SOMETIMESThink about whether or not he actually needed the phone that night. Although he had left the phone in his car for five blocks, it was still late at night. The clock was creeping towards 1 AM, so how much would a few extra hours without it really matter? In his head, he doesn't even open the door to his apartment in order to get his phone. Never walk alone for more than a hundred feet in the darkness.
He starts to rewind the movie from that night. He spins back each frame, just like when he is poring over football film, breaking down plays and diagnosing what he would do differently. He closes his eyes and is back in August 2020. The deafening sound, the rush of confusion, and the dawning of a new world are all he hears.
“I still remember that night …”,” he said.
Garrett, who is sitting on a seat made of blue plastic at Bishop Gorman high school's football stadium in Las Vegas, 2,000 kilometres from Columbus, Ohio, is trying to recall the moment he was hit in the face. Three weeks ago, the Big Ten announced that its 2020 football season would be cancelled due to the pandemic. But Garrett and his Ohio State teammates remained on campus to work with strength coach Mickey Marotti to prepare for the competition.
Those had been demoralizing and hazy weeks. Garrett, who was a senior at that time, had spent most of his three years in Columbus on the defensive line backburner. He was the Big Ten's most highly-rated returning defensive tackle going into 2020. But the Big Ten told Garrett and everyone that they couldn't go back. “I'm thinking it's my turn,” he said. “I've been part of the rotation for many years. It's my turn to take over the reins, and then you get hit …” He trailed off.
Garrett is a happy, gentle, and charming guy. He is a hulk of a guy when he returns to Bishop Gorman, where his three high school years were crowned national champions. Now he trains in the weeks leading up to the NFL draft. One teacher informs Garrett's class that Garrett is a future NFL player as he walks past a class. He smiles.
Later, one the current high school football players walks up and introduces himself to Garret. He is the son of Tony Sanchez who was Garret's coach at Bishop Gorman during his sophomore season. “I can remember when you were there.” This big,” Garrett tells the teen, genuinely tickled to discover that in the intervening eight years, that son has sprouted to high-school-football-player size. He smiles, but this time he is beaming.
You can't see his small marks from the shot with a handgun.
He recalls the split second that a 9-millimeter bullet passed through his mouth. Then he recalls all of the college activities he was a part. He was house-hopping with his friends, who all lived in the same neighborhood just outside Columbus. He was walking towards midnight back to his apartment with Pete Werner. He was there, saying goodnight to Werner and the two of them going to their respective bedrooms. He was there, realizing that he had left his phone in the car and walking back to his apartment to retrieve it.
He was a few hundred feet away from his home when he noticed a man and woman fighting across the street. He wouldn't have stopped to look at them, but he did see the man hitting her.
He remembers that he crossed the street and pushed the man to his side to separate them. Then he turned to face the aggressor. Then, everything turned black.
He arrived at the street empty of the woman and man. The only sound he could hear was a ringing. The sensation of a burning flame on his skin was all he could hear. He had been struck by a brick. Shot?
His shirt and pants were red when he stood up. He ran home, spilling blood as he went so that he didn't choke. Werner answered after he pounded the door. “Pete. I don’t know. I believe I was shot.”
Garrett stops, takes in the desert air and then pauses. “That's the moment,” Garrett says. “That's when it really felt it was it for you.”
GARRETT THINKS HEOnce upon a while, he would rather join the military than the NFL. Because football was what he loved, he joined the ROTC in highschool. However, structure and brotherhood were the things he wanted.
There were many siblings for him — three from his mother's side, and two from his father's — but his mother was seven, eleven and 18 years younger. They were from different generations and didn't grow up in the same house. While Garrett had one sister from his father's side, he had only a few years with Garrett. He grew up in Vermont and he stayed at the homes of his mother Maria Key and his father. He didn't have the constant companionship that he desired.
Key worked in a variety of roles, including for the city and in sales and marketing for the private sector. He learned to manage his own finances by learning how to do it himself. He would open a coin jar and find five dollars to buy a sizzler, his favorite half-pound burger from The Shopping Bag in Burlington.
Key says that he wasn't strict enough to be a parent. I trusted that he understood his responsibilities. I allowed him to be flexible and while he did occasionally hang himself, as any child would, he was able to keep his head up. So I trusted him.”
