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Garrett Grayson's grit swayed Saints

METAIRIE, La. -- When the New Orleans Saints visited Fort Collins, Colorado, to hold a private workout with quarterback Garrett Grayson just three days before the draft, they also wanted to do a little film study with him. So they cued up his game at Boston College from last September.

That one game essentially told the entire story of Grayson's turbulent but resilient career at Colorado State.

It began with two interceptions in the first quarter and a big hit that resulted in an injury to his throwing shoulder. It ended with a game-winning, 12-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-10 with just over a minute remaining -- to Grayson's fifth option in the progression.

"You probably run that play 50 times, there may be once that you're gonna get to that part of it," former Colorado State and current Florida head coach Jim McElwain said. "I mean, it was the 'go to the bathroom' route.

"I think that speaks volumes. For him to keep his poise and to be able to find that was something. That's kind of when it hits you and you say, 'This guy gets it.'"

Grayson rolled to his right on the play to buy time when he saw that Boston College had flooded the left side of the field with coverage. Grayson was surprised to find that receiver Charles Lovett was left uncovered when he looked to the back of the end zone. So he delivered a pass near the sideline that gave Lovett just enough room to tap his toes down.

"Game. Set. Match. I love this play!" ESPN analyst Jon Gruden marveled when he reviewed the play with Grayson during their pre-draft taping of a "QB Camp" special. "You threw the dead route to beat Boston College. That's awesome."

Gruden then added the words, "Changing the culture."

The play was bigger than just one moment or one game. It was, indeed, a culture-changing victory on the road against a top-tier opponent from a major conference.

Colorado State had won a total of seven games in Grayson's first two seasons -- the second of which was derailed by a broken collarbone -- which led to a coaching change and McElwain's arrival. Then the Rams went 8-6 in Grayson's junior year and started 2-1 in his senior year, including a loss at Boise State.

The win at Boston College helped ignite a nine-game win streak and a 10-3 finish.

"That's probably my favorite game through my whole career," Grayson said this past weekend during a break between practices at the Saints' rookie minicamp. "Because I threw two picks in the first quarter, we were down 14-0 and then we came back, battled back.

"We needed a touchdown to win it, fourth-and-(10), a minute left in the game. It doesn't get any better than that."

Coach Sean Payton said the Saints reviewed every game Grayson played in college. But they broke down that particular game with him because it contained the lows before the highs.

"You want to see how they handle some adversity," Payton said.

Clearly, the Saints liked what they saw.

They drafted Grayson in the third round, with the 75th pick -- the first time Payton has selected a quarterback before the seventh round and the earliest the Saints have taken one in the standard draft since Archie Manning in 1971.

Because longtime starter Drew Brees is still just 36 years old, the Saints weren't in desperate need of a quarterback. But they did take a more thorough look than usual at this year's class, holding private workouts for multiple mid-round prospects. Payton said the Saints reached the conclusion that one -- and only one -- was worth selecting that high.

"For us, there wasn't more than one. This was the player if he was available," Payton said after the draft. "If not, we probably would have went without drafting a quarterback."

Handling adversity wasn't always one of Grayson's strengths.

He readily admits that he failed in that area the first time he faced major obstacles as a young college quarterback. Grayson broke the collarbone in his non-throwing shoulder five games into his sophomore year in 2012, then re-injured it later that year when he tried to come back too early. The plate that had been inserted in the collarbone shifted out of place.

Grayson said he became depressed for a long time afterward, that he couldn't handle watching practices and standing on the sideline without being able to play. And he decided to get away from the team for a while -- a decision he later regretted.

"I came back and I apologized to all my teammates because I didn't feel like I handled that whole process the right way," Grayson said. "I just wasn't there as much as I should have been. As a quarterback, you should always be a guy you can count on and be there for your teammates.

"That was something that was kind of like a stab in the heart. It just hurts when you can kind of see it in your teammates' eyes that you're letting them down."

