Kenyetta Grigsby: Speed to Burn

By Neal Rozendaal

This profile was written in 2014.

The running back position has produced more superstars for the D.C. Divas than possibly any other position on the field. Donna Wilkinson, Monica Livingston, LaShawn Foust, Rachelle Pecovsky, and Okiima Pickett are just a few of the great running backs that have worn the burgundy and gold of the Divas over the past decade.

But the Divas’ current running back, Kenyetta Grigsby, is perhaps the best of them all. Without question, she is perennially underrated and overlooked as one of the greatest running backs in women’s football history.

Kenyetta Grigsby

Kenyetta Grigsby grew up in Detroit, Michigan, where she began playing basketball and running track. Her exploits on the track at River Rouge High School drew the attention of the University of Alabama, and she joined the Crimson Tide track team after graduation. But Grigsby quickly realized that Tuscaloosa wasn’t the place for her, so she transferred to Eastern Kentucky University.

Grigsby became a track star at EKU, particularly in the hurdles events. She won consecutive conference championships in the 100-meter high hurdles at EKU and qualified for the NCAA national championship meet in the 60-meter high hurdles as well. When her track eligibility was completed, Grigsby decided to give track coaching a try, and she moved to Washington, DC, to coach at Howard University in 2004.

While coaching at Howard from 2004-2011, Grigsby mentored eight national qualifiers who made it to the Olympic Trials. Her most successful student, David Oliver, made it all the way to the Olympic Games, capturing a bronze medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Burning Up the NWFA

In 2004, Kenyetta Grigsby continued her athletic career by taking up women’s football. “I was playing on the flag football team at Howard University, and I decided I wanted to play full-contact football,” Grigsby recalled. But somehow, the D.C. Divas let Grigsby slip through their fingers, and she wound up going to Baltimore instead.

“I looked it up. The Divas tryouts had already passed, but Baltimore was still having tryouts,” Grigsby reasoned. “So I just tried out for the Baltimore Burn, and I made the team.”

The Burn’s late tryouts would yield a massive windfall with Grigsby’s signing. Kenyetta Grigsby made her women’s football debut with the Baltimore Burn on April 17, 2004, against the D.C. Divas. Grigsby led the Burn in rushing with 37 yards on seven carries in a 26-14 defeat. She also returned three kickoffs and caught three passes for 16 yards and a touchdown, her first career score.

Her best game as a rookie came on May 22, 2004, against the Roanoke Revenge. Grigsby achieved a hat trick, scoring three touchdowns three different ways. She rushed for 65 yards on four carries with a touchdown, caught a 49-yard touchdown reception, and returned a punt 46 yards for another touchdown in Baltimore’s 56-6 victory.

In Baltimore’s 2004 season finale, Grigsby finished as the Burn’s second leading tackler, registering six tackles in the Burn’s 52-16 loss to the Divas. All in all, it was a promising rookie season for Kenyetta Grigsby, but few could have anticipated what she would do in her sophomore season.

Grigsby established herself as a legitimate superstar in women’s football in 2005. She had three games over the span of a month in which she registered more than 200 yards rushing each game. Her breakout game came on May 14, 2005, when the Burn played the Philadelphia Phoenix. Grigsby rushed for 203 yards and a touchdown in Baltimore’s 14-0 victory.

Three weeks later on June 4, Grigsby had perhaps her best game in a Baltimore uniform. It took her just seven carries to rush for 202 yards and four touchdowns against the Tidewater Floods. Grigsby also added a 52-yard punt return touchdown as well as an interception return for a touchdown. Her six touchdowns – plus a successful two-point conversion run – gave her a franchise-record 38 points in the Burn’s 68-0 triumph.

The following week against the Cleveland Fusion, Grigsby again broke 200 yards, notching 201 rushing yards and both Burn touchdowns in Baltimore’s 34-14 loss to Cleveland. Grigsby also added 92 kickoff return yards in the defeat. She concluded the year by compiling 141 all-purpose yards in a 36-0 loss to the D.C. Divas.

