There’s a mother driving her white Ford Thunderbird down a California freeway.
It’s 1994 and it’s lunch hour. It’s Orange County and it’s sunny. She’s on her way to Costco to buy groceries for her family, just a mile from her exit, when she realizes something.
But it’s too late.
A car haphazardly cuts her off, causing her to swerve and clip the end of another car. Her Thunderbird does a 180, shooting her backwards across six lanes of traffic. It slams into the guardrail and starts violently flipping, end over end, over and over, like a racecar, like it’s possessed, just missing the cement bridge support of the overpass by inches.
What she realized was that her one-year-old’s car seat hadn’t been buckled in. She has no idea why. It’s always buckled in. But somehow, she forgot.
Inside, the one-year-old boy’s frail, little body, while harnessed inside of his baby seat, bounces around like a pinball, molested by gravity. Skull meets glass. Skin meets metal.
Grab a baby by his feet, hold him upside down, and shake him barbarically—that’s what happened. Stick a baby on a rollercoaster, his neck snapping back and forth, his soft skull smashing into everything around him—that’s what happened. Throw a rag doll in a wood chipper—that’s what happened.
Or so you would think.
Doubting is easier than believing. It’s almost cliché to doubt, isn’t it? It’s easier to doubt people than to believe in people. It’s easier to doubt God than to believe in Him. Doubting is natural. Believing takes faith. Doubting is easy. Believing is hard.
Believing is also beautiful.
The way hockey star Rocco Grimaldi believes is beautiful.
It’s hard to comprehend that Grimaldi—a redshirt freshman at the University of North Dakota who was drafted in 2011 by the NHL’s Florida Panthers—is only a 19-year-old college kid. He’s wise enough to mentor coaches. He quotes the Bible like most quote Anchorman or Caddyshack. Interview him and you’ll get a sermon. He told his mother in third grade that he wanted to read the entire Bible. He wants to be a pastor. He’s Tim Tebow on skates.
And yet, like Tebow, who tells the media about his “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” more than he’s “happy to be a Jet,” there’s something very likeable about Rocco Grimaldi. Like Tebow, he’s real. He’s more than words. He’s action. He’s bold.
Some say it’s why he fell to the second round of the NHL Draft after being predicted as high as eighth in the first round. Teams were afraid of his boldness. And, though he’s bold, evidenced by his outwardly Christian tweets that have gotten him crucified by the media in the past, he’s not like some of the self-righteous, better-than-you Christians you see on CNN protesting gay parades.
“It really doesn’t surprise me, to be honest, just how this world is,” Grimaldi says about falling in the draft. “Religious Christians put the real Christians under the bus so I blame them for that. Thinking that we’re just going to be preaching and condemning people. We’re not called to condemn. That’s not our job. If Christ didn’t condemn us, why would we condemn others? It just doesn’t make sense.”
Jesus, he says, came down hard on the “religious” people. He ate with tax collectors and talked to prostitutes. He loved sinners.
“I’m trying to get to the core of that,” Grimaldi says. “I’ll go up to Christians and say, ‘Why did God give us the Bible if you don’t read it? Why do you say this and that and not live it out?’”
That’s Rocco Grimaldi, as bold as they come. His height (5 foot, 6 inches) doesn’t stop him on the ice, and his age doesn’t stop him from speaking what he believes—even after a tumultuous year he calls a “make-it-or-break-it-point” in his life.
Cameras started to zoom in on Rocco Grimaldi.
Tears began building in his eyes—angry tears, sad tears, all in one. He stood up, all eyes on him, and made a beeline out of the arena before anyone could say anything to him.
Grimaldi entered the first round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft rather confidently, with every reason to believe he’d be selected in front of his 30 family members and friends in attendance at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
He was a projected mid to late-first round draft pick, and he talked to several teams the week leading up to the Draft who said they’d take him, trade up for him, whatever it took. That’s what was most maddening for Grimaldi. In a sense, he felt betrayed. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, I thought I knew you,’” he says.
It’s hard to say why Grimaldi fell. Some say it’s because he’s a Jesus freak. Others say it’s because of his size. Like Tebow, he’s been doubted his entire career. Like Tebow, all they see is his unorthodoxy, not his stats.
Grimaldi’s résumé is top-notch. Before kicking off his collegiate career at the University of North Dakota (players can be drafted years before playing in the NHL), he totaled 39 goals, 34 assists, and 73 points in 58 games for the U.S. National Development Team (USNTDP), leading his team in all three categories of competition. He also helped the United States Under-18 Team earn back-to-back gold medals at the 2011 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World U18 Championship in Germany and the 2010 IIHF World U18 Championship in Minsk, Belarus, where he tied for the team lead in points, as an under-aged player.