Garrett mostly liked the independence. Garrett said that he enjoyed the freedom to do what he wanted. He says.
Garrett still idolized Haskell Sr., his father who was 54 at the time. Garrett listened to the stories about Haskell Sr., a high school basketball player who walked into Madison Square Garden in a time when African Americans were not allowed to play in that arena. As Haskell Sr. ran his small nonprofit that aimed to empower people of color, Garrett tagged along. Garrett, then 12, felt disoriented when Haskell Sr. died from stomach cancer. He had lost his roots, and his wings.
His father had died, and his mother was in a sham marriage with Joe. Key, who had been married to Haskell Sr. for just over a year, moved his mother and her son from Vermont to Hawaii. Garrett had lost his father, the structure that he loved and the only place he knew in quick succession.
Haskell Sr. was a strict dresser when he was alive. Garrett's shirt had to be neat and wrinkle-free. His shoes had to match Garrett's outfit. Garrett states, “It'll always be with me.” Garrett says, “When you leave the home, you leave it looking like you belong somewhere.”
He did and then he began to search for more people to be his partner.
They were found through football. He didn't lose his father, his stepfather, or his hometown when he was losing the familiar anchors of his family. But football never left him. Key said, “God, it was really all he had.” “It was.”
Bryson, Tryson, and Pierson Mook met Garrett at football camps. They took Garrett under their wing and he loved what he saw in them. Garrett had taken care himself as a kid, but these boys were more concerned about each other. They were Polynesian Polynesian native Hawaiians like Garrett. However, they played football for Bishop Gorman on the mainland, and that was how Garrett decided to move there. Ray Mook, Garrett's father, gave his home to Garrett. With his mother's blessing Garrett transferred to Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas before his sophomore year. Ray Mook became Uncle Ray. Uncle Ray was named Pops. Key followed her son, Key, to Las Vegas a few month later. But he stayed with Pops throughout high school. Not only for the convenience (he could walk there), but also for the familiarity of the new family dynamic.
Pops managed his household with a firm hand. Pops enforced curfews. Pops' wife Shelly received the phones at 8 o’clock every evening. Pops was informed by Garrett that Garrett was going for a run; the team was about to play a major game and he wanted some work done. After a few hours, one of Pops’ sons asked where Garrett was and how far he could have run. Pops didn't like the idea of a manhunt and eventually found Garrett with a female companion. He dragged Garrett into his car and drove to Red Rock Canyon at night. There was no streetlight or phone signal. He then told his charges: “You want me to run?” From here, you can run home. Garrett got out of his car and cried. He vowed that he would not lie again. Pops, realizing that Garrett had learned his lesson and never intending to make Garrett run the eight-mile home, opened the car door to allow him to return in.
Garrett lost freedom but gained fraternity. He said, “Wolves who live in great packs run together.” They were my pack.”
He was led by the Mooks to his second pack. Alex Neal was two grades ahead Garrett at Bishop Gorman. He had previously dated another boy who lived in the Mook household. But the bond that lasted was Alex's older sister-like relationship with Garrett. Rick Neal, Alex’s father, says, “You should come to Thanksgiving type of thing.” “And it's pretty quickly, ‘Well. You can't miss Thanksgiving.' That's how Rick Neal became Papa Neal. Teresa Neal, his wife, was also named Mama Neal. The high school was followed by college, and life changed from Las Vegas in to Columbus. Mook returned to Hawaii after Garrett left for Ohio State. Home base was now the Neals.
A big, boisterous, stable family. In fact, there are many of them. These were things Garrett didn’t always have growing-up, but now he holds onto them with an iron grip. He is close to his biological family. While his siblings live all over the country, including in Texas, New England and Georgia, he still holds onto his birth family. He holds onto the adopted families. Teresa's close friend had a baby last week, and the father suddenly died of a heart attack within weeks. Garrett was shaken by the news. “He said to me, I remember how it was, when my father passed away,'” Teresa said. He stated, “I recall all these people coming up saying, ‘We will take care of your. We'll be there to help you. We will do it for you. We will do it for you. They were gone six months later.
