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From Prosperity To Chaos: James Grisom leaves Cal football after losing scholarship and facing unexpected financial troubles

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Summer Managing Editor

SEPTEMBER 05, 2014

Nearly one year ago, wide receiver James Grisom beamed as head coach Sonny Dykes announced, in a meeting with the entire Cal football team, that the former walk-on had earned a scholarship.

A year later, Grisom is no longer on the team.

An email, sent June 25, notified him his scholarship would not be renewed for the 2014-15 season. It was the first time Grisom heard that he wouldn’t have a scholarship for the upcoming season, and it was also the first time Grisom learned scholarships weren’t permanent — that they could potentially only last for one season.

“I thought, ‘What’s going on? Am I getting my scholarship taken away or something?’ ” Grisom says. “I didn’t even know.”

“I haven’t played any music in two weeks,” Grisom says. “I even put my keyboard away.”

He still planned to remain on the team without a scholarship. But a month later, he was blindsided again, this punch to his gut landing even harder than the first. As the result of an administrative mess-up — unrelated to the decision not to renew the scholarship — he’d been given both athletic aid and his normal need-based aid, exceeding the budget set for him by the school and therefore violating federal regulations. In late July, he learned the financial aid office needed the money back — about $11,000 — by Sept. 15. If he didn’t pay it, he couldn’t go to school, couldn’t get his degree.

Prosperity spiraled into chaos for Grisom, who had just finished one of the best years of his life in May. Formerly a walk-on — one who secured a roster spot via a tryout for students at the university — Grisom’s play in the 2013 spring camp impressed Dykes and wide receivers coach Rob Likens. Dykes made the scholarship announcement as the team geared up to head into fall camp in 2013. Grisom worked his way into the receiving rotation and almost immediately demonstrated a knack for the big play, scoring touchdowns in three straight games near the start of the season.

The scholarship also allowed Grisom a bit of breathing room in an otherwise hectic existence. Prior to receiving the scholarship, he worked two jobs, stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m. most nights in order to finish his homework and woke three hours later to race to football practice on time. A scholarship gifted him some much-needed financial stability, granting him free time for the first time in his college career. It allowed him to more ardently pursue his other passion, music composition — Grisom even linked up with a documentary filmmaker, composing the music for her movie.

That cushion vanished almost instantaneously this summer, and now Grisom is back to a breakneck pace, only getting one hour of sleep some nights. The pressure of remaining financially afloat prompted Grisom to leave the Cal football team.

“I haven’t played any music in two weeks,” Grisom says. “I even put my keyboard away.”

“It’s too many things to think about at once. What can I control, man?”

The email from Rachelle Feldman, assistant vice chancellor and director of financial aid, began: “Dear James A. Grisom: This letter is to advise you that upon the recommendation of the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics at the University of California at Berkeley, your athletic aid will not be renewed for the 2014-2015 academic year.” Linked at the bottom of the email was a document outlining the appeal policy for athletic scholarships.

Initially, Grisom didn’t even think to be angry. Confusion superseded rage — it just didn’t make sense. He was under the impression the scholarship would continue until his Cal career ended. This email said the scholarship was ending.

“I don’t really know how scholarships work, honestly,” Grisom says. “So I didn’t really know that.”

It’s a mistake that’s easy to make. Colloquially, a football scholarship is known as a “full ride,” meaning the athlete receives a free trip through college until either a degree is earned or the player leaves for a professional league.

It’s not widely publicized, but the NCAA grants schools the option to either give a four-year guarantee to their full-scholarship athletes or give a scholarship on a one-year renewal basis, meaning technically, the coaches can revoke a scholarship at any point before July 1 pending a sign-off from an athletic department supervisor.

According to associate athletic director and head of compliance Chris Stivers — whose office ensures Cal’s athletic teams comply with NCAA regulations — every Cal football player is signed to a one-year renewable scholarship.

Rarely does this actually matter in practice. Technically, however, coaches still retain the right to revoke scholarships for performance-related issues. According to Stivers, this almost never occurs at Cal.

“At Cal, generally, no, we do not revoke scholarships on the basis of performance,” Stivers said. “If it’s somebody who’s not as good as the coach thought they were going to be, we make the coach live with it. That’s why we feel we don’t even need to give four-year scholarships. If the student’s not having major conduct issues, it will be renewed.”

