, no matter what, I'm going to make it."

Grimes has a mantra he has now emblazoned on T-shirts he's selling after the NCAA lifted restrictions on name, image and likeness this summer: "Be Great Today." It's a nice sentiment, though it doesn't seem to fit Grimes, who has always had a clear focus on the big picture. He took extra classes as a high school freshman, never realizing he'd need to make the leap to college early. He trained to the point of exhaustion, knowing he'd be glad to do it all again the next day. He worked drills against NFL receivers, because he wanted to play in the NFL, too. He's always seen a bigger picture. He looked ahead to a future only he can fully visualize; then he willed it into existence.

After his rocky start at UNC, Grimes bulked up in the weight room this offseason, adding close to 20 pounds to his frame, and he is back to his old self, joyous and playful and perhaps a bit more mature.

Grimes loved practical jokes, and he tormented his parents with them for years, like when he downloaded an app on his dad's new 75-inch TV that made the screen appear cracked, or when he broke the living room couch doing a swan dive onto it, part of a joke about rival Duke he recorded for his TikTok account. But Grimes said he's given those jokes up, too. He wants to let his personality show in more adult ways, he said.

The headphones aren't required attire anymore either. In the locker room, he's jovial and outgoing, though he still gets to the gym early and doesn't mind being the only one in the weight room. He has found his niche in the locker room, too. He's a social person, he said, and now he has found his pack. This offseason, Grimes was voted onto North Carolina's leadership council, a sign of how far he's come in building bonds with teammates.

This looks far more like the vision Grimes had for his year at UNC, but it's not his ultimate destination.

"We most definitely can win a national title," Grimes said on the day he committed to North Carolina. "And we will. Before I leave, we will be winning a natty."

It's easy to shrug off as a bit of youthful exuberance. North Carolina hasn't finished in the top 10 in Grimes' lifetime. Grimes sees it differently.

"We talk about our dreams because I feel like you can speak it into existence," he said. "Sometimes, what you say, that's how things are going to end.

"They may think we're overrated, but we're going to shock people. We're going to win a natty. I can see it."