AMES, Iowa – Walking across the stage and receiving your diploma is a special moment for all Iowa State students. The same feeling applies for Cyclone student-athletes. A handful of Cyclone athletes will earn their degrees next weekend, a final exclamation point on a collegiate career full of success and accomplishments.
One Cyclone student-athlete may be a little more emotional than the others when he receives his diploma at commencement. He should be, because when former football star Damien Groce enrolled at Iowa State in the fall of 1998, his goal was to be the first person from his family to graduate from college.
Eighteen years later, Groce will be in Ames to realize his dream.
“This hasn’t been an easy road, I can promise you that much,” Groce said in a phone interview. “There have been a lot of sacrifices made by my family. There will be so much joy inside my heart.”
A native of San Bernardino, California, the 37-year-old Groce was one of the top junior college wide receivers in the nation when the Cyclones signed him out of San Bernardino Valley Community College.
Groce fit in right away on a team needing depth at wide receiver. Though undersized at 5-10, Groce made up for his lack of size with outstanding speed and dependable hands. He was a legitimate big-play threat, recording 47 catches for 640 yards and seven TDs en route to Second-Team All-Big 12 honors in 1998.
One of Groce’s most memorable games in his junior season was a 10-catch, 116-yard and 3-TD performance at Texas Tech. His three TD receptions tied a then-school record (Todd Blythe currently owns the record with four TD catches against Texas A&M in 2005).
“I’ll never forget that Texas Tech game,” Groce remembered. “My mom was able to be there and watch the game and see me score three touchdowns. That was probably one of the coolest moments of my career.”
Groce was considered one of the top returning wideouts in the Big 12 heading into the 1999 campaign. He was influential in helping the Cyclones defeat Iowa for the second-straight year, catching three passes for 113 yards, including an 80-yard TD reception to put ISU up 14-0 in the first quarter. Groce called it, “an awesome moment.”
It seemed destined Groce would repeat as an all-conference performer until bum luck got in the way. In the fifth game of the season, Groce broke his arm in the third quarter at nationally-ranked Nebraska.
His Cyclone career was over.
“I broke my left arm against Nebraska,” Groce said. “I had already played too many games to get a redshirt. When I knew I couldn’t get a redshirt, I was devastated. As a junior college player, I think it hurt more, because you only have two years. It was a setback, but the injury helped motivate me for my future.”
Playing professionally was always in Groce’s DNA. His size made NFL scouts shy away, but there were plenty of other suitors who wanted Groce a part of their organization, including the Arena Football League.
Groce enjoyed a fruitful career in the AFL, playing for six teams from 2000-08. In 2005, Groce caught 116 passes for 1,417 yards and 21 TDs for the Columbus Destroyers.
The league was perfect for his abilities.
“When I first left Iowa State, I had some tryouts with a couple of Canadian Football League teams,” Groce said. “I then got a chance to play in the AFL for the Los Angeles Avengers. I played three games, then tore my right knee. Brian Gregory (former Iowa Barnstormers coach) then gave me a tryout with the New York Dragons. He gave me a second chance and I ended up having a fun career in the AFL.”
In the middle of his AFL career, Groce received a strange phone call out of the blue from Paramount Pictures. The movie company was doing a re-boot of the gridiron classic “The Longest Yard” with Adam Sandler and rap artist Nelly as two of its stars.
Paramount needed actual football players to perform the football scenes in the movie, and the company felt Groce had a strong resemblance to Nelly.
Welcome to Hollywood, Damien.
“It was kind of weird,” Groce remembered. “I thought it was a joke. They said I looked like Nelly and they were shooting this movie. I went out there and tried out and everybody pretty much thought I was the man for the job, so they gave it to me.”
His work in “The Longest Yard” opened more doors in Hollywood for Groce. In the Mark Wahlberg movie “Invincible,” a picture based on real-life Philadelphia Eagle Vince Papale’s journey from bartender to special teams star, Groce was again asked to assist.
In the scene where the Eagles play the Dallas Cowboys, Groce is out there making tackles for America’s Team.
“It was a blast to hang out with guys like Adam Sandler and Mark Wahlberg every day,” Groce reflected on his stint in motion pictures. “The stars treated you like a regular guy. It was an experience that no one can take away from me. You were treated like an equal to all of the stars, and that’s what I appreciated the most.”
Groce currently lives in his hometown of San Bernardino where he works in a juvenile hall. He’s married now with two children. Life in San Bernardino isn’t easy, though. The city experienced its 24th homicide of 2016 on April 25.
Statistics like this makes Groce uneasy. It also motivates him. He wants to be a role model for his kids on the importance of a college degree.
“I come from San Bernardino,” Groce said. “I don’t know if you know anything about San Bernardino, but it’s not a good place right now as far as crime. I want to make change and I have two sons that I’m trying to lead by example.”
May 7th will be a glorious day for the Groce family. His wife, Wynsha, son Damien Jr., and his mother, Sandra Robertson, will all make the trek to Ames, Iowa for graduation weekend.
Dad will get to reminisce with his family about his glory days on the gridiron and see the wonderful new facilities Iowa State has to offer.
Groce will leave Ames with more than memories, however. He will return home with a diploma from Iowa State University. He could’ve transferred his college credits to another college, but that’s not how Groce wanted his journey to end.
“My mom instilled that in me a long time ago,” Groce said. “Once you start something, no matter what, you got to finish it. I took that to heart all the way. I could have went to a local college to get my degree. But when I was at Iowa State, that university showed me so much love. It’s only right to go back and finish this.”
Groce will now get to finish where he started…….at Iowa State University.