Each family was informed that Garrett had been killed in the summer of 2020. At first, his mother was disbelieving her son had been shot. She believed it must have been a mistake and told her son to go get some sleep. He called back, sobbing, and she said she would be taking the next flight. Ray Mook, who was still in bed, missed calls by Urban Meyer and Larry Johnson, and then saw the news on ESPN. He panicked and wanted a flight, but Garrett assured him that he was not in danger. Alex Neal, acting as the Neal family ambassador did board a plane and stayed in Columbus for ten days.
Garrett was able to take care of himself. Garrett didn't have any more to do.
POLICE WHO WEREThe police arrived at the scene to discover an empty street. Garrett, the man and his wife had fled to their home and Garrett was running back to it. They followed the trail Garrett left from Chittenden to Grant avenues to Garrett’s apartment a few blocks further. He rode an ambulance to the hospital and cried the entire way, praying along the way. Please be calm. Please, just be okay. Please.He was admitted to the ICU. He told police what he saw. I thought I was doing what was right. He waited to see his mom. He was wheeled to surgery the next morning, to close his wounds. He lost five teeth but the bullet went in one side and out the other — a thorough and thorough, as he learned it was — and he was released by Monday.
Garrett was able to leave the hospital after a short time, but it was too much for him. This hospital brought back his father, who was undergoing chemotherapy. He spent too much time there, watching the ravages of the cancer and the chemicals used to treat it. The mad rush to the emergency department brought back other mad rushes, when he was sixth grade. He had to learn how to drive to transport Haskell Sr. to hospital if no one else could.
He wanted to leave, but he also didn't want to go back into his apartment. Garrett says, “You get shot in your face, somebody's trying take your life.” “We didn’t want anyone coming back to finish this job. He was already unable to leave the apartment he shared in with Werner by that point, so he stayed at a hotel with his mother.
He felt guilty at times. Garrett told Werner, “I'm sorry that I had to put your through all that,” Werner recalls Garrett saying.
He felt lucky at other times. “He was groggy but he knew. He knew,” Teresa says. “He's like, ‘I'm OK. “I'm going be OK.
Feeling like a man shot. He couldn't drink because the bullet missed his tongue. His mother and brother purchased a funnel from an auto parts store so he could drink water from the ceiling and not have to use his tongue.
While Garrett's body began the slow process of healing, the Big Ten reversed its course. After declaring the season over five weeks and two weeks after Garrett was shot, the Big Ten reversed course and Garrett was back playing football. Larry Johnson was his office and he set up camp there, watching film to practice. He tried to find a way to feel worthy and helpful again while he wanted to fly on the practice field. He says, “It's almost like when a soldier gets injured in the military.” “You feel useless.”
Kerry Coombs was Ohio State's defensive coordinator in that moment. He didn't know Garrett would ever make it back. His jaw was so wired that he couldn't eat, how would he manage to maintain his weight? With the injuries to his face, how could he wear helmets? Even if he did make it back, how could he have been so good? The child was still undergoing surgery. To sew him together, the first was done just after he had been wounded. The second one was to clean out any bone and shrapnel fragments. The third, a week later ThatTo place a bone transplant. These were the last weeks of the 2020 season. “Who is his backup?” Coombs remembers pondering. “Because that is literally what you need to think.”
In mid-September, he began lifting weights even though he could not bench press.
He was allowed to wear shoulder pads for modified training by the end of the month.
He played against Nebraska on Oct. 24, Ohio State’s first pandemic-adjusted game. It was Saturday. He had received clearance for his first contact the Tuesday before.
WHERE GARRETT WASHe was 3 years old and lived at home with his older sibling. When she fell asleep, he rode his two-wheel bike toward his father's house. Garrett was only a mile away from his home. After crossing a busy intersection, Garrett reached his father's street. Haskell Sr. turned the corner to find his son.
Key loves to tell that story about Garrett, because it is the basis of Garrett's entire life. He is independent, self-sufficient, and has his own schedule. 55 days after receiving a gunshot wound to the face, he was able to play in Ohio State's 2020 season opener. He also recorded his first collegiate tackle.
