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December 10, 2010

LUNCH PAIL LEADER - John Graves' impact at Tech goes well beyond the numbers

By: Jimmy Robertson

"It showed me that I needed to pick my game up another notch. I needed to work that much harder. He [Bud Foster] was giving me the highest honor on the defense. With great honor comes great responsibility. ” - John Graves

Jim Cavanaugh always pays laser-like attention to detail, especially when those details concern recruiting, and in particular, the prospects within his recruiting area. He never forgets faces, always remembers names and takes care to store every piece of information about a prospect within that prospect’s file or within his mind, whichever happens to be most convenient at the time.

In 2003, the Hokies played West Virginia on a Wednesday night in Morgantown and turned in a dreadful performance. Tech committed 13 penalties, including five personal fouls. The Hokies gave up 264 yards rushing, including 178 to Quincy Wilson, and they turned the ball over four times in a 28-7 defeat.

It was the type of performance that a whips and rovers coach would like to forget.

The following Thursday, Tech’s coaches graded the film of that performance, and then Friday, Cavanaugh, and a few others, hopped in their cars to go recruiting. Exhausted at the time, Cavanaugh drove four hours to Petersburg, Va., to watch a defensive end for the Petersburg High Crimson Wave whom he was recruiting.

It was at that game that Cavanaugh first saw John Walter Graves in action.

Playing for Meadowbrook High out of Richmond – a program that hadn’t been a prominent football power up until this point – Graves dominated. He caught the keen eye of Cavanaugh, who made sure to file Graves’ name into his sharp memory bank.

“When the game was over, I told the [Meadowbrook] head coach and the assistant coach that we were going to end up offering that guy,” Cavanaugh said. “He was a helluva player. He played defensive end and offensive guard and he didn’t come off the field.”

Cavanaugh failed to land the defensive end from Petersburg, but he immediately began the recruiting process on the young man from Meadowbrook. He performed due diligence on Graves’ transcripts, he talked to teachers and coaches about Graves’ character, and he watched every frame of film possible, not because it reaffirmed his reasoning for recruiting him, but because he just enjoyed watching Graves.

An official visit was set up. So, too, was an in-home visit, as both Cavanaugh and head coach Frank Beamer wanted to meet John Sr. and Joyce Graves.

The visit went well, though Graves didn’t commit – at least not initially.

“We were leaving the house and we had felt pretty good about things going in, but John didn’t commit,” Cavanaugh said. “So that is always a bit of a concern.

“But as we get ready to get into the car, John comes to the door and asked us to come back in for a minute. It seemed a little odd, but we went back in and John let us know that he was going to commit to Virginia Tech. And I can tell you, he made two coaches very happy.”

Looking back over his past four years at Virginia Tech, he’s made more than just two people happy – many more.

John Graves' work ethic has been unmatched since he arrived at Tech and that has rubbed off on his teammates.

John Graves’ life story wouldn’t force a publisher to chop down many trees. To put it simply, Graves lived about as normal a life as one can live.

His blue-collar parents toil hard at their crafts, with his dad working as a welder and his mom as a janitor. They raised their three children in a modest home in Richmond.

The youngest of the three children, John was quiet. He never got into trouble, he made solid grades and he played football – only football.

“I was a pure football guy,” Graves chuckled. “My offseason sport was weightlifting to prepare for football.”

Coerced into playing football at a young age by a lifelong friend, Graves went out for the Peewee team, and that started a path toward stardom. He and his buddies won three Peewee Super Bowls in a six-year span before heading off to middle school. Most of them joined Meadowbrook’s varsity squad as freshmen and began the process of turning a mediocre program into a successful one.

“We went to high school together and we had a ton of chemistry already,” Graves said. “We knew how to win. We took that work ethic that had been instilled upon us by those [Peewee] coaches and took it to the high school level, and we were able to be successful.”

In Graves’ junior year, Meadowbrook rolled to an unbeaten regular season and then breezed through the first three games of the playoffs, thus making it to the Group AAA championship game against North Stafford, a team that would feature a couple of future Hokies in Tony North and Cordarrow Thompson. North Stafford jumped out to a 14-0 lead.

But Graves and his Meadowbrook mates roared back, scoring 35 unanswered. They claimed the state title, winning 35-27.

“We scrimmaged them in the preseason, and before we scrimmaged them, we had heard that this team was going to win the state and all that stuff,” Graves said. “They ended up beating us 14-7 in the scrimmage. They had the biggest offensive line in the state of Virginia.

“It was a real underdog story [in the state championship game]. No one gave us a chance. Our o-line and d-line were averaging over 200 pounds, so no one gave us a shot. But we ended up winning it all.”

Several months later, Graves committed to Virginia Tech. Unfortunately, the next season, his last one, ended on a bit of a down note, as Meadowbrook lost in the regional championship game.

But Cavanaugh knew he was getting a special player – and a special person. Hours before one of Meadowbrook’s playoff games, he called Graves to wish him good luck, and he actually woke Graves up from a nap.

“It was ‘Black Friday,’” Cavanaugh said, referring to the day after Thanksgiving. “He had gotten a job at a department store and had gotten up to work an eight-hour shift from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. He was taking a nap before his playoff game that night.

