Tom Archdeacon: Former Flyer finds comfort in making a difference

The Rev. J.D. Grigsby with Dallas police offers earlier this month. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
The Rev. J.D. Grigsby with Dallas police offers earlier this month. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Each night he said he’d wait until his wife went to bed:

“I had put a flag on top of our house and once my wife went to sleep — so she wouldn’t think I was losing my mind — I’d go up the ladder and onto the third tier of the house. I’d watch the flag blow and feel the breeze. The wind can have all types of meaning in it.”

The Rev. J.D. Grigsby was talking about the nights immediately following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of 2,996 people, including 2,763 in lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center towers had come down after hijacked airliners were slammed into them.

As the ensuing nights went by, Grigsby said he wrestled with his thoughts:

“I kept thinking, ‘This is one of the most catastrophic events in history and you say you’re about helping people. But if you don’t get involved, you’re defeating your whole purpose as a minister.

“’You say you love the Lord. You say you want to make a difference in the world and yet you’re still at home. It doesn’t make sense.’

“I had developed this little quote that summed up my philosophy: ‘You are what you do.’ So, if that was really the case, I had to get off the sideline and put my words into action.”

In the past, especially on the basketball court, Grigsby had provided plenty of action once he left the sideline. He was a standout on the strong Roth High teams in the late 1960s and had starred at Kilgore Community College in Texas.

He then transferred to the University of Dayton for his final two seasons, averaged 10.4 points and 6.9 rebounds as a senior and had his signature game in early March 1972 when he scored 21 points and grabbed 21 rebounds as the Flyers upset Notre Dame before a sold-out crowd at UD Arena.

The full-tilt way he waded into the fray that game is the way he involved himself once he got to New York a couple of weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

He headed straight to Ground Zero, where each day he prayed with and ministered to the needs of those working there.

“I had on my collar — the Episcopal church wears collars like the (Catholic) priests — and a lot of the police officers and firemen were calling me father,” he said. “It was like they were glad to see me and that moved me, too.”

He ended up taking part in a funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a young firefighter, one of 415 first responders who perished that day

Those indelible involvements a decade and a half ago helped set in motion what now has become a recurring commitment for the 66-year-old Grigsby.

“When I see a catastrophic event now, I feel I’m not being who I am if I can’t try to be a part of the healing process,” he said the other day in the basement office of his Randolph Township home. “I’m aware God is working in my life.”

In June of last year, he went to Charleston, S.C., after nine people — including senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney — were murdered by a young white supremacist during an evening Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

While there, Grigsby helped conduct a similar Bible study on the same spot the nine innocent people were killed.

Ten days ago he was in Dallas where five police officers had been gunned down by an black man, a U.S. Army veteran who had served in Afghanistan and was angry about the deaths of black men killed by police around the nation. In retaliation he said he wanted to kill white people.

Grigsby, who is black, brought love and understanding to this highly-charged environment. He embraced officers and told them he appreciated their service. But if anybody asked, he also voiced an agreement with the basic principle of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I know this might be kind of controversial,” he said quietly. “I don’t have control of what the Black Lives Matter movement does, but I am 100 percent behind that one basic idea: ‘Black lives do matter.’

“And that’s not telling white society that we matter and you don’t. But you’ve got to remember at one time we were considered 3/5ths of a human being,” he said, referring to the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention’s compromise on counting slaves. “The three women who started Black Lives Matter did it after some blacks were killed and no one was prosecuted. They were just trying to stress that we matter as people.

“This isn’t a one or the other situation.”

And that’s why he spent four days there talking and praying with police units from around the nation and attending the funerals of two of the fallen officers, as well as a memorial service honoring another.

“It was in a mega-church and I sat in the midst of 3,000 officers with their blue on and their guns and I’ve never been in a situation where I felt more comfortable,” he said.

He took out his cell phone and thumbed through a gallery of photos of him with various police. officers. Then he pulled out a small Bible and opened it to a bookmarked passage: 1 John 4:7

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”

He nodded at that thought:

“If we really did that, we wouldn’t have the problems that we have in the world now.”

Loses way, finds God

Grigsby grew up in a family of nine kids on Mia Avenue in Dayton.

“My father worked in a junk yard at Second and Conover for 30 years,” he said. “My mother did day work in Kettering.

“They didn’t have much money, but I got something better from them. They gave me a strong foundation. I learned to respect people. To believe in God.”