Garrett was kept under constant surveillance by Coombs, who was a detective on the lookout for signs of hesitation. Coombs states, “He never, ever, did he hesitate.” Coombs said that he enjoyed the chance to lug his 300-pounds around more. He had 20 tackles, four tackles of loss, and one pick-six interception. This was a remarkable campaign after years of living under the radar on Ohio State's famed defensive line.
His coaches were not precise in their explanations of what had changed InGarrett was not certain that he had made any significant changes. Ryan Day, Buckeyes' head coach at the time, stated that Garrett had a new look in his eyes ever since. Coombs claims it wasn't his eyes but his mouth that was the problem. It's a completely different tone when you have been shot in your face and your jaw is wired shut. He was determined to do something, and be somebody, probably more than ever before the incident.
Garrett will calmly recount the moment a bullet pierced his cheeks. Garrett will openly recall the wound that his father's death left in his chest. This — the idea that his shooting spurred a breakthrough — is what he bristles at.
Although his ordeal had an impact on his character and the outcome of his 2020 campaign, he will tell you that he was always a defensive tackle. The man who has heavy hands. The person who has an unrelenting motor. Garrett was so intent on proving this truth that he chose not to enter the 2021 NFL draft but to return to Ohio State. “To show the world that what I have been through is not what made me who I am.” He doesn't regret his decision to tell the truth, even though a long-term ankle injury kept him from performing well last season.
Garrett didn't believe he was better after he wrapped his arms around Nebraska quarterback in his first game since being shot. He wasn't a validation of his potential. It was a reminder about who he was always been.
I'm still me.
THE SHOOTING STILLIt sneaks up on his. He still sees his father's passing sneaking up on him, just like his father's.
Garrett entered his junior year of Ohio State as a Taco Bell customer. Garrett placed his order and gave his name to the cashier. “Haskell? “Haskell?” Are you from Vermont? The man was curious. Garrett confirmed that he was. The cashier related an unbelievable story. “Well, your father helped me move when I was immigrating.”
This was the man his father was. That was the kind of man he lost. Garrett thought, “OK, Dad, I see you showing-off, Dad,” and realized that he was fortunate to have had such a father. He was unlucky in a way that makes you sigh.
He doesn't have nightmares anymore. He woke up every night, dreaming that he did not dream after he had survived the shooting. “But my dreams about death were in my dreams,” he said. “Now, I am more focused on living my life.”
The pop of a vehicle's backfiring does not bring back the sound of a gun. Fear doesn't paralyze him when he passes through Chittenden or Grant avenues. He could have died there. He was blessed to be alive.
He still has that night with him. Partly because it is something that you can never lose and part because the world will not let him forget it. He said, “Everybody wants to know.” He adds, “Everybody asks,” for good measure.
He is a potential NFL draft prospect, ESPN's 12th-ranked defense tackle and a likely third day pick. All the teams considering bringing him in are determined. They want to learn how it all turned out, ensure that he was a good man in a difficult situation, and what lessons he has learned.
All of this is expected. Their curiosity is not at all in line with the importance he places on the shooting in their lives anymore. His mother claims that they discussed what happened in Columbus when she was first there, but have not spoken about it since. Garrett is happy that the case is inactive as there are no leads from the Columbus Police Department. If a lead were to surface, he would be open to the possibility of pursuing criminal charges. However, Garrett doesn't want the case to drag on. He can recall the details of the man who shot him, a smaller guy than an NFL-bound tackle, maybe 5-6, 5-7, and 130 pounds. He can't remember the look in his eyes or the appearance of his nose, face, nose or eyes. He'd prefer it this way, if truth be told.
There are still reminders that he cannot or won't give up. Although they aren't visible beneath his beard, the two tiny blemishes can't be mistaken for older acne scars. He also never tossed the clothes he wore that night. These clothes were never washed. They are in the bag exactly as they were returned to them, stained. These tokens are not of a faith broken down, but of a faith renewed.
Two years ago, he was caught up in the whirlwind of Ohio State's super-talent and his mind wandered to what else he should or could do. Three days from now, he is in the midst of an NFL draft. He'll be waiting with his family, his mother and some of his siblings for the call to his name, while the names of future NFL stars are called out on Las Vegas Boulevard.
He says, “I believe that night was a means the man above, God or Allah, whatever you want — that higher power to me — that's why he brought me home.” He said, “This is why your're here.”