Grimaldi is like a little demon on the ice: skilled, relentless, living inside the minds of his opponents and corrupting their confidence by instilling fear. His first goal with North Dakota, he gained possession on a breakaway, then made a shifty move that caused a Minnesota defender to clumsily trip over his skates and crash into the ice.
At every level, Grimaldi takes the doubts, chews them up, then spits them back in the face of his doubters.
Hockey writer and broadcaster Chris Peters said this of Grimaldi as Draft Day approached: “Having been around Grimaldi at different periods of time and interviewing him a bunch over the past two years, the kid has that ‘it factor.’ Undaunted by his height, or lack thereof, and unflinching in his belief that he will make it to the NHL one day gives me enough confidence to say he should be an early-to-mid first-rounder.”
But it wouldn’t be. And Grimaldi ate dinner with his family and friends that evening in silence, confused and drained.
Come Day 2, there was hope in the back of his mind he would be picked fifth (35th overall) by the Detroit Redwings, the kings of the NHL.
But again, it wouldn’t be. The Florida Panthers picked Grimaldi 33rd overall.
Florida was the last team he expected. He wasn’t familiar with their organization. He didn’t know their management. He says he only spoke to them one time leading up to the draft. And they certainly weren’t the Redwings, who have earned 11 Stanley Cups, the most of any franchise based in the United States. The Panthers had no Stanley Cups and hadn’t made the playoffs the last decade.
“When I got drafted, I was like, ‘This is not what I had planned,’” says Grimaldi, who believes God is in control of every stage of his life. “I’d play for this team or this team, and God gave me this team? But I hugged my family, put a smile on my face, and took the jersey.”
Walking toward the stage, Grimaldi says he heard a small, still voice in his head, challenging his doubt. Do you trust Me? it said. Do you trust Me?
Grimaldi says his attitude changed. He went upstairs and started shaking hands with management. One guy had four Stanley Cups. Another guy had six. Another guy shook his hand and said he respected Grimaldi for his faith. Then there was general manager Dave Tallon, who helped rebuild the Chicago Blackhawks from 2005-2009, the culmination of a Stanley Cup title in 2010. He was doing the same thing with Florida, leading the Panthers to their first playoff appearance in 10 years during Grimaldi’s first season at North Dakota.
“I was like, ‘Wow, God knew what he was doing,’” Grimaldi says. “God basically goes, ‘Who are you to tell Me what I am doing?’”
Perhaps, most importantly, Tallon and Panther management allow Grimaldi to be himself—his bold, outspoken self.
Four months after Grimaldi was drafted, he posted a series of in-your-face tweets asking women to dress modestly and men to stop objectifying women. The media clung to his tweets and tore Grimaldi to shreds.
That day, he got a call from Panthers management regarding the tweets. Grimaldi was scared his future career and relationship with the Panthers was on the chopping block. But when management told Tallon about the tweets, Grimaldi says that Tallon simply responded, “Oh, it’s just Rocco. Let him say whatever he wants. He’s just living out his faith.”
“He always backed me up and respected me for my faith,” Grimaldi says. “While all those other teams didn’t pick me because of my faith, Florida picked me possibly because of my faith.”
Then there was the time Grimaldi went to Panther development camp, and the head of player development asked Grimaldi to pray before a meal in front of 40-some players and 10-plus coaches.
“It’s crazy how He takes your plans, and your plans get balled up in a piece of paper and tossed in the trash,” Grimaldi says. “But His plan is better anyway.”
The future looked promising for Rocco Grimaldi. He was drafted—by a team he had grown to love, a team that appreciated who he was—and he was entering his freshman year at the University of North Dakota with an opportunity to continue his dominance and possibly be in the NHL after a year of college.
He was close to his dream.
Rocco Grimaldi was cautiously making his way down the stairs in a movie theater, the day after having surgery on his right knee. His mother was in front of him stepping backwards down the stairs to try to help steady him as he descended.
His crutch caught. He tripped down two steps. Then he broke his fall by planting on his right leg, the operative leg he couldn’t put pressure on. Pain exploded in his kneecap like a needle slowly going into your eye. He screamed.
Grimaldi got to the bottom of the stairs, exasperated, and lay on a bench inside the theater. “Buddy, God didn’t bring us this far to leave us now,” his mother told him.
He looked terrible.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said—not because she had to go to the bathroom, but because she didn’t want to cry in front of him.