Grisom stated the coaches never approached him with issues about his behavior or for having a lackluster work ethic.

He says he met with wide receiver coach Rob Likens, who was stunned Grisom hadn’t been informed prior to receiving the email. Grisom later talked with Dykes, who informed him the plan was always to opt out of renewing after one year, and that it was never planned on to extend past that year. This was news to Grisom — Dykes never communicated this information to him.

“Football is a mental game for me,” Grisom says. “I wasn’t going to be in the right mindset if I had appealed.”

“If it was a one-year deal, then he should have been told that,” says his mother, Geanette. “We never had a clue of that. We were planning for another great season.”

When asked for comment, Dykes issued the following written statement on the question of the decision not to renew Grisom’s scholarship: “One of the best things I have the opportunity to do as a head coach is reward a deserving student-athlete with an athletic scholarship and we’ve been able to do that 13 times in the 21 months that I have been at Cal. It is always a big day not only for the scholarship recipient but also to their teammates who see hard work put in both on and off the field rewarded.

Photo: Michael Drummond/Senior Staff
Photo: Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

“We value the contributions of every member of our team and any time we have available scholarships we award them to deserving student-athletes, but we also are limited to 85 scholarships and must manage those accordingly.”

Distraught but not deterred, Grisom vowed to remain with the team. Sans scholarship, he needed a way to pay for not just tuition, but housing, food and books, all of which would have been covered by a full NCAA athletic scholarship. Sticking with the Cal football team was worth it, though, to remain with a group of guys with whom he’d grown extremely close and to keep playing the sport he loved.

He was torn between two competing narratives: one side of his life, his close friends with no association to the football team, telling him the team had “played him,” and the other side, his coaches, telling him it was a simple miscommunication.

Upset and conflicted, Grisom wanted to do something, anything. He pulled up that email and scrolled to the bottom, the scholarship appeal form loading slowly onto his computer screen.

“I had all the paperwork ready to appeal,” Grisom says. “I was really upset.”

He understood the risks. Even if the appeal was successful, Grisom knew his relationship with the coaches could change irreconcilably. Perhaps, even, his relationship with some teammates.

On a Monday in July, Grisom found himself among teammates in workouts, laughing and lifting, calm on the outside but unsettled on the inside. As soon as the workout session ended, Grisom planned on walking straight to the financial aid office to submit the appeal forms.

It was nearing the end of the workout. The weight room began to clear out, until it was just Grisom and a couple of teammates. To Grisom’s surprise, Likens walked in, something that hardly ever happened during Monday workouts.

Likens approached Grisom, and the two exchanged small talk. Grisom remained surface-level in his conversation with Likens, claiming everything was fine, even though he knew he wasn’t being completely genuine. Afterward, Grisom felt bad for acting artificially toward Likens, so after practice he walked up to the coaches’ office, where he revealed he was minutes away from appealing the scholarship decision.

Likens was surprised. They ended up talking for two hours about football and some of the most personal aspects of Grisom’s life. Likens’ palpable empathy toward him renewed Grisom’s faith in the team. He felt Likens truly cared about him as a person. He decided not to appeal, thinking the decision to do so would’ve made things “ugly.”

“Football is a mental game for me,” Grisom says. “I wasn’t going to be in the right mindset if I had appealed.”

He spent the rest of the summer working out with the team, thinking of ways to stay financially stable and mentally gearing up for what he figured would be a special season.

“I made some plays and I also made some mistakes, but I did it already,” Grisom says. “I got it all out. This would’ve been my year to blossom.”

One week before the start of fall camp, everything fell apart.

Losing the scholarship hurt financially, but Grisom resolved to figure out a way to make it all work. He’d done it before, after all.

But then the financial aid office notified him just before the start of football season that the $11,000 — a product of an overpay in financial aid he heard about a few months earlier — couldn’t be paid in loans; they needed it immediately, and it became too much of a burden. He knew he needed to leave the team. Football, days ago one of his life’s greatest priorities, was the furthest thing from his mind.

“The systems didn’t talk to each other, and we found out about it late.”

– Rachelle Feldman, assistant vice chancellor and director of financial aid

“Now, I probably gotta take on two jobs,” Grisom says. “And pay for rent, books, housing — all that stuff. And also pay this $11,000?”

The $11,000 is a bit of a complicated issue. Every student not on athletic scholarship is eligible for financial aid based on their expressed financial need. The amount of need-based aid can range from zero to thousands of dollars, resembling an athletic scholarship.