Individually, 2005 was a breakout year for Kenyetta Grigsby. She ranked ninth in the NWFA in rushing, and her average of 10.8 yards per carry ranked second in the league. Furthermore, she placed in the top ten in the NWFA in scoring, kickoff return average, and punt return average as well. Grigsby stamped herself as one of the sport’s elite running backs.
Collectively, however, the back-to-back losses to the Fusion and the Divas left the Baltimore Burn with another 4-4 record and again out of the playoffs. “Playing for the Burn was a good experience, because a lot of my friends played on the team,” Grigsby reminisced. “But as far as facilities and the number of coaches, it just wasn’t up to par. We would play on dirt fields and sometimes practice in parking lots. The team didn’t have position coaches to help us out. It wasn’t anything like the Divas organization at all. But because a lot of my friends played on the team, that’s why I enjoyed it.”

A Devastating Setback

The D.C. Divas had a storybook 2006 season, racking up an 11-0 record en route to the NWFA national championship. The Divas were dominant during the regular season, compiling a perfect 8-0 mark and outscoring their opponents, 378-6. The Divas only yielded one touchdown to their opponents in eight regular season games.

So here’s a trivia question…who was the only player to break the end zone against the Divas in the 2006 regular season?

Not surprisingly, the answer is Kenyetta Grigsby.

The Divas opened the 2006 season against the Baltimore Burn on a rainy, wet day. The weather conditions suppressed both offenses, and with eight minutes remaining in the game, the Divas held a 13-0 lead. D.C. was forced to punt deep in its own territory, and the Burn broke through and blocked the kick. That gave Baltimore possession of the ball on the Divas’ nine-yard line.

On first and goal, Kenyetta Grigsby took the handoff, raced toward the right side of the field, and scampered into the end zone for the touchdown. The Divas would hold on for a 13-6 victory and weren’t challenged for the rest of the regular season, posting seven consecutive shutouts over the next two months.

“I didn’t even remember that!” Grigsby laughed. “That’s funny. As a team, every time we played the Divas, we got blown out. We did well sometimes against other teams, but we were just not as organized as the Divas were.”

Grigsby quickly picked up right where she left off in 2005. On April 29, 2006, she rushed for 154 yards and two touchdowns on just ten carries in a 50-0 blowout win over the Harrisburg Angels. The following week against the Tidewater Floods, Grigsby shattered the Burn franchise record with an astonishing 281 yards and five touchdowns on ten carries. The 49-0 victory over the Floods gave Baltimore a 2-1 record and set up a showdown on May 20 with the 3-0 Massachusetts Mutiny.

It would be the last game Kenyetta Grigsby played in a Burn uniform.

The Burn traveled to Boston to play the Mutiny, one of the predecessor teams that would later become the Boston Militia. Grigsby notched 91 yards on ten carries, but to this day, Grigsby remembers that tenth carry. “Early in the game, I tweaked my knee. I didn’t think I had torn my ACL at that point, because I had torn an ACL before and this injury didn’t feel the same. The doctor checked it and said it may not be torn, so he cleared me to go back in the game. I went back in, got tackled, and ripped everything in my knee.”

“I went to the doctor,” Grigsby continued. “My ACL was clearly torn, so I had surgery to repair it. After the surgery, the doctor told me that my articular cartilage was coming off of the bone.”

In addition to the torn ACL, Grigsby had suffered severe cartilage damage – a Grade 4 cartilage injury, the worst on a scale of four. “They can’t see that from the x-ray or the MRI,” Grigsby said. “It wasn’t until the doctor was in my knee to repair the ACL that he saw all of the articular cartilage damage that had been done.”

“I had to have two more ACI surgeries after that to repair the articular cartilage damage,” she continued. “The doctor told me that I was not supposed to be able to run ever again; I was not supposed to be able to do any type of physical exercise ever again. I was devastated.”

The Long Road Back

But like so many football players, Kenyetta Grigsby was too determined to simply give up the game. She just wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Grigsby was non-weight bearing for nine months after her first ACL surgery, and she endured three surgeries in all to repair the damage to her knee.

She sat out the entire 2007 season while rehabbing her injuries. After nearly two years away from the game, Grigsby made an almost unthinkable return to women’s football. But when she came back in 2008, she was in a different position and wearing different colors.

“While I was hurt, the majority of my friends on the Burn decided they were leaving and going to play for the Baltimore Nighthawks. When I came back in 2008, I just went with everybody else,” Grigsby said.

Although Grigsby was ready to return to the field in 2008, she wasn’t ready for the physical demands of the running back position. The Nighthawks moved Grigsby to the cornerback position instead.

