Shayne Graham grew up in Southwest Virginia, but that distinct fact didn’t draw him initially to Virginia Tech. Florida State was the talk of college football with Bobby Bowden embarking on an impressive run in the late 1980’s to 1990’s to become a powerhouse program.
Sure, Graham still attended games inside Lane Stadium when he ran into free tickets or through recruiting trips, but as a budding kicker from Pulaski High School, his focus was originally elsewhere. He had his sights set on a big-name program like Florida State, preferably one in the Big Ten or SEC.
That was until another Pulaski native entered the picture when Todd Grantham became Virginia Tech’s primary recruiter for Graham. Grantham was a legend at Pulaski, and immediately brought Graham on recruiting trips in the 1995 season.
Really, it was a promise from Grantham that changed everything.
“I think the main thing that coach Grantham knew to get me, and this was a genius move on his part, is he called my holder [Caleb Hurd] at Pulaski,” Graham said. “My holder was going to be an engineering student at Virginia Tech no matter where the heck I went. It was never even a thought that he was going to play college football, but coach Grantham called him and told him, ‘Hey, if Shayne comes here, since you’re already going to be a student, you can hold for him and be on the football team.’
“I got a call from Caleb and he kind of told me what he was told and that changed everything. Knowing that I could win the job as a true freshman and have my same holder that I knew was good because Caleb put a lot of work into it even in high school. Knowing that you have that solid continuity the whole time in school having the same guy holding for you meant a lot to me.”
Virginia Tech smashed Texas in the Sugar Bowl to finish the 1995 season in the top 10, and Graham was awakened to a program with such a positive trajectory. All the pieces were falling into place in Blacksburg.
“Coach Beamer was the special teams coach, he was the coach that comes over and works with the kickers when they’re doing their individual drills,” Graham said. “Most schools just kind of say, ‘Hey, you just go over there and when you get in the game don’t miss.’ Knowing Coach Beamer puts the emphasis on special teams… It was like the perfect storm that got me there.”
‘Just Give Me a Chance’
There still were some tremulous times for the four-time First Team All-Big East kicker. Graham was 10-of-16 (62.5 percent) on kicks as a freshman, and after a stellar sophomore campaign where he was 19-of-23 (82.6 percent), Graham finished 22-of-32 (68.8 percent) as a junior, including one key miss that nearly cost the Hokies.
Virginia Tech was in position to sink Miami for the fourth straight time if Graham could just nail a 36-yard field goal at the horn. Instead, Graham’s kick was pushed wide. A freak accident the week before the game may have hindered that potential game-winning kick.
Graham stepped on a shard of glass from a broken jar in his apartment earlier in the week. The cut on his plant foot wasn’t bad enough to go to the hospital, but it did create aggravation and irritation.
“Throughout that week I was getting past it, but it was in my head that I had to be tender,” Graham said. “I wasn’t being aggressive, I was being kind of passive with my kicking. It led to me more or less not swinging my true swing. I should’ve handled it better, because the way I was kicking in pregame, I was still able to hit a strong ball, I just didn’t let my mind get over the fact that I needed to be passive versus aggressive. Had I just been aggressive I would have done much better.”
The Hokies held on in overtime to win 27-20, but it was the first real disappointment that helped shape Graham along the way.
“I think I needed that moment because I never really had a truly difficult situation to handle,” Graham said. “I’d missed some kicks and I made some kicks, but I never truly had one where it could’ve been a huge outcome in the game. I think it was probably good for me that I was able to miss that, but still also win the game so that I didn’t come home to everybody wanting to kill me. Being in that situation and realizing that it’s OK. The world’s not going to end. I was able to build from that because it made me work harder and it made me understand that I don’t have to be afraid of that.”
Graham concluded his senior campaign with a career-high 112 points on 18-for-23 (78.3 percent) kicking along with 58 extra points. There is that one kick that’s par excellence.
Toward the end of the 1999 regular season, Minnesota had upset No. 2 Penn State, opening the door for No. 3 Virginia Tech to rise in the rankings with a triumph at West Virginia. Trailing 20-19 with 1:15 remaining, Michael Vick took the field hoping to get the team into field goal territory.
“Just give me a chance,” Graham said. “I don’t remember who it was. Somebody on the team had come up to me and I just said, ‘Man, I just want a chance.’ In that moment it wasn’t about ‘I want to kick a game-winning field goal’, it was about, ‘we have to win.’
“It was a sense of urgency to just give us a chance. Obviously, there was a guy on our team who helped make that happen.”
On a play that lives in Virginia Tech lore, Vick scampered down the sideline for a 26-yard gain and then connected with Ricky hall for a 9-yard completion to bring the ball to the 27-yard line with five seconds left after the spike.
Don Nehlen attempted to ice Graham with a timeout, but it had the opposite effect.
“We always said, ‘Cake.’ Cake was just a short phrase for ‘Piece of cake, we got this.’ I don’t remember if it was Caleb or me, one of us said ‘Cake’ and we both smiled and giggled about it,” Graham said. “We had never had that situation. Needless to say we were very relaxed. We weren’t thinking about what the moment was.
“We were just relaxed, and we didn’t treat it like we were thinking about the play anymore than we would have. There was no icing. There was no ‘make him think about it’ moment. It was, ‘Alright, now we actually get to relax a little bit.’”
Play resumed, and Graham’s kick was ‘right down the middle,’ keeping the Hokies undefeated en route to a National Championship Game appearance. There was never a doubt.
“As a golfer, as a baseball player, as a kicker, you know what a pure hit is,” Graham said. “When you hit that pure, solid strike, you just know the ball is going to go exactly where you wanted it to go.
“Saw the ball right through the middle and my first reaction was I just threw my hands up and jumped. After that it was both Caleb and I jumping and throwing our hands up. I remember turning back toward the West Virginia sideline and throwing my fist up through the air. Me and Caleb got mobbed by everybody. It was just a hurricane of emotion.”
The moment happened 21 years ago, but Virginia Tech fans still remember it clear as day. Still, for someone who’s obsessed with his craft like Graham, that one moment doesn’t make up for all the missed kicks that still linger in his mind.
“Honestly, I look back on it and feel like I didn’t have a great [college] career,” Graham said. “I have very high expectations of myself, and I feel like I missed way too many kicks. When I look back on it, I’m happy and I’m proud that I had the time that I had there, and I have amazing memories, but I actually really think I wish I would’ve done better.
“I was happy to be a part of a big moment. It’s something that a lot of people bring up. It’s one of my fondest memories of my entire football career. I am proud of that, but as far as everyone’s lasting thoughts of me, I’m fine if that’s it because honestly I thought I should have done better.”