One wall in Mike Grant’s office has become a shrine to loved ones departed. Four funeral programs are taped to the wall. A football jersey honoring a former assistant hangs beside them.
“It’s been a tough year,” Grant said, eyes fixed on the wall.
Since winning his 11th state championship last November, Eden Prairie’s longtime football coach has shed a lot of tears.
Former assistant Lyle Schuette died shortly after the 2017 Prep Bowl at age 80. In July, his younger brother, Bruce, died 14 months after being diagnosed with brain cancer.
Another former assistant, Tim Kasprowicz, an Eden Prairie head coach years before Grant, suffered a fatal heart attack last winter.
Legendary St. John’s coach John Gagliardi — who was Grant’s former coach, boss, mentor and close friend — died this fall. Grant also had relationships with two former Vikings icons, Bill Brown and Fred Zamberletti, who died in recent months.
Grief has been a frequent emotion the past 12 months. Grant keeps those funeral notices visible in his office as a way to honor and remember.
“I want to think about them every day,” he said. “I put them up there because I want people to ask me about them. We don’t ever want to forget these guys. We want to talk about them and tell stories about them.”
Oh, he has endless stories about each one. Like the time he separated his shoulder in high school and visited Zamberletti, the longtime Vikings athletic trainer who worked under Grant’s father, Bud.
Zamberletti fitted him with a fiberglass protection that former Vikings defensive back Charlie West used to wear.
“Fred said, ‘Hey, boy, let’s see how that works,’ ” Grant said. “He takes a crutch and boom, hits me right on the shoulder as hard as he could hit me. He said: ‘See that. That will give you confidence.’ ”
Grant recalled guarding Brown in a pickup basketball game at the old Decathlon Athletic Club. Brown dribbled the ball through Grant’s legs, grabbed the ball on the other side and shot a layup.
One day, Kasprowicz saw Grant struggling to build a deer stand. He stopped him, grabbed his tools and built a structure so elaborate that Grant named it “Kasper’s Stand.”
Bruce Grant served as an Eden Prairie assistant coach under his brother for years before transitioning to an “unofficial official assistant.”
“He became an adviser,” Grant said. “He gave me a lot of advice.”
Grant scrolled through his phone Monday looking for a photo a friend sent him last week. It was a picture of Bruce following Eden Prairie’s semifinal victory last year.
“You think about Bruce not being at the game ...” he said, pausing as tears filled his eyes.
“He would have called me before the game and say, ‘What do you think?’ ”
Bruce would have wanted a scouting report on Lakeville North in advance of Friday’s Class 6A Prep Bowl. This will be Grant’s 14th trip to the title game. He has won 11 of them.
Would a 12th championship send him into retirement at age 61?
“You want to get in line on that?” Grant asked, laughing. “There’s a lot of bets going on around here. I try to create rumors. The honest answer is I don’t know. I love being around our kids. I haven’t gotten irritated enough to quit.”
Grant said it’s possible he could retire as Eden Prairie’s athletic director but remain as football coach, but not the other way around. Or he could retire from both posts. Or stay in both.
He occasionally plays pranks on his assistants by removing all the paperwork and clutter from his desk, as if he’s gone for good. He said he has discussed an exit strategy with school district officials.
“They [say], ‘We don’t want you to exit yet,’ ” Grant said.
He initially set a goal to stay long enough to coach his current senior class. But he felt invigorated being around his sophomores during a weightlifting session last week.
“I’ve got all these young kids that I’ve gotten to know,” he said. “We’re 8 ½ months away from kickoff of the opening of the season. You better have your kids ready to go.”
This season has been unlike any other because of the emotional pain Grant has experienced in his personal life.
“You’re sad because you miss them,” he said.
Grant is quick to note that many people deal with death and other tragedies. He doesn’t expect sympathy. He has tried not to show his emotions.
“When you become a leader — and I hope I’m a leader of something — a lot of people rely on you,” he said. “I don’t know that you have the luxury of being emotional about all of this. But there are moments when you get overwhelmed by it.”