STANFORD LINEBACKER Shayne Skov can pinpoint the precise moment when he set himself down the path toward becoming one of college football's most intimidating players. He was 13, standing on a patch of dirt masquerading as a field at a practice in Guadalajara, Mexico. Skov peered through his face mask at the toughest running back on his team, the Carneros.
This is an article from the Aug. 19, 2013 issue
The two players matched up in an Oklahoma drill, the quintessential test of football toughness: Two players line up 10 yards apart, and on the coach's whistle they charge at each other and collide, like a couple of rams. (Fitting in this case, given that carnero means ram in Spanish.)
Skov abhorred the Oklahoma drill. He'd never felt tough enough. A few years earlier, before his family moved from San Francisco to Mexico, Skov's father enrolled him in Bay Area inner-city sports programs to toughen him up. Skov hated contact so much he begged to quit.
But on this day he decided to see what would happen if he delivered a blow instead of receiving one. On the whistle he sprinted, gritted his teeth and leveled the tailback, who jumped up from the dust angry.
The coaches, stunned at Skov's vicious hit, blew the whistle and sent the players at each other again. Skov felt nervous and shocked, but he went right at the running back and flattened him again. Skov cherishes that memory as "the moment where it clicked," and his teammates whooped in approval of his transformation. "You can be the recipient of the blow," he says," or you can be the cause of the blow."
Skov's current team, Stanford, experienced a similar epiphany in December 2006. After the Cardinal took its lumps in a 1--11 season, the school fired second-year coach Walt Harris. New coach Jim Harbaugh installed a pro-style offense, then the Cardinal defied modern football convention by bunching up the field and ramrodding their way to relevance. Harbaugh sold his new program to five-star talent such as Andrew Luck, which helped attract the highly touted Skov, the first commitment of Stanford's 2009 class. Three consecutive BCS bids followed.
Stanford had the same number of victories the past three seasons (35) as Alabama, has won five of six against eternal tormentor USC and enters this season as a favorite for the national title. "We're still the new kid on the block," says coach David Shaw, who took over in 2011 when Harbaugh left for the 49ers. "To me the next step is, I don't want to be the new kid on the block. I want to be the kid that's always on the block."
Skov has emerged as the face of the new program—and it's an interesting face, adorned on game days with KISS-style eye black and topped by a Mohawk. Don't be fooled, though. His younger brother, Patrick, a Cardinal fullback, describes him as "a nerd-meathead combo." Indeed, Shayne is smart enough to major in management science and engineering and witty enough to tweet hilariously about yoga pants, helmet acne and the infuriating overuse of the word cray. He's geeky enough to devour the works of George R.R. Martin and lose himself in role-playing games such as Skyrim. Recently, he drew laughs in a class when he said he wanted to work in the defense industry; everyone assumed he meant the NFL, but he was actually talking about working on weapons systems.
The NFL is certainly an option. Tailbacks can't block him, quarterbacks audible at the mere hint of his blitz and he's the lead agitator behind the Stanford defense's #partyinthebackfield hashtag. "He's got the ability to play at the highest level," says Shaw, "and be one of those special players."
His next step seems logical, but Skov's 23-year journey has never been simple. His family jokes that Skov—who was born to an African-American mother and a white father and spent three years in Mexico—is "half-black, half-white and half-Mexican." His saga spans two countries, two coasts and two languages. He's been thrown off the football team at one school, voted head prefect at another and suspended for an academic quarter for a DUI at a third. There have been three knee surgeries, a two-year delay in entering the NFL draft and, now, one final season to prove he's healthy.
As all that unfolded, Skov has watched his mother's health decline for more than a decade, multiple sclerosis decimating her body so completely that she can no longer even produce tears. "You can't get Shayne Skov's story in a three-minute video clip," says Shaw. "There's too much to it."
TERRI SKOV was diagnosed with MS in 1999, which prompted her husband, Peter, to move his family to Mexico. The temperate climate would make Terri more comfortable, and caregivers would be cheaper than in the U.S.
Peter and Terri divorced in 2003, but he stayed for long stretches with his ex-wife, the boys and their two daughters—Olivia is now 13, Annika is 11—as her health declined. First she had migraines, then vision loss followed by severe balance issues, and now she is in hospice care. Doctors expect her to live only three or four more months. "She's just going away, going away," says Terri's mother, Victoria Kellman, who has been caring for her in Oakland since 2012. "She can't move. She can't scratch her nose. She can't do anything."
