If you read the dust jacket of Jeff Grillo’s life, it would read like the story of Job — a life of trial and loss.
Just as Grillo was coming of age at 21, he was diagnosed with two forms of testicular cancer, one of which only had a 10 percent survival rate. He had already been saddled with a degenerative retinal condition that would cause him to become legally blind as a young man. And to top it off, Grillo didn’t have health insurance at the time.
While his amazing story has a happy ending, if you were only to read the dust jacket, you’d miss the more subtle and interesting parts. Life is often what happens between the major plot points.
After getting the news about his cancer diagnosis, Grillo thought his life was over. He sat in his car and started to shake and and punch the door of his car.
“To me, it meant I was going to die,” he said.
But Grillo beat the odds. He escaped the death sentence. He survived the cancer. And you might think he would have seen the proverbial light and embraced the miracle of his new life with an equally positive outlook. But that’s not his story. It was after the scars from his surgery had healed that his life began to fall apart.
“I think I was dealing with a lot of anger issues,” he said. “I wasn’t a person who always handled the disability very well. I just wasn’t a very nice person.”
After his first year of Bible College in Lakeholm, Fla., Grillo had taken a semester off to get married, and that’s when he got the news about his diagnosis.
“I found out a month before my wedding about the cancer, and against everyone’s advice and counseling, we got married anyway,” he said. “Barely a month after, I was going through surgery and chemotherapy.”
Without health insurance, Grillo and his wife quickly amassed six figures of debt. He didn’t have a college degree or a job to provide income to dig his way out. His body eventually healed from the cancer, but his marriage never recovered. After about four years, it ended in divorce.
“It was a horrible scar on my soul,” Grillo said. “Here I was taking a semester off to get married, and now I’m a year plus out of college and can’t see myself going back. I can’t see God using me as a divorced person. How am I ever going to have a ministry? I’m a failure.”
He eventually went back to college and started taking broadcasting classes. He got a job as a disc jockey on a local radio station and soon became a radio personality in the 19th largest market in the country.
“It was a pretty big achievement in radio, and I had a little bit of an attitude problem,” he said.
At 26, Grillo embraced the lifestyle of a DJ. He began abusing alcohol and smoking pot. He found that having your voice broadcast into someone’s car or home created a level of intimacy that led to other opportunities, as well.
“I realized I had this power on the radio,” he said. “When you are on the radio, the phones light up, and it’s mostly single women calling.”
Those women became another means of distracting him from the anger and pain that he tucked under the sheets, stuffed into a bottle or blew out in a plume of smoke.
“I used the world’s methods to numb the pain,” he said. “I’m a slow learner, so it took awhile. I just couldn’t escape my own condemnation.”
Grillo’s vision continued to decline, and in 1999, he finally had to forfeit his driver’s license — yet another blow for a young man who described himself as “fiercely independent.”
Grillo’s grades also suffered. It took 11 years before he managed to earn his degree. He was caught in a vortex of activities that fed his ego but drained his spirit.
“Towards the end, I was just so disgusted with myself,” Grillo said. “I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted out, and I didn’t know how. I knew what the answer was, but I just couldn’t quite stop the cycle.”
He found help through a woman who was walking a different path, a path that Grillo wanted to be on, too. For Grillo, her name may as well have been “Grace” because that is what he found. There wasn’t a moment of epiphany, no blinding light. But slowly, he began to get his life back on track, and he began to find strength from the experiences of his life where he had only found shame before.
“It’s pretty neat how God can use my mess to produce his message and testimony for him that actually is having an impact on others and his kingdom.”
Today, Grillo is 46 years old, cancer-free, happily married and has two healthy children who were conceived naturally. His life and his story have fueled his ministry for the last 10 years, during which time he has written two books: The Power in Perseverance and The Excuse Assassin.
Despite having suffered like Job in the Bible, Grillo finds more in common with the story of King David — who despite his weaknesses and many failings was embraced and forgiven as “a man after God’s own heart.”
“We can take huge, massive u-turns and detours because of our decisions, but ultimately in the end, his purposes will be accomplished,’ Grillo said.”My main thing is that you can’t give up. It’s a marathon. You may be limping, dragging yourself across the finish line. But it’s not about who gets across first or who makes the best time. It’s about finishing the race. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
People who have read the dust jacket of Grillo’s life often ask him how he can describe himself as blessed. So, he invites them to take a deeper look into his story.
“When they look at me, they see a blind man; they see my disabilities,” he said. “While I can’t see, I still have vision. Jesus said, ‘Bless those who believe and do not see.’ The truth is, it’s in the suffering that his mercy has been most evident. These experiences may seem like punishments, not blessing — loss of independence with my sight, but they have required me to be more dependent on the unseen.”
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