For students with significant-enough need, the aid given doesn’t just cover tuition, but also portions of their living expenses including room, board and books. The money is provided in a check at the start of each semester. The same applies for athletic scholarships — the athletes on full scholarships, which is every Cal football player with a scholarship, receive a monthly check to cover their expenses.

Federal regulations stipulate that students cannot receive aid above their budgeted amount, determined by the campus financial aid office. In the fall of 2013, the financial aid office made an administrative error: Their systems failed to register that Grisom and a handful of other athletes were receiving both need-based and athletic aid in excess of their respective budgets.

Feldman said she couldn’t comment on specific cases, but did say that of the current cases, $11,000 is the “largest amount” an athlete needs to pay back as a result of double aid payment.

“The systems didn’t talk to each other, and we found out about it late,” Feldman said. “Because we have to stay in compliance with both the federal aid regulations and the athletic regulations, we did need to bill a handful of students a rather significant amount that they got overpaid.”

In short, UC Berkeley needed the money back immediately or would risk diving in hot water with the federal government. If the campus is audited and students are found to be overawarded, it could jeopardize the campus aid program, making them ineligible to administer financial aid.

Photo: Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

The financial aid office confirmed that the overpaid aid showed up in the online bill pay accounts, or CARS accounts, of the affected students. That means Grisom and the other athletes affected by the systems error could have seen that they had been overpaid through their CARS account.

It’s unclear whether the $11,000 amount charged to Grisom accurately reflected the amount he’d been overpaid in the 2013-14 school year. Geanette adamantly states her son never spent anything close to $11,000, saying they noticed a $4,000 overcharge but returned it. But the financial aid office said whatever amount was charged to those overpaid was the sum of nonathletic gift and loan aid. Grisom’s nonathletic gift and loan aid allocated on his MyFinAid page does effectively match the $11,000 figure confirmed by both Grisom and his mother.

“We feel bad that there was an error, and we understand their frustration,” Feldman says. “We’re trying everything we can to make it right for them.”

He considered dropping out of school and working, but resolved to figure out a way, like always, to make it work.

“I should be applying for scholarships and stuff, but it’s really hard for me to focus on those things because I’m trying to take care of what’s in front of my face right now,” Grisom says. “Just know that I’m not happy with the situation.”

Although everything is far from being resolved, Grisom says he’s working out his issues with the financial aid office. He still needs to pay back at least some of the $11,000, but they’re working out a way for him to finish it on a payment plan instead of paying it all upfront.

Though the situation looks a little better than it did a couple of weeks ago, he is far from in the clear. Grisom is still searching for a place to live, crashing on the floor of a friend’s single bedroom for now. He’s trying to lock down a second job to help fund all of these expenses — his overpaid scholarship, his housing, his food. He currently has one job, but he’s holding off on using the paycheck right away.

“I have this paycheck but am trying not to use it all because I need to put it toward my security deposit,” Grisom says. “There’s not much money for me, it’s all going toward housing and stuff. I don’t really technically have money like that.”

For now, his job in the mailroom at Clark Kerr and his financial aid package keep him afloat, and he’s able to attend classes without a registration block. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than where he was a week ago.

And when he can squeeze in a little bit of free time, Grisom checks in on his former teammates. He missed the Northwestern win while apartment hunting but watched the entire game on film later that day.

“I was excited to watch my team, man,” Grisom says. “Oh man, man, I should be out there playing with them, not apartment hunting. I should’ve been in Chicago.”

He even had a chance to say goodbye to his team before their flight to Chicago on Thursday. Around 9 a.m., before the players conducted their last workout before boarding the buses to the airport, Grisom showed up to a full locker room, where both the offensive and defensive players were just getting out of their meetings.

A select few knew Grisom planned on showing up, but most of the team erupted in surprise. A few players crowded around Grisom, lobbing rapid-fire questions in his direction.

“They were like, ‘Grisom, woah man, what’s up? You’re coming back, right? It’s just temporary, right?’ Stuff like that.”

He deflected, telling them he’s just finishing up school, trying to get everything in order so he can head to Thailand for spring semester, a dream he’s had for a couple of years now.

He couldn’t tell them the truth: that if it was up to him, he would have been on that plane to Chicago.

Michael Rosen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @michaelrosen3.

SEPTEMBER 05, 2014

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