In the early hours of the morning, you can find Collin O’Donnell ’20 in the kitchen of his coffee shop, The Grind, with staff members preparing food and coffee for the day’s patrons. Starting the day early is a normal practice for O’Donnell; from early morning drills in the military to 5 a.m. college football lifting sessions, to now serving lattes and bagels to the Bluefield community as a small business owner. Some may call this “the grind” lifestyle, which defines O’Donnell’s life well.
A native of North Tonawanda, N.Y., O’Donnell graduated from high school in 2011. Realizing college wasn’t initially for him at the time, O’Donnell enlisted in the Armed Forces in 2013. While serving as a combat engineer in Kandahar, Afghanistan, O’Donnell’s developed an infection in his foot. He spent two years at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and underwent seven operations.
While at Walter Reed, O’Donnell was invited to the White House, where former President Barack Obama personally awarded him the Presidential Call to Service Award for his outstanding service to the community. Upon finishing rehab, he decided to give higher education a second try and pursue a career in college football.
“Something was missing from my life,” shared O’Donnell. “The opportunity to go back and play college football was something I was missing after high school and felt like I couldn’t give up the opportunity.”
In 2018, through Athletes of Valor, a program that helps veterans play college sports following their military service, O’Donnell received a call from Bluefield University head football coach, Dewey Lusk. O’Donnell immediately made the seven-and-a-half-hour trip to visit with Lusk and defensive coordinator Dino Khaklis.
“They sat down and the first thing I said was, ‘Coach, I will do anything to play college football,” O’Donnell said. “I’ll bench whatever you want me to bench. I’ll squat whatever you want me to squat. I will play college football however you want me to play, and I’ll do it at any position.’”
Nicknamed Sarge, O’Donnell served as a defensive lineman and became a captain and a leader to his teammates. During his time playing for the Rams football team, O’Donnell maintained a 3.6 GPA, compiled 68 total tackles in 24 games, including 37 unassisted stops. O’Donnell has 10 tackles for losses (35 yards), and four quarterback sacks (14 yards). In December 2019, O’Donnell received the Richmond Touchdown Club Man of the Year Award, one of the highest honors a college football player in the state of Virginia can receive. That same year, he was awarded the Champion of Character award from the Mid-South Conference.
On November 11, 2020, Veterans Day, O’Donnell was named the ninth recipient of the Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). Coordinated by the staff at the Lockhead Martin Armed Forces Bowl, the Armed Forces Merit Award was created in June 2012 “to honor an individual and/or group within the realm of the sport of football.” Out of 41 nominations, 38 individuals, and three programs, O’Donnell was selected for the award.
O’Donnell has not only served as a leader on the field and in the classroom but also in the surrounding community. He volunteered for almost every community service event that the Rams football team participated in, including delivering meals with the Bluefield Union Mission and the Mercer County (W.Va.) Hunger Challenge.
O’Donnell wanted to contribute more to the community. Following the closure of the New Graham Pharmacy’s Last Fountain in downtown Bluefield, Va., O’Donnell asked how he could help. “I recognized a clear opportunity to bring something special to the community,” said O’Donnell.
The inspiration for the coffee shop came from an unusual source. O’Donnell thought of Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX. “I thought ‘If this guy can launch his own vehicle from his vehicle company (Tesla) in space with his own space company, then why can’t I play college football and start a coffee shop?’” said O’Donnell.
After discussing the topic with friend and alumna Savannah Carabin ‘18, O’Donnell met with the Bluefield Industrial Development Authority to discuss the opportunity. “I was coming home from football practice and remember thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing? I’m way in over my head, I’ve never worked with coffee in my life. I don’t know how to start a business.’”
Though he didn’t know a lot about coffee at first, he dedicated each day to learning. “I made a promise to myself and to my community, that every single day, I would do one thing to try and make this business happen. And so that’s what we did. Every day I did one thing, to the best of my ability. Eventually, after a while, the wheels started turning, things started moving, and people started joining.”