Terri, who has wilted from 140 pounds to 85, can only communicate through blinking and facial expressions. Kellman says her daughter's eyes gleam when she listens to Stanford's games on the radio and the announcers mention one of her boys.
Kellman and the Skov family stress that they aren't looking for sympathy. Shayne rarely discusses his mother's health with his teammates and is adamant he doesn't want it to become a sideline reporter story line during Stanford's season. "My mom's sick, and that unfortunately is what it is," he says. "Everybody has their own issues."
That doesn't mean that dealing with his mom's disease has been easy. The most difficult part for the family has been the helplessness they feel. "The fact that she's still with us, but not really with us," says Andy Skov, Peter's younger brother, "is the most challenging emotional thing."
Terri worked as a firefighter and EMT in the San Francisco Fire Department, was an avid skier and worked in France as a runway model. She was often mistaken for Whitney Houston and still doesn't have a wrinkle on her face. When Shayne and Patrick would take her to the hospital, people would ask Shayne, What's wrong with your girlfriend? "It's crazy to think Mom has some disease that's taking everything out of her," says Patrick, "and she still looks like a goddamn teenager."
"Until there's not a breath in her, all she can think about is her children," says Kellman. "I'm happy for them and proud of them and happy that they've done her well. For all the things that they've been through, they never gave up or felt defeated."
THE OAKLAND suburb of Piedmont is so affluent that it has been home to Charles Schwab and Dean Witter. In 2004, Peter and the kids moved there, and Shayne enrolled at Piedmont High, where the parking lot filled with glimmering Mercedes and BMWs.
Peter Skov, 50, chain-smokes Pall Mall menthols and used some variation of an f bomb 103 times over the course of a nearly four-hour interview. He co-owns seven hamburger joints in Guadalajara with Andy and has done everything from working in the tech industry to driving cars to Mexico to sell for profit.
Peter has an intense interest in his kids' athletic careers, but he's far from an overbearing stage father. He'd always dreamed that the boys' talents might take them to a small liberal arts school such as Williams or Amherst. Shayne's own expectations weren't any higher. "I never thought I would be a Division I athlete," he says.
On Shayne's first day of freshman practice at Piedmont, his coaches chuckled. You played football where? They sent him to work with the kids who'd never played before. Then came the first Oklahoma drill, and one broken chin strap later Shayne was in the group of experienced players.
As a sophomore, Skov started at cornerback and wide receiver, and people began to take notice on and off the field. "He stands out," says AJ Chan, a former high school teammate and close friend. "He's a half-black kid with red hair. You don't see that every day. He and Blake Griffin could be long-lost cousins."
Skov wore outlandishly baggy Girbaud jeans and XXXL Tweety Bird T-shirts from Lot 29. Patrick calls it his brother's "little hoodrat" phase, and those years were filled with theatrical arguments with their dad. Peter yelled at Shayne to pull up his pants, and Shayne mocked Peter for wearing Uggs. "He was a knucklehead, frankly," Andy Skov says of his nephew. "Not like a jerk—just not a mature, responsible young man."
Peter had made a rule that Shayne needed a 3.5 grade point average to stay on the football team. When Shayne pulled a 2.9 one semester—well above the school's eligibility standard but below his father's—Peter yanked his son off the team. Shayne protested by storming around the house calling his dad "the most hated man in Piedmont."
Piedmont coach Doug Mandigo agreed with the spirit of Peter's decision but not the timing. With the Highlanders barreling toward the playoffs, Mandigo argued that too many others would be hurt if Shayne left the team. Over a two-hour Sunday-night meeting in the parking lot of a grocery store, Mandigo finally persuaded Peter to let his son play. But Skov missed the bus to that Friday afternoon's game because he was at lunch with his girlfriend, and Mandigo threw him off the team.
He didn't give up on the kid, though. A few months later Mandigo showed up at Skov's house to try to talk him into going to Trinity-Pawling, a prep school in upstate New York. Even though the decision cost Piedmont its best player the next two years, Mandigo knew it was the right move.
"I really liked the kid," says Mandigo. "He was unbelievably respectful and coachable. I kicked him off the team, but I helped him. If I thought the kid was a jerk, I wouldn't have helped him."
SKOV REFERS to the decision to attend Trinity-Pawling as "literally where the fork is" in his life's path. California kids rarely attend Eastern prep schools, but Skov found himself at the foothills of the Taconic Mountains, thousands of miles from home and even further from his old life.
