Dano Graves feels the aches and pains of a game he’s played most of his life.
He ices his sore body; gets treatment in the trainer’s room; has his ankles, knees, elbows taped; and comes back for more punishment on the football field.
At 23, Graves is the “old man” on Cal Poly’s team, and some days he feels like it. And much like in his Folsom High School days, Graves is a moving target playing quarterback in a triple-option offense where all the backs take their licks.
Graves is 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, a package of muscle and moves in a violent sport. He is a sports car zipping and dodging SUVs and 18-wheelers. But Graves wouldn’t approach it any differently. He knows one general speed – frenetic.
“Back problems, a swollen knee, sore ribs,” Graves said in describing the tender spots on his frame. “Hit the bursa sac in my left knee. It didn’t rupture, but fluid started filling up, and it was tight. It’s getting better. All three injuries, I’m almost 100 percent healed. It’s football, and I’m getting my legs back.”
His arm is already there.
Entering Saturday’s contest in San Luis Obispo against rival UC Davis, Graves has tossed three touchdown passes in each of his past three games. The Mustangs are 4-2 and in the thick of the Big Sky Conference race. Graves is a team captain, as voted by his teammates, a senior who is “our guy, our leader,” coach Tim Walsh said.
Graves has passed for 895 yards and 12 touchdowns, and he has rushed for 390 yards and four scores. He led the charge last Saturday in the rain and wind at Portland State, keying a 55-35 victory for the program’s 500th win spanning 98 seasons.
As he sizes up his final season of football, a sport he has played since about the time he could run, Graves becomes reflective. The last time he was this entrenched as the team’s focus was in 2010, when he fueled Folsom High’s 14-1 season. He had his hand in six touchdowns against Grant in the Sac-Joaquin Section final and six more in the CIF State Division II championship game in the mud at Home Depot Center in Carson to help beat nationally ranked Serra of Gardena. Graves accumulated a state-record 85 total touchdowns that season to earn The Bee’s Player of the Year honors as well as the MaxPreps National Player of the Year award.
After graduation, Graves headed to the Air Force Academy, where he spent two seasons. Though the idea of becoming a pilot intrigued him, he said the military wasn’t for him and left the Colorado Springs, Colo., campus. He has no regrets. Graves arrived before spring drills in 2013 at Cal Poly, a place his parents, David and Angela, know well. They were Cal Poly sweethearts, David starting for three seasons in the secondary in the late 1980s.
Graves did not have to sit out a year because he dropped from the Football Bowl Subdivision to the Football Championship Subdivision. He started five games at Cal Poly in 2013, played sparingly in 2014 and redshirted last year.
“It feels like it’s been a long road since I walked off the field for the final time at Folsom,” Graves said. “It was meant to be.”
Just as playing football was meant to be for Graves. This was a family in which mini-footballs were placed in the crib for him and his older brother, David, who set passing records at Folsom before playing at Hawaii. The bond between brothers and father is tight.
“So proud of that kid,” said David Sr.
Said David Jr., “Dano’s worked so hard for this. I just love watching him play.”
Dano Graves grew up knowing it was his destiny to play the family sport.
“I used to watch old film of my dad playing at Cal Poly, wearing No. 7, and the passion he played with, hitting people and knocking their helmets off,” he said. “That instilled into me the passion you need to have. To be playing at Cal Poly now, (wearing) the same jersey number as my dad, it means a lot to me.
“I know he’s having a great time with this, too. And (my brother) David, he’s by far my biggest fan. You’ll hear him at games. He’s the loudest. I’m very proud to have that support.”
Graves aspires to join his father and brother, who are on the Folsom staff at various levels, in the coaching ranks. He wants to break down games and lead teams.
“I’m definitely going to miss playing,” Graves said. “And I love the idea of coaching. Being the oldest on the team, I challenge myself to be a coach, to truly run the show. I coached a third-grade flag football team recently. We had those kids running plays, doing push-ups. Told them we were going to win a championship, and this is how we’re going to do it, and we did. They believed.”