She prayed in the bathroom and returned.
Grimaldi got back up, but only to stumble again and fall on the same leg. Pain exploded again. Defeated, he broke down and cried.
“Why is this happening to me?” he asked his mother.
“I don’t understand it,” his mother consoled, “but God did not bring us this far to leave you now,” she told him again.
Right when things had started to look up—after the frustration of Day 1 of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, then the elation of realizing Florida was a perfect fit, then the excitement of beginning his college career, just one step away from attaining his dream of playing in the NHL—Grimaldi took a puck to the knee in his first practice at the University of North Dakota.
Doesn’t sound like a big deal. It’s just a puck to the knee. But it is a big deal whenever you have a bipartite patella, meaning the pieces of the kneecap have yet to fuse together. Only two percent of the population have it, and Grimaldi is one of them.
“I hate it when people say, ‘God did this to make you humble,’” Grimaldi says. “No, God did not put this on me at all. This happened because life is life and He is still good in the mix of it; and He is going to turn this into something good, and He already is.”
From mid-September through mid-November of 2011, Grimaldi tried to play through the pain while undergoing physical therapy, but his skill on the ice wasn’t the same. His doctor then had him rest the knee with no activity from mid-November through the first week of January.
“When I played it was hard for me to skate,” Grimaldi says. “It hurt so bad. It just wasn’t me. That would’ve hurt the team more than it would’ve helped.”
In January of 2012, midway through the Fighting Sioux’s season, Grimaldi decided it’d be best to get surgery and redshirt, the most difficult hockey decision he’s had to make that triggered the most trying time of his hockey career.
The thought entered his mind: “I could trust You in the past, but this is bigger than anything I have ever gone through,” he says.
“But we are supposed to overcome the devil by the blood of the Lamb, and He already shed that blood. And the other thing we are supposed to overcome the devil by is the word of our testimony. And what is our testimony? It’s God showing Himself through the trials and tests we have already been through.”
When doubt crept into his mind—like a spy trying to infiltrate enemy lines—Grimaldi warded it off by writing his testimony. He took the doubt and he drowned it.
“One reason (I started writing my testimony) is because I needed to look back at past trials I got through because of Him—just to remind myself of Him, just to remind myself of His faithfulness, and that because of His faithfulness in those times, He’ll be faithful in these as well,” Grimaldi says. “He’s always faithful.”
Right from the beginning.
There’s a father who receives a phone call, one of those calls that change everything: His wife and infant son had crashed on the freeway.
Then, the father sees something, like a vision. He sees a car flipping down the freeway. He sees a baby inside. His little body is bouncing around like a pinball, like he’s not buckled in, like the vision is a split-second away from becoming a graphic bloodbath and nightmare.
Then the vision gets weirder. On the outside of the car, the father sees strong angels, like muscle-bound power lifters—mighty, celestial mysteries, pressing the car and holding it together and keeping it from collapsing. On the inside of the car, the father sees “angels like fluffy pillows,” the baby safely bouncing off them, as if in a foam pit.
Then the vision ends.
The mother, meanwhile, is sitting 50 feet from her crashed car, resting on its driver’s side. How she is sitting 50 feet away from her car, she doesn’t know. It’s spooky, like a scene straight out of a horror film. She isn’t bleeding. She doesn’t have a scratch. It’s almost as if she died and her soul has already left her body, and that’s what she is seeing—a tipped-over car in front of her with the remains of herself and her son inside. But she’s alive. Or she at least thinks she is.
She sprints toward the car. She’s a police officer and an athlete. So is her husband. The baby inside has a chance of growing up to be quite a sportsman. Before the crash, at least.
She climbs onto the car and looks into it. She reaches inside and cuts her arm on glass.
Susie Grimaldi sees her son, Rocco, inside. He’s still in his carrier which is resting perfectly face up on the driver’s door. His eyes are open. And he’s alive.
Not even crying.
He looks up at his mother with his pacifier in his mouth. He smiles.
It’s easier to doubt God than to believe in Him. Doubting is natural. Believing takes faith. Doubting is easy. Believing is hard. This, however, would be an exception—because if angels don’t exist, then neither does velocity and collision. If this doesn’t prove supernatural existence, then it disproves nature. Rocco Grimaldi drowns doubt with the beauty of belief.
There’s a helicopter flying above, its blades echoing the seriousness of the crash. The mother is placed on a stretcher. A fireman is holding the baby.
The baby smiles and sucks his pacifier.
And everyone wonders how.
By Stephen Copeland
Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine.