What's right with college football, personified, approaches in the corridor. College Football As It Should Be, embodied, extends a hand. "Hi, Shawn Graves," he says. He is in charge, but in an easy, friendly way. He slips on sunglasses. "Let's walk."
Out onto the campus of Wofford College, enrollment 1,050, he strolls. Frederick LaShawn Graves is a little cookie that God took a bite of at birth—he was born with no right pectoral muscle, needed blood transfusions, had severe allergies and asthma, and wasn't expected to live more than six to seven months. Twenty-one years later, on the brink of his senior season at Division II Wofford, which is situated in Spartanburg, S.C., he already possesses the NCAA all-division record for rushing by a quarterback (4,138 yards), he is within 94 points of Walter Payton's Division II scoring record of 464 points, and he runs the wishbone offense like no one you've ever seen. Graves also holds NCAA all-division records for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a game (323), rushing average per game by a quarterback (147.1, in 1990) and most rushing yards in a season by a quarterback (1,483, in 1989).
Even if you've heard of him, you've almost certainly never seen him play. Graves could have done it differently, "could have done it anywhere," says his coach, Mike Ayers. "I've seen people run the wishbone from Oklahoma to Air Force, and Shawn does it as well as—maybe better than—any of them."
Ayers singles out one play to make his point. "Against Winston-Salem State last year, we've got fourth-and-one," he says. "Shawn runs right up into a guy's face, turns 360 degrees, cuts back inside, there are two guys there, and it's like he's vapor. They don't touch him, he gets into the secondary, and that's it. Thirty-eight yards. Touchdown."
August 30, 1992
Graves is 5'8" and 155 pounds, and he sometimes comes face mask-to-face mask with defenders before exercising the pitch-run option. As a high school senior in Marion, S.C., he was pursued, despite his lack of size, by Clemson, Georgia Tech, South Carolina, North Carolina and N.C. State. The bigger schools wanted him as a wide receiver and kick returner. He wanted to play quarterback, which was one reason Graves went to Wofford—but not the only one.
Graves researched all of his scholarship choices, visiting every Division I school that invited him. He was frankly dazzled at times. "When you visit Division I schools, simple things tempt you. You go to a big game and watch a guy make a great play, and all you can hear is the screaming, the big stadium shaking. There are so many people to meet, so much goes on, so many privileges an athlete can have at a bigger school."
But there were things about Division I football that Graves wanted no part of. Football at that level was taken too seriously for his tastes, and academics not seriously enough. And so he chose Wofford.
"I remember seeing guys who thought football was everything," he says. "A guy like that, his eyes just looked different somehow. He'd block out everybody else and think he was at the top of the world. I've seen guys who were superb athletes end up coming back home, doing nothing. I've seen some athletes swayed by the big lights, the stadium size, the school size. I've seen a lot of people make a lot of mistakes. I took heed."
The last Division I school with a shot at Graves was Georgia Tech. "Tech was probably the biggest temptation. I forget the [assistant] coach's name, but he was a great recruiter. He razzled and dazzled. But he made one comment that turned me against Tech. He said, 'You know, you've got a chance to go pro. You'll be a sure shot. We'll have you back there returning those kicks and punts, and catching some balls at wideout, and before you know it, you'll be playing pro ball.' I knew it wasn't true. The minute he said that, I just got turned off."
It was a mature decision for an 18-year-old to make, but wholly in character for Graves. Shawn's mother, Rose Marie, and father, Fred, broke up when Shawn was eight months old. "I was 18 when Shawn was born," says Rose Marie. "For years it was just us—just a mom and a son. It was like we grew up together. He grew up early as the man of the house. Once he's satisfied that something is right, he'll do it." Indeed, the Wofford coaches were taken aback when Graves cut short his recruiting visit after only six hours on campus. "I told them, 'There's no use in your wasting a hotel fee,' " Graves recalls. " 'I'll go on back home, and we can all relax. I'm coming. You have my word on it.' "
The absence of the pectoral muscle, though it brings some stares whenever he's shirtless in the gym, has never affected Graves's play. But when he was a kid, the area of his chest where there is no natural padding between bone and skin led doctors to fear that a blow there would break some ribs. It has never happened. Even after the asthma and most of his allergies abated early in elementary school, he says, "I caught so much grief from my mother, for the longest time, about trying to play sports."
"I worried about the muscle, I worried about his being so small, and I worried because, at the time, he was my only child," says Rose Marie, who 14 years ago gave birth to a daughter by her second husband, William Pee.
The missing muscles have not hampered Graves's ability to throw the ball, much less to run the Wofford offense. Over the past two seasons the Terriers have gone 18-6 and have twice made it to the Division II playoffs, but they have not advanced beyond the second round, losing both times to perennial Division II power Mississippi College. This season the Terriers again should make it to the playoffs, in which the company will likely be defending champion Pittsburg (Kans.) State, Jacksonville State and East Texas State, which meets the Pitt State Gorillas the second week of the regular season.
Having failed twice during Graves's career to make it to the division championship game, Wofford has never been seen on television, even regionally. He has been a treasure reserved for private showings, mostly at little Snyder Field, capacity 6,500. There Graves dazzles the crowd with the Wofford wishbone, which, he says, is so foolproof that "it's kind of like stealing." At the same time, no opposing quarterback can run the wishbone on the Wofford defense. Says Graves, "I tell our defensive guys at practice, 'You've got to focus on the belly button. That's not going to move.' If I can get a guy to look into my eyes, he's finished." He smiles. "Then again, sometimes I can make my belly button move. If I can get a defensive guy to shift his weight slightly one way, I've got him. I know I've got him."
The moves Graves, a business economics major, envisions in his future involve the intricate mechanics of money. He wants to get into financing corporate deals. Graves worked as a sportswriter during the summer of '91 for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, but that is not for him. "Frankly, you guys don't make enough money," he says. "That was just something for me to enjoy for a while."
But not something to be taken lightly. Graves wrote a story for the Herald-Journal about Steve Davis, USA Today's high school athlete of the year for 1991, who turned out to be a Prop 48. "He's 6'3", 220, runs a 4.32 40, played at Spartanburg High School," says Graves. "In my story I criticized Auburn University. I just felt like they took him because he was such a good athlete—and in theory that's what they're supposed to do. But I think they should have been considerate enough of the kid to let him go to a junior college and get himself straight academically. Suppose he goes there and does great in football but he's not able to stay on his books? Suppose he goes to the first day of practice and breaks his leg or hyperextends his knee and can never play again? Then what's Auburn going to do for him? Those are just questions that I ask."
He reflects again on his own recruiting experience. "I can remember some of the guys I know who went to big schools," he says. "I haven't heard of them since."
Likely, they've heard of him. And it's likely they'll hear more, from corporate offices higher than the highest lights of a stadium.