Grayson also got down on himself when he struggled on the field during an 0-2 start to the 2013 season. He blamed himself for the losses as the frustration built. He later credited extra film study with McElwain and offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin for getting him on the right track.

Now, Grayson credits both of those rough patches for helping to shape him.

"It hasn't been all glory," Grayson said. "There's definitely the tough times, and it made me who I am."

Grayson has a tattoo on his chest with one of his father's favorite quotes: "Don't ever leave somewhere saying you could have done more."

"And I think I've done a good job of it," Grayson told Gruden during their "QB Camp" conversation.

Lovett -- the receiver who reeled in that culture-changing touchdown catch -- agrees.

Lovett, who was also in Saints camp for a tryout this past weekend, said Grayson's apology in the spring of 2013 meant a lot to others on the team -- but that they also understood how tough the injuries were on Grayson and "let him know that we were behind him 100 percent."

"He came back with more confidence and more strength in that arm, and it sort of led him to where he was today. It was negative energy that fueled the positive fire," said Lovett, who said Grayson stands out for his "good heart" as much as being a great athlete.

Along with the 18 victories, Grayson posted gaudy numbers over his final two college seasons: 7,702 yards, 55 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.

"You're getting not only a really, really good player, but a guy who just loves the game," McElwain said. "He's competitive, he's tough. I mean, this guy took some beatings now and never flinched. I just can't say enough good things about him."

The Saints are also getting a lifelong "underdog," as Grayson described himself.

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound quarterback had a prolific career at Heritage High School in Vancouver, Washington. But he was still lightly recruited. Washington State wanted him to play safety.

Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe reportedly liked Grayson but didn't have an opening, so he recommended him to former Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild. Even then, Grayson was grayshirted as a freshman, delaying his enrollment until January 2011.

So Grayson went to live with his sister who was teaching at -- of all places -- Brees' alma mater, Westlake High School in Austin, Texas. While Grayson was in Austin, his high school coach arranged for him to spend the fall working with former NFL and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Ty Detmer while volunteering to help coach Detmer's high school team.

"When he came in, I was kind of like: 'Man, this guy's got all the tools. I'd like to see what Colorado State has on their team right now,'" Detmer said. "I was kind of shocked a little bit that he wasn't already playing for somebody."

One thing they worked on was transitioning from the spread offense Grayson ran in high school to taking snaps under center in Colorado State's pro-style offense.

"He did some five- and seven-step drops, things he hadn't done, some different kinds of throws. But, shoot, he made every one of them and made it look pretty easy," Detmer said.

The harder transition in his early years at Colorado State, Grayson and McElwain both said, was learning not to go for the "home run" all the time. Grayson said that was a habit from his old days in the spread, and he learned to realize that sometimes the 2-yard pass was the best play.

"And then the other thing, I think he did a good job of studying what color jersey we were wearing that given week and throwing to that color jersey," McElwain cracked of Grayson's early struggles with turnovers.

Ultimately, Grayson's mastery of the pro-style offense became one of the reasons why he was the third quarterback taken in this year's draft class, behind only the top-two picks, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. Pro-style quarterbacks have become rare in the spread-heavy college game.

McElwain said Grayson had a great ability to do things like adjust protections, make run-pass play calls at the line of scrimmage and exploit the "hot read" when he saw a blitz coming.

Gruden, who called Grayson the "sleeper" of the draft and the best chance to slip through the cracks like Russell Wilson did three years ago, marveled at Grayson's recall. Gruden said they "covered four hours of film in an hour."

It's not surprising, then, that Payton became so drawn to Grayson. Payton and Gruden are close friends who used to work together and grew up in the same West Coast-style offense.

Payton said Grayson's size, stature and accuracy were all pluses. But along with those position-specific traits, the Saints look at things like: "Is he a guy that competes? Is he tough? How is he when the team's behind? How does he handle [defensive] pressure?"

"Throughout the process," Payton said, "we saw a number of things that we valued."