Having entered training camp as the Bears’ starting center last summer, it would have easy for Hroniss Grasu to feel sorry for himself when he suffered a season-ending torn ACL the first week of August.
But there was no self-pity or sulking; only a fierce determination to overcome the setback and return to the form that earned Grasu the starting job in the first place.
Hroniss Grasu has returned to game action this preseason for the first time since late in 2015.
“The way I looked at it is it’s just a test,” Grasu said. “Just test me, my mental toughness. Test how well I can handle adversity. I could have looked at all the negatives about it and been pouty about it. But I wasn’t.
“I was super excited to attack this opportunity that I have, just growing mentally and physically, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job. I’m still learning a lot. I’m still getting better. The main thing is just the support that I’ve had from everybody of just taking it one day at a time, doing all the little things to get back and get better.”
The resiliency that Grasu displayed following his knee injury has paid dividends. With left guard Kyle Long recovering from ankle surgery, Grasu has been taking reps with the starting unit at center, while Cody Whitehair has moved from center to left guard.
Grasu has played in the Bears’ first two preseason contests, his first game action since he made his eighth and final start of his rookie season Dec. 27, 2015 in Tampa.
“It was awesome,” Grasu said. “You appreciate it more and more. Once the game was taken away for a little bit of time, you just appreciate it so much more, walking out on the field, getting ready for a game. It was an honor to be out there with those guys and hopefully I can keep showing up and doing the right things and making this team better. That’s all I want to do is just help this team get better.”
The 2015 third-round pick from Oregon is doing just that by taking practice reps at both center and guard. With NFL teams limited to 46 active players on game day, reserves must be able to line up at multiple positions.
“It’s very important,” Grasu said. “It’s adding more to your toolbox. The challenge of it is really just getting off the ball with a certain foot back, with a certain hand down. It’s just the split-second of the timing on the punch in any pass pro, or getting a hand on the shoulder in any run game. That’s the biggest challenge.
“I’m getting better at it every single day, and it has been working out really well. All I could do is find one thing at a time to get better at and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Grasu is confident that he can develop into an even better player than he was pre-injury.
“I feel even better,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement. I can always obviously be a lot quicker. I’m always going to say that. Better with my hands when I’m working outside zone helping the guards out. But I feel really, really confident with my play and confident with all of the calls that we’ve been making as a group.
“I love this group. We’ve been working really well together. Coach [Jeremiah] Washburn has really brought us together. It has been a lot of fun to go into that room and work with those guys every single day.”
While the center typically makes most of the line calls, Grasu welcomes input from his fellow linemen, especially Whitehair, who started all 16 games at center last season.
“When you’re the center, you’re the center; you make the calls,” Grasu said. “But I’ve told Cody, ‘Hey, if I’m at guard, I’m sorry if I somehow see something and make a call, it’s just a natural reaction.’ And it’s the same for him. If he’s at guard and sees something, go ahead and make it.
“None of us are the type of people that get upset. We’re not insecure or anything like that. We both know what needs to get done, and that’s just making the right call and getting all the guys on the same page. Luckily, we’re really good friends and get along very well.”
It’s unclear exactly what role Grasu will play when the regular season opens, but what is certain is that the Bears are thrilled he’s back on the field where he belongs.
“Obviously we thought highly of him; he started his rookie year,” said coach John Fox. “The kid is a real hard worker and he’s a heck of a teammate. He’s worked very hard to get back and he’s gaining confidence every day—a little bit like Kevin White stacking practices together and understanding how to fit in with your teammates like he has at center. So we feel good about him, and giving him more game experience obviously will help him.”