In the fall of 2019, O’Donnell took part in the Tazewell County Business Challenge for entrepreneurs seeking to open a new business in the area. He proposed an extensive business plan for his idea for a coffee and bakeshop located in downtown Bluefield, Va. He won the small business grant of $5,500. The Grind also received a $10,000 grant from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VCEDA). At the end of January 2020, The Grind became a legal LLC entity.
Of those people who joined him to make the vision a reality were teammates and friends; Cole Carter, Joshua Wright, Joe Haner, and Sam Kirtley, who are now stakeholders.
“I believe in our team. The individuals who have joined us are highly inspired and motivated dreamers who are creative in the way that they think and interact with the customers,” said O’Donnell. “We’re blessed to have these individuals especially during difficult hiring times.”
“Collin approached me in December 2019 and asked me to come on board with this project,” said Carter. “I was intrigued due to knowing him previously as a classmate and teammate, and knew he was bound to succeed.”
Wright commented this about O’Donnell: “When he puts his mind to something it will be done to the best of his ability and then some.”
O’Donnell did just that. In May 2020, The Grind opened as a mobile truck at the present physical location of 103 Spring Street in Downtown Bluefield, Va., despite the challenges of the pandemic.
“We were able to pivot the business to a mobile food unit while learning so much about our customer base and getting an incredible amount of feedback,” says O’Donnell. “We put together a mobile unit menu, food ordering logistics, process, customer ordering process, health inspections, zoning, permits, and more in just 27 days from the time we bought the trailer to the time we opened.
Later that summer, the team started renovating the physical location. While doing so, O’Donnell graduated in December 2020 with his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
“Doing this as a full-time student was a challenge within itself,” shared O’Donnell. “There isn’t one employee who isn’t involved in school.”
Through the challenges of the pandemic, school, training, and a rescheduled spring football season, the team was able to officially open in June 2021. The new space features an eat-in dining and workspace, a TV entertainment lounge, and an outdoor patio with fire pits.
“I think The Grind will be a local staple and encourage other entrepreneurial ventures. I also think it will encourage investment in the local downtown,” said O’Donnell. “We aren’t like other corporate chains trying to follow a highway; we want to see the downtown landscape grow, stabilize, and show life again. We want to help be a part of a new breath in downtown.”
The Grind works with small business roasters including, in Virginia: Brugh Coffee Co., Christiansburg; 25/30 Espresso, Fredericksburg; Lexington Coffee Roasters, Lexington; Lamplighter Coffee Roasters, Richmond; and Miller House Coffee, Virginia Beach; Ceremony Coffee Roasters, Maryland; and in North Carolina, from Vigilant Hope Roasting in Wilmington. Alumni Jeremy ’08 and Meghan ’06 Hardy serve as executive director and content manager for Vigilant Hope, “a modern missions nonprofit organization that exists to educate, equip, and empower the body of Christ to reach those in need through the hope of the gospel”.
Other goods also come from local sellers. “Our veggies come from local Bluefield farms, our bagels come from Blacksburg, Va., and our meats come from local packers,” said O’Donnell. “We’re excited to involve the local community in every single step. I think it’s special that we’re a small business helping other small businesses.”
O’Donnell describes the coffee shop as a place for the blue-collar workers and everyday Americans who need a place to gather and grab a cup of coffee.
The Grind plans to expand with a nod to their beginnings, a double-decker mobile that will offer coffee, smoothies, tea, and juice bar at private venues and events.
The Grind also hosts the Bluefield University Coaches Show every Monday, which can be viewed at bcrams.com. Each week, BU Athletics interviews BU coaches and players from various sports.
“I came to Bluefield on a quest to play college football and I found my calling somehow, someway in coffee with the best friends around me and I’m blessed to have had that opportunity to find my highest potential each and every day,” said O’Donnell. “I cannot say enough about the local community and my gratitude for the people of Bluefield and southwest Virginia. Between the support and resources and their continued loyalty to growing the region and diversifying business, they have allowed us to open doors we never thought possible. Bluefield is home and we are grateful to be here.”