When Sam Grace, formerly a kicker and punter for the Towson football team, decided to transfer to UMBC to play basketball as a preferred walk-on, the sophomore felt like he was coming home in a sense, which comes from a family legacy of graduating from the Catonsville, Md., school.
In fact, his brother, Ben, played for the UMBC hoops team from 2013-2017.
“It’s a great feeling knowing that a bunch of my family has attended UMBC in the past and have succeeded well after UMBC,” said Grace, a 5-foot-10, 200-pound guard with the Retrievers. “With my brother Ben formerly playing basketball, it made it a lot easier for me to fit right into the program and I love it.”
The seeds of change were planted as Grace saw where he was on Towson football’s depth chart. Two All-CAA performers — kicker Aidan O’Neill and punter Shane McDonough — were ahead of him during the fall of 2019. There was also the inconvenience of living off campus in Catonsville and commuting back and forth to Towson in the morning — sometimes waking up at 5 a.m. just to make it on campus for a 6 a.m. lift with teammates.
Grace also began attending Towson basketball games at SECU Arena and realized just how much he missed the game of basketball. Though he played football and basketball at Boys’ Latin, Grace had earned All-MIAA A Conference honors in hoops as a senior, when he averaged 13 points per game and hit 45 percent of his 3-pointers.
“I’ve been playing basketball since I was 4,” Grace said. “As opposed to, I just started playing football in high school so I guess you could say I didn’t really have the passion for football as much as I did for basketball.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, his interest in switching sports and schools piqued. With the pandemic wreaking havoc throughout the country, many businesses, including gyms, were forced to make adjustments. Leadership Through Athletics, a sports complex co-founded by his father and uncles, was no exception to the impact brought on by pandemic.
Fortunately for Grace and Ben, they were able to still utilize the facility. It was during this time that Grace says he “knocked off some rust and got back into the swing of things with basketball” by working out with his brother. The transition to working out for a different sport wasn’t a big adjustment for Grace, who had done the same at Boys’ Latin.
“[I] never had an offseason,” Grace said. “So that made it easy for me to transition from one sport to another because I was so used to it in high school.”
The time at the facility also brought back memories of the times Grace played basketball as a kid. Grace remembers always tagging along with Ben and his father whenever they went to practice. At those practices, Grace participated in drills and, as he grew older, competed against Ben in games of one-on-one or shooting competitions.
“It’s always a back and forth kind of thing,” Grace said. “It gets super competitive knowing that we are going to be talking smack either way, but that is the best part. We have been competitive toward each other our whole lives in everything we do, so it is just another one of those things.”
“Every time we work out together he tries to tell me that he is a better shooter than me, but everybody including him knows deep down that just isn’t true,” he added.
Grace has always been inspired by his four older brothers, but he also always wanted to exceed expectations as well. That drive would eventually lead Grace from the gridiron back to the hardwood. He contacted UMBC head coach Ryan Odom, who offered him a spot with the Retrievers as a preferred walk-on. Odom says he’s known the youngest Grace since 2016-17, when Ben was a senior team captain in Odom’s first year at UMBC.
“We’ve known Sam a while and it’s been great to have another Grace here at UMBC,” Odom said. “He’s a great guy, great student, and has already impacted the team in a positive way.”
According to Odom, he saw Grace’s first goal as trying to fit in and getting to know his teammates and coaches. What drew Odom to Grace other than familial ties was his track record of being a productive shooter with a high basketball IQ.
“He’s just really hit the ground running,” Odom said. “We’re lucky to have him in this transition.”
While he begins his first year at UMBC, Grace’s main goal is to help everybody improve. Grace is also focused on helping his senior teammates leave the program on a high note with an America East championship. Grace will have to sit out the year, but he says once his number is called, he will make the most of the opportunity.
“He won’t be on the court this year,” Odom said. “Right now his role is to help us in practice, get ready for the games, I think he understands and is happy to do that.”
Grace himself says that practicing and being a part of the scout team has been awesome for him and that he’s enjoying playing with a lot of good players. UMBC, which got its season underway with a loss to Georgetown Nov. 25, is scheduled to play five more nonconference games before league play begins Dec. 19.
“We have prepared a lot and have created a great bond throughout the team, so I think that it is going to be great.” Grace said of having a chance to watch his team this year. “… We are certainly going to give it our all every game. I’m excited to see what we can really do this year.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of UMBC Athletics