“I wasn’t playing running back with the Nighthawks; I only played cornerback,” Grigsby noted. “I had to get back into shape first, and I eased back in at cornerback.”

“I like playing football in general, but if I have a choice, I don’t want to play defensive back. I cheated too much as a defensive back!” Grigsby laughed. “I got burnt a lot looking into the backfield, so I learned my lesson. Now, if I can’t play running back anymore, that’s when I’ll hang up my cleats. I’m not going to be jumping around to different positions to keep trying to play. If I’m not effective as a running back anymore, that’s when I’ll just call it quits.”

Grigsby played two seasons as a cornerback with the Baltimore Nighthawks in 2008 and 2009, making her return to women’s football. But success was elusive for the Nighthawks as well, as they posted a 5-11 record over two seasons and missed the playoffs both years. Grigsby was now a five-year veteran of women’s football, but she’d still never seen the playoffs or been on a team with a winning record.

“The Nighthawks organization was almost the same as the Burn, facility-wise,” Grigsby said. “I liked the owner a little better, but we still weren’t winning very much. I started hanging out with some of the Divas outside of football and got to know them better. After the 2009 season, I called Rich [Daniel, the Divas general manager] and asked him if I could come down and try out for the Divas, and I made the team. It was the friendships I had built with some of the Divas off the field that convinced me to come down and try out.”

Continuing the Tradition

The D.C. Divas have built much of their success around a long line of outstanding running backs. When Kenyetta Grigsby arrived with the Divas in 2010, she wanted to move back to the offensive side of the ball. But at the time, Okiima Pickett had a stranglehold on the position. Pickett was an excellent running back who was on the verge of capturing a gold medal with Team USA in the IFAF Women’s World Championships in 2010.

Still, Grigsby would not be denied. “I just started working out harder and harder, and eventually I made it all the way back to where I could play running back again,” Grigsby recalled. Her performances in practice were so good that she was able to platoon with Pickett at the running back position in her first season with the Divas in 2010.

Kenyetta Grigsby had several highlights as a Divas rookie, scoring three touchdowns in a 49-21 victory over the New York Nemesis in 2010. At the end of the season, Grigsby was named a first-team All-American, and it quickly became clear that she was poised to take over as the Divas’ featured running back in 2011.

The Divas opened the 2011 season against the Boston Militia, and Grigsby faced many of the same players that had been on the field when she tore up her knee in Boston five years earlier. She made an immediate impact in her new role as the Divas’ primary running back. The Divas defeated the Militia, 35-20, breaking the Militia’s 20-game regular season winning streak. It was all thanks in large part to Grigsby, who set a franchise record with 243 rushing yards, including three touchdowns, in the win.

Grigsby called it the most memorable game of her career. “I don’t remember many stats, but I remember that one because Coach [Ezra] Cooper asked me before the game how many touchdowns I was going to score in the game, and I told him three touchdowns,” she recalled. “Then I ended up going out there and scoring three touchdowns! That’s why that game stands out so much to me.”

It was just the start of an amazing season for Kenyetta Grigsby. She topped 150 yards rushing three more times that season, finishing the year with 1,178 rushing yards, good for second in the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) behind Jessica Springer of the Chicago Force. Grigsby also had 13 touchdowns on just 140 carries, and she was rewarded at the end of the year by winning the prestigious Posey Award from the Pigskin Club of Washington, DC, as the women’s football player of the year in the national capital region.

Sheer Dominance

The 2011 season proved that Grigsby was back to her Baltimore Burn form, and the Divas benefitted from her renaissance. She had another great season opener in 2012, rushing for 222 yards to open the season against the Pittsburgh Passion, but despite her effort, the Divas fell to Pittsburgh, 35-34. The victory by Pittsburgh gave the Passion a shot to clinch the division championship over the Divas later that season when the two teams met for a rematch on June 2, 2012.

Instead, the Divas regained control of their destiny in the division championship race, and Grigsby was the catalyst. The Divas and the Passion were tied with ten minutes remaining in the contest, 28-28. But Grigsby proved to be the pivotal player of the game in crunch time, breaking the game open with two rushing touchdowns and a two-point conversion to lead the Divas to a 43-28 victory. She shattered two franchise records by carrying the ball 41 times for 264 rushing yards to give the Divas a critical division win.