He traded his Girbaud jeans for a coat and tie, his smokeshow girlfriend for 300 male classmates and a 10:30 p.m. curfew. "I didn't know how to tie a tie before I got there," he says. "Now I can tie about four different kinds of knots—with my eyes closed, running in the snow."
Skov repeated his sophomore year and immediately clicked with Jim McDougal, his AP U.S. history teacher and dorm parent. McDougal was impressed by the empathy shown by Skov, who went out of his way to befriend foreign students. After all, he had been one himself in Mexico. "He's a compassionate kid. He listened to kids and understood kids," says McDougal. "And when he spoke, everyone listened."
With his mom sick and his family split apart, Skov thrived in the structure and stability that Trinity-Pawling offered. McDougal and his wife, Nicolle, provided familylike support, clearing out a section of their fridge for Skov's food, having him babysit their kids and leaving the door open so he could drop by whenever he wanted. Skov took a schedule filled with AP classes, scored a 1,300 math-verbal combo on the SAT and had an offer from Stanford about 18 months after getting thrown off his high school team.
"I owe [McDougal] all the credit for helping me figure it out," Skov says, "because at that time it wasn't working with my dad."
Along with a traditional grade, Trinity-Pawling also grades effort. When Peter received Shayne's grades every three weeks, he'd e-mail Shayne and McDougal with "Peter's Plan," a multipoint improvement strategy. "That school was nothing short of a miracle," Peter says. "I sent my kid there as an act of desperation. He was on his way to a construction job, and they turned him into a Stanford student. Are you kidding me?"
Skov earned enough respect at Trinity-Pawling to get elected head prefect his senior year, an honor he describes as "the Hogwarts version of class president." But he didn't completely avoid trouble, such as when he tried "antiquing" a neighboring room. The prank involves filling a bag with baby powder, sliding it under a door and stomping on it. Skov's attempt to white out his neighbor worked too well, as the powder triggered the fire alarm, and the village of Pawling's fire department showed up at 2 a.m. "We had a very uncomfortable discussion about being a leader," says McDougal.
No one is holding a grudge: The school rescheduled a football scrimmage to Friday night so students and faculty can attend Stanford's game at Army, 45 miles away, on Sept. 14. And Skov mailed his 2011 Orange Bowl game jersey to Dave Coratti, the former football coach and current associate headmaster. Says Skov, "I can't say enough about how much patience they had with me and steered me in the right direction."
ON A campus as notoriously diverse and idiosyncratic as Stanford's, it's easy for a half-black, half-white, half-Mexican kid to embrace his inner geek and not stand out. One of Skov's favorite memories came when he visited a friend at the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, an on-campus co-op. He walked into the waning moments of an alcohol-fueled spelling bee, in which the contestants were dressed up as different countries, ranging from the Vatican to Papua New Guinea. "I'm kind of a nerdy guy, but I've never watched a spelling bee," he says. "For 20 minutes I was on the edge of my seat."
Skov's first two years at Stanford buzzed along; he got good grades in his engineering classes and loved the witty banter of the Stanford locker room. ("The unspoken beauty of this team," he calls it.) On the field, he emerged as a Luck-like defensive presence. He became a starter seven games into his freshman season, led the team in tackles as a sophomore and appeared destined for a three-and-done career. His worst transgression: freelancing too much on defense, a sign of his superior instincts.
The crescendo came at the Orange Bowl following his sophomore season, when he had three sacks in a 40--12 blowout of Virginia Tech. Skov, who calls the night an "out-of-body experience," was so locked in that defensive coordinator Derek Mason remembers Skov asking for a specific blitz and then sacking the quarterback when it was called.
The crash came three games into his junior season, at Arizona. Skov collided with teammate Johnson Bademosi, leaving him with such a gruesome left-knee injury that teammates held up towels around him to block the television cameras. Skov's grandmother turned off the radio so his mom wouldn't worry. "Everything stopped," Shaw says. "When he got hurt, everybody said, 'That's Superman, he can't get hurt.' "
Skov tore his ACL and MCL and fractured his tibia, an injury that required three surgeries. When his father flew up from Mexico to visit him, he caught his son in an unguarded moment sobbing in his dorm bed. "There were some points," says Shayne, "when it was hard to believe I was going to get back."
Skov bottomed out on Jan. 29, 2012. While driving home from teammate Ryan Hewitt's 21st-birthday party, he was pulled over in a parking lot outside his dormitory and arrested for DUI. "I made a mistake," says Skov. "Certainly I wasn't, like, smashed drunk speeding down the freeway. I broke the law, though, and I suffered the consequences from it." After pleading no contest in March 2012, Skov was fined and attended a diversion program.