“Now, how many high school seniors would show up for a job at 6 a.m. the same day that they have a playoff game? That just shows you what a special guy John is. I’ll never forget that.”

John Graves has helped Tech win three ACC titles and is looking to lead the Hokies to a third bowl win during his time at Tech. He also graduated with two degrees - psychology and sociology.

John Graves’ career at Tech is a little hard to quantify. He’s played in 54 games over the past four years and started in 35 of those (heading into the bowl game), but the 6-foot-3, 278-pound defensive tackle has just 1.5 sacks in his career.

But people know his value to the Hokies. This season, following career highs in tackles, tackles for a loss and hurries, he earned second-team All-ACC honors.

His true value, though, lies in things that are impossible to measure, things such as work ethic, leadership, character, dependability and unselfishness. He’d be off the charts if such attributes could be tabulated.

Tech’s staff values these traits more than most. So it came as no surprise when defensive coordinator Bud Foster placed Tech’s lunch pail, the prized symbol of the defense, into Graves’ hands for the 2010 season.

“It showed me that I needed to pick my game up another notch,” Graves said. “I need to work that much harder. He was giving me the highest honor on the defense. With great honor comes great responsibility.”

Want to know how successful Graves has been this season? Well, check out Bruce Taylor’s stats. Taylor leads the team in tackles and tackles for a loss, which directly reflects on Graves and his ability to keep defenders away from Taylor.

“I can’t remember a single time in his career when John has gone out there and laid an egg,” defensive line coach Charley Wiles said. “He’s just a solid guy. He gives you his best every time.

“Go and turn on the video. He’s not a guy who’s going to have a bunch of sacks and tackles for a loss, but he’s going to cause a lot of plays. I don’t know what else I’d ask him to do.”

One reason few mention Graves in a general discussion about Tech football is because he never brings attention on himself. When he makes big plays, he simply goes back to the huddle. He never chest bumps or fist pumps. He refuses to gyrate like so many others.

The mild-mannered Graves rarely celebrates even after victories. After the Chick-fil-A Bowl – a game in which he dominated – he didn’t party it up. And if anyone deserved to celebrate, it was Graves. After missing five games with an ankle injury and being hampered even after he came back, he recorded a sack, two tackles for a loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery against Tennessee in Tech’s 37-14 victory.

Afterward, Graves only smiled, preferring to watch the celebration at the Georgia Dome instead of participating in it.

“I’ve always been that way,” Graves said. “I’ve had some great coaches, and they’ve always taught me never to be satisfied. You’ve got to keep pushing, no matter what, because there is always someone out there working. So it’s one of those things. I always looked at it like, once that game is over, let’s get ready for the next one. And when the last game is over, let’s get ready for next season.

“It’s hard for me to sit down and take it in. That’s probably something I need to get better at. I need to work on taking it in and enjoying it. But that’s how I am. I’m satisfied when we win, but I feel I need to critique and get better from it.”

Andre Smith knows John Graves better than just about any player on Tech’s team. The two of them roomed together their freshmen year, and they hang out together frequently. Smith, the best fisherman on the team, occasionally brings Graves with him on local fishing outings, and he’s found exactly what stirs up fear in this chiseled human block of granite.

“He’ll lift 500 pounds like it’s nothing or he’ll slap around an offensive tackle like it’s nothing,” Smith said. “But he won’t touch a fish. The first time I took him fishing, I didn’t know what to expect. Then he calls me, ‘Hey Dre, can you come take this three-inch fish off the line for me?’ I’m like, ‘John, are you crazy? Are you serious?’

“It’s gotten to the point now where he enjoys fishing, but he has to bring a rag to touch the fish to take it off the line, or ask his girlfriend to do it. Or he has to get me or one of my friends to take it off.”

“It’s pretty embarrassing,” Graves admitted.

Yet Graves has been anything but an embarrassment. He graduated in four years with two degrees – psychology and sociology – and he currently works on another.

He leads when he needs to, even though he rarely raises his voice. After Tech opened the season with two losses, he and the other seniors called a players-only meeting, and Graves delivered a poignant message about staying the course.

Graves’ collegiate career will end with another bowl game. Whether his football career ends remains to be seen. NFL teams, for sure, will be interested.

“He’ll have a shot,” Wiles said. “He goes to work every day. He’s a dependable, reliable guy with ability. They [NFL coaches] love those types of guys. He’ll fit in with somebody. I’ll be shocked if he’s not on someone’s roster this time next year.”

“I let those things take care of themselves,” Graves said. “The more you think about it, the more you’re being selfish. You’re being selfish to your team and the guys. You’re losing focus on what you’re here for.”

That’s the type of response you’d expect from Graves. In more than four years in Blacksburg, he’s put his priorities in the proper order and then crossed off every single one.

“He’s, by far, one of the best guys I know, and I don’t say that just to say that,” Smith said. “You can ask anyone else on this team. They know he’s a guy of character. He’s always smiling, no matter what the situation or what situation he’s in. He always checks on you as a friend.

“He’s just a great guy.”