Senior Journey: From Runza Boy to Captain
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Rewind the clock back to Saturday, Aug. 30, 2003. An eighth-grade boy, who had just finished his first few days attending Lincoln’s Scott Middle School after moving from Charlotte, N.C., was hawking concessions at Memorial Stadium. “It was my first college football experience ever,” he recalls, admitting a fascination with the spectacle on the field while raising his white cooler high enough for Husker fans to know he had Runzas for sale.
Nebraska was hosting Oklahoma State in a rare conference season opener before Labor Day. ABC cameras were there and another sellout crowd was waiting for the curtain to come up. “Every step I took, I was taken away by something happening down on the field,” this bright-eyed middle schooler remembers.
The whole stadium was buzzing, even in pregame ceremonies, because the largest player reunion in Nebraska’s storied football history was getting a Memorial roar – something this young man had never heard. Still, he did what he was supposed to do. He kept moving and stopping and serving and making change.
Finally, he heard different music and watched a whole stadium stand up, almost on cue. So this gawky 13-year-old stopped in the stadium aisle. He put his “crate” down and sat on it. Like everyone else that day, he focused his eyes on the Tunnel Walk coming from the south end of the stadium. Even though he’d never before played football and had no emotional leanings whatsoever to Nebraska, he could feel goose bumps.
completely captivated,” Graham
Stoddard said. “I
couldn’t take my eyes off the field. I had never seen anything like it. It was
motivating. I loved being inside the stadium, but I was more interested in the
action than selling Runzas.”
Pelini's Debut as Defensive Coordinator
It was one of those days when opportunity intersected with history. Stoddard was not cued in then like he is now. He had no idea that his first Nebraska experience was also Bo Pelini's first Husker experience. Bo was Frank Solich's defensive coordinator. On that same day, sons of two immensely popular former players led Nebraska to a 17-7 win over Oklahoma State. Barrett Ruud, son of All-American linebacker Tom Ruud, was the defensive star, and Josh Davis, son of running back “Tough Tony” Davis, was the offensive star.
Seven years later, when Taylor Martinez led Nebraska to a stunning 51-41 win over Oklahoma State, guess who walked out on the field that day in Stillwater as one of the Huskers three game-day captains?
Graham Stoddard, and quite frankly, Nebraska’s fifth-year special teams star and now linebacker-turned-fullback still marvels at what he’s been able to accomplish. He may have walked on at Nebraska without a scholarship but he had a will that started seven seasons earlier ... a will and a way that enabled him to plant his feet on Memorial Stadium’s hallowed ground, experience the Tunnel Walk as a player with his own No. 38 jersey and then fly like a human-launched missile on the opening kickoff.
That’s mind-boggling stuff, to be sure, especially when Stoddard grew up in North Carolina … basketball country … the ACC … The Tar Heels and the Blue Devils. Kids who grew up in North Carolina lived, breathed and dreamed March Madness more than they dreamed about becoming Legends of the Fall.
“I was a die-hard basketball player before I moved to Lincoln,” Stoddard said. “I always dreamed of playing at North Carolina, so I played basketball almost every day. I was on a traveling AAU team in middle school. So was my older brother. Everything revolved around basketball.”
One Game is All It Took to be Hooked
Nebraska’s 2003 season-opener became a game-changer for this teenager. “That’s all it took – one game,” Stoddard said. “I fell in love with the atmosphere, the fans, the fun, the excitement. That very day, I started dreaming what it might be like to be one of those players coming out of the tunnel.”
It took a lot of hard work to be one of those privileged players. Stoddard was so driven to live that dream, he gave up his final year of high school basketball, so he could focus on football and attend a variety of summer camps to prove his worth. He went to Colorado State and South Dakota State. He also was invited to and made combine camps in Kansas City and San Antonio. All went well but none even came close to matching his camp experience at Nebraska.
Even though Chadron State College in Nebraska was his only firm offer, Stoddard said he knew that summer he was only interested in two possibilities. “I was going to Nebraska,” he said. “The only question was: ‘Would it be on a scholarship or as a walk-on? ‘ Nebraska was the best camp – by far. I couldn’t wait to get here.”
Stoddard acclimated quickly and during his freshman redshirt season, he found himself on the kickoff team. “Special teams are a critical part of the team, and Graham was able to play on every unit,” said John Papuchis, Nebraska’s new defensive coordinator. “Graham is dependable. He’s hard-working. He has a lot of pride being on this football team. He has the kind of heart and the kind of will that’s contagious to those around him.”
Stoddard “starts” on all four of Nebraska’s primary special teams – kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts and punt returns. “You have to have passion to do it,” he said. “Not a lot of people really want to do it. Not many want to run down the field full-speed and completely throw your body into a bunch of people.”
Feel It? Stoddard Certainly Did
There’s no question what the emotional trigger is for Stoddard. “The second they start playing ‘Can You Feel It?’ I feel it,” he said. “I try to be like Brandon Rigoni was when I used to watch him sprint down the field every play and then just destroy people twice his size. There are three phases of the game – offense, defense and special teams – and our job on special teams is to try and set somebody down on their butt.”
Once that happens, Stoddard needs no music for inspiration. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” he said. “Your teammates are feeling it. You’re feeling it. The crowd’s feeling it. Everyone’s pumped up so much, you really can’t describe it.”
All Papuchis knows is Stoddard never shifts into a lower gear, regardless of which special team needs his aggressiveness. “I trust Graham to do everything I’ve ever asked him to do and execute to the best of his ability,” Papuchis said. “After three years of watching him do that, I’m pleased with who he is, how he represents our program and why we’re certainly better whenever he’s out there.”
That feeling came through loud and clear on the kickoff team throughout Stoddard’s redshirt freshman season. “He earned his stripes on that unit,” Papuchis said. “You could just tell that he has so much energy and toughness that we wanted him to take on more roles on our kickoff return, punts and punt returns units. I thought that first year allowed him to grow into the other roles.”
Now, after three years trying to compete