Skov didn't leave his dorm room for a month, except to go to class and rehab for his knee. His GPA slipped to 2.9. When he did finally go to a Stanford baseball game that spring, Skov felt as if the entire stadium was staring at him. Skov knew they weren't admiring his Mohawk. "The worst part about it wasn't being suspended, or having to pay fines, or having to go to jail," he says. "The social impact of what I had to go through afterward was much more resounding to me."
Skov's locker was cleared out and Shaw suspended him for the 2012 opener. The school's judicial affairs board suspended him for the spring 2013 quarter. "It probably was my darkest hour," he says.
Skov's return to the field snapped him out of his emotional funk. But though he led the team in tackles and Stanford won its first Rose Bowl since 1972, he didn't feel like himself. Against Oregon, Skov was unable to get an angle on Marcus Mariota and watched as the Ducks' quarterback broke off a 77-yard run. Skov was missing his burst. He knew he couldn't leave for the NFL—unless he wanted to be a fourth- or fifth-round pick.
Skov now feels he has that burst back. He won't ever run a 4.4 40, but he makes up for a lack in speed with natural instincts and the ability, in the words of Shaw, to "knock down a 300-pound man while standing still."
David Kotulski, Skov's position coach, says he can hear Skov's explosiveness: "Manny Ramirez or David Ortiz or Albert Pujols, there's a different sound when they hit the ball. The same thing when Shayne hits you, there's a different sound."
Skov also makes an aural impression before he takes the field. His stirring pregame speeches about brotherhood have become YouTube hits. "I'll admit it," says Shaw, "I'm the second-best locker room speaker on the team."
SKOV INVENTED a word to sum up the quarter he spent away from school: soccermomming. Patrick took the quarter off as well, and the boys lived with their sisters for the first time since the girls were much younger, playing Mr. Moms while Peter was in Mexico. "It could have been a little TV sitcom," says Kellman.
Shayne cooked dinners of salmon, steaks and pasta. Patrick, 21, packed lunches and felt a distinctly parental rejection when they were returned uneaten. Shayne, once the Piedmont troublemaker, became a station-wagon-driving disciplinarian. Every night Patrick would tell Olivia, "Goodnight and don't let the bed bugs bite," then jump back, startled by a poster of Taylor Lautner on the wall. Through it all, the four siblings bonded in a way that geography, illness and school obligations hadn't allowed them to. They made a handful of family visits to their mother in Oakland, savoring the time they could all spend together. "To get where we are, my brother and I haven't been around our family as much as most people would like to be," says Shayne. "Especially my sisters. You can't make up for lost time, but being integrated with them was terrific."
The time off also gave Skov a chance to rest his knee and focus on losing weight. Skov admits he'd "never been a beach-body kind of guy." A big reason? His typical Taco Bell order: "A cheese gordita crunch, two double-decker tacos, steak chalupa, Mexican pizza and then usually like a crunch wrap supreme."
Former teammate Thomas Keiser gave Skov the nickname Chubby Bunny. Now Skov amuses his teammates by acting out a dialogue between his dueling gustatory personalities: Chubby Bunny and Fat Rabbit. While Chubby Bunny, in the squeaky voice of a six-year-old, tries to convince him to eat grilled chicken and brown rice, Fat Rabbit tempts him with a pepperoni cheesesteak.
The Chubby Bunny has won a majority of the duels lately. Skov's body fat is down to 11.5%, from 15.1% two years ago. (He celebrated this news by immediately going to Taco Bell for his customary order.)
Skov has also struggled with his flexibility, which he is addressing by doing hot yoga. "I hate downward facing dog," Skov says. "My shoulders feel like they're about to break off."
But the results—he's above or near his personal bests in virtually every running or weightlifting measurement—have everyone in the Cardinal program approaching a state of nirvana. Two plays into spring practice his teammates were chirping, "Shayne's back!"
"We won't know until I'm on the field for football-specific movement," says Skov, "but right now I'm ready to perform at as high of a level as I ever have in my career."
So once again, Shayne Skov's journey has taken a strange turn: A three-month suspension from school allowed him to strengthen his family ties and put himself, once again, on the precipice of stardom. To give blows instead of taking them. "I wouldn't change it for the world," he says. "I wouldn't change anything I've gone through—the good and the bad."
Read Stewart Mandel's in-depth look at the rise of Duke, Northwestern and Vanderbilt at SI.com/mag