Grigsby would go on to help the Divas clinch their ninth division title in team history two weeks later with a 42-0 victory in Columbus over the Comets. Kenyetta’s father, Kenny, came down from Detroit to watch his daughter play for the first time, and on the day before Father’s Day, Grigsby scored the first two touchdowns of the contest to put the game out of reach.

Grigsby again finished second in the WFA in rushing – this time behind Melissa Smith of the Chicago Force – with 1,052 yards on the season. She added 14 rushing touchdowns on the year and was named a first-team All-American for the third straight time.

After two terrific seasons, what could Kenyetta Grigsby possibly do for an encore? In the 2013 season opener, the Divas traveled to Pittsburgh as the Passion played their first game in newly-minted Highmark Stadium. Grigsby had set a franchise record with 264 yards in the Divas’ last trip to Pittsburgh, but this time, she topped herself again.

The Divas defeated the Passion to open the 2013 season, 42-31, thanks largely to a franchise-record 290 rushing yards from Grigsby. Her second of two touchdowns on the evening came with 7:15 remaining in the game and padded a four-point DC lead to put the game out of reach. Her magnificent performance earned her WFA Offensive Player of the Week honors from the league.

Grigsby always seems to save her best performances for her best competition. In the Divas’ second meeting with the Passion in 2013, she tied her own franchise record with 41 carries for 259 yards and three touchdowns. Grigsby rushed for 201 yards and four touchdowns on 35 carries in a regular season meeting with the Boston Militia in 2013. She did even better in the playoffs, accounting for all five of the Divas’ touchdowns in their 58-34 playoff loss to the Militia to end last season.

“It is no coincidence that her best games have come against the best opponents. Kenyetta is one of the fiercest competitors I have ever been around,” Divas quarterback Allyson Hamlin observed. “Don’t be fooled by her quiet confidence, because on the field, ice is running through her veins. She thrives when the stakes are the highest.”

Including playoffs, Kenyetta Grigsby rushed for 1,408 yards in 2013, placing second in the WFA for the third straight year (this time behind Boston’s Whitney Zelee). Grigsby also added 23 rushing touchdowns for the year, a personal high. She became the first Diva ever with back-to-back-to-back thousand-yard rushing seasons, and she was named a first-team All-American for the fourth consecutive year.

Superstar Humility

From 2011-2013, Kenyetta Grigsby totaled 3,638 rushing yards and 50 touchdowns. “Kenyetta is a once-in-a-lifetime back,” Hamlin declared. “She is a locomotive – powerful, fast, and fearless. Her vision of the field is exceptional, and she often makes something out of nothing.”

Allyson Hamlin, the winningest quarterback in women’s football history, credited Grigsby for allowing the Divas’ passing game to thrive. “Kenyetta is the kind of player that gives our offense the ability to do just about anything, and she forces opponents to completely change their defensive schemes,” Hamlin continued. “Kenyetta has given us a running game that has been so strong and consistent that our passing game has flourished, and because of that, we have evolved into a legitimate dual-threat offense.”

Yet Grigsby is humble about all of her success. “The stuff I’ve done on the field, I owe a lot of that to my offensive line and to the coaches. It’s not all just me. I owe the whole team,” she said.

Largely due to her incredible talent, the Divas have won four division championships and earned four playoff berths over the last four seasons. Grigsby has finally been rewarded in DC with the team success that so often eluded her in Baltimore.

“It has been an awesome experience. It’s great to be a part of this. Everything is better when you’re winning,” Grigsby admitted. But it’s clear to see what continues to motivate her. “I still want to win a national championship. That’s what my goal is,” Grigsby stated flatly.

Grigsby has some words of wisdom for the young women still coming up through the sport. “You need to work hard off the field. You need to spend time in the gym. You need to study the playbook and watch a lot of film,” Grigsby advised. “Work hard when no one’s looking. People see me at practice smiling and joking, but outside of practice, I’m constantly watching film and working out. I’m always just trying to get better.”

For Kenyetta Grigsby, the second act of her football career following her devastating knee injury in 2006 has been extremely rewarding, and the Divas have reaped those rewards. “The Divas organization is a lot different than any organization I’ve ever been a part of, and I truly appreciate that,” Grigsby said. “Family, friendship, team, hard work, dedication…I can’t sum up this organization in just one word. It’s all of that together. It’s been awesome.”