At the age of 9, Jeremy Grove found a friend and a hero. Two years later that friend was gone, but the memory lives on and drives Grove to fulfill a promise to himself.
When Grove was 9, Billy Gaines played receiver for Urbana High School in Ijamsville, Md. His team was coming off a state championship, and Gaines was the Hawks' MVP. Grove was the MVP of his youth team.
"I already knew him a little bit, but I wrote him a letter and he wrote me back two days later. That tells you something about a 16, 17-year-old kid. He's got a little kid writing him and he writes me back," Grove said. "He would come watch my wrestling matches and my sporting events. He was sort of like an older brother. He was like my hero."
Gaines was a two-time Maryland consensus all-state selection as a wide receiver. During his career at Urbana, Gaines made 116 receptions for 1,983 yards and 34 touchdowns. Gaines was a member of the Urbana teams that won 50 straight games and four consecutive state championships.
Two years after befriending Grove, Gaines died after his freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh when he fell 25 feet from a church rafter, according to an Associated Press story.
"He was only 5-7, 170 pounds, but if you look up on Urbana's weight-room [wall] he's got a 635-pound squat, a 315 clean -- he ran a 4.2 [40-yard dash]. You know right there that it didn't come easy for him -- he worked hard," Grove said. "After he passed away, I told myself 'I'm going to play Division I.' I didn't want to disappoint him."
Grove, who plays linebacker for Thomas Johnson High School (Frederick, Md.), got one step closer to achieving his goal when East Carolina extended a scholarship: his first offer.
"It feels like the world is off my chest now -- I feel like I can breathe," Grove said of the scholarship.
Grove has been a varsity starter for the past two seasons. He attended Urbana as a sophomore and was one of the team's leading tacklers.
A transfer to Thomas Johnson last year, Grove paired with linebacker Nick Forbes last season and was second on the team in tackles.
"He's just a real hard worker. He probably works as hard as any kid we've had," Thomas Johnson head coach Ben Wright said. "The kids respect that. He was hurt last year -- a high ankle sprain -- but he just played through it. The kids really respect that."
"We [Grove and Forbes] always compete to get better," Grove added. "In the weight room, in the gym, when we're running -- we're always pushing each other. For me, Nick has all those offers so he's been pushing me because I know if I can get to his level I know I can get a couple offers. He's really pushed me a lot. When I was coming in he was faster than me, but competing with him I've really caught up. He's made me a better player."
Forbes holds more than 10 offers from major colleges.
Now that he is no longer the newest addition to the Patriots' football team, Grove is working on becoming a more vocal leader and setting an example for the rest of the team.
Teammate Marquis Woodyard echoes Wright's statement, adding that Grove and Forbes are always working out and the rest of the team has noticed that dedication and are working to emulate them.
For the past seven years Grove has worked to put himself in a position to earn a college scholarship and play football. Now that vow he made to himself as an 11-year-old after his friend and mentor died is within reach, but that doesn't mean the hard work will end any time soon.
"Seeing Zack Mills go to Penn State and Billy Gaines go to Pittsburgh -- I wanted to be that guy someday," Grove said. "I've always wanted to do it [play football in college]. I've always trained for it. [Even without] an offer I was working my butt off. I still am -- it doesn't mean it's done. Now I have a chance to play. When I'm a freshman in college I want to play and have a chance to compete."
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Mike Loveday covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com. Mike can be reached at Michael.Loveday@espn.com