Yet once basketball ended, he said he eventually struggled:

“When I graduated from UD, I didn’t make it in pro basketball and I needed that routine. When I didn’t have it, I eventually fell back into my environment — the ‘hood’ so to speak — and it ended up costing me everything.”

He said he lost his first marriage, his house, his car and especially his sense of self. Soon he sold his bass guitar and the rest of the musical equipment from the band he had been in.

“I was lost and angry and bitter,” he said. “I got depressed and finally I got to the point where I had to call on Jesus. At first I felt he was too far away from me — that I hadn’t done anything to deserve him — but finally I had an idea.

“I thought maybe the spirit that moved Martin Luther King — even though he was dead now — maybe some of it might still be down there at his Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.”

He said a Dayton minister gave him $50 and with that he bought a one-way bus ticket.

He had no place to stay and no real plan, but he went to the church, became an associate member and was initially paired with an aging member who had been one of Reverend King’s deacons.

He let Grigsby live with him for a few days and told him stories of King and the way he approached life.

“I wasn’t looking to be a minister,” Grigsby smiled. “I was just seeking Jesus to get back on track and feel whole again … but God finally told me, ‘J.D., I know your heart and what you want.’ ”

Grigsby — who had a family and was a longtime health and physical education teacher at Meadowdale High School — eventually went to Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, became an assistant pastor a Wayman Chapel AME on Hoover and then went to churches in southern Ohio and Bellefontaine. Along the way he also worked as a counselor at the Montgomery County juvenile jail.

Six years ago here he launched his New Visions AME Church, which holds weekly services for a small congregation at a Methodist church on Old Troy Pike that shares its sanctuary.

This spring Grigsby announced a three-year plan to build the multi-racial New Visions AME Worship Life Center on the 6.7-acre site that once housed the Wayne Swim Club. It will include a community park and a gymnasium, which will host the church services.

When he presented his plan to the Huber Heights commission, he made sure the well-respected Don Donoher, his former UD coach and longtime mentor, was there to bolster his resume.

As Donoher told writer Doug Harris some years back:

“J.D is just one of our treasures.”

Not forgotten at UD

Prominent in Grigsby’s office — “my daughter calls it my man cave,” he grinned — is a framed Muhammad Ali poster hanging on one wall.

“I loved Muhammad Ali,” he said. “He was my first role model. He helped me realize black is beautiful. White people had all kinds of people to look up to. The things Ali said and did were unheard of when he did them. But my heart could connect to him.

“I’d listen to his fights and I hoped he’d win. He showed me you could take a punch and just keep pushing forward.”

And that’s why, when the 74-year-old Ali died June 3, Grigsby headed to Louisville to take part in the memorial service.

Next to Ali’s image in the office there is a bookshelf adorned with several Spanish-made religious statues, once part of a larger collection.

“I really don’t need them anymore,” Grigsby said. “The Lord is in me now.”

Over the years, he has given some of the statues to friends, including Flyers hoops legends Bill Uhl Sr. and the late Jim Paxson Sr.

For Grigsby, UD is never far away:

“I know now, if I’m ever sad and down again in my life, all I have to do is go to a UD basketball game and people will give me hugs and gratitude. After 40 years, the people there still remember me.”

In return, he’s not forgotten his school — from which he now holds a master’s degree.

This fall, for the seventh year in a row, he will hold the annual Flyers Sunday at his church for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams. There usually is a speaker, prayers, a meal and fellowship.

That involvement began under the reign of then-UD coach Brian Gregory, with whom Grigsby had a close relationship. Part of it had to do with J.D.’s nephew, Chris Wright, who was a star on those Gregory teams.

But the bond was deeper than that, just as it has been with Donoher, Paxson and the late athletics director Tom Frericks.

Before he died, Paxson once talked to me about Grigsby:

“J.D. is one of the most unique guys ever to play basketball at the University of Dayton. He’s a self-made man. A guy who grabbed hold of all the opportunities in life and has tried to make a mark any way he could.”

And just a few days ago, he was showing that in Dallas, whether it was with his prayers, his love of fellow men or even a bit more flamboyant ritual with the symbolic white glove he wore on an upraised fist.

“The white glove symbolizes purity and God’s power,” he said. “It’s made in the image of a hand to encompass the hand and we’re made in the image of God and we should encompass Him.

“Going to these places and doing the things I’m doing might seem so minuscule, but if everybody stood up and did something for the betterment of each other I think the world would start coming together and we’d become better and better and better.

“In that way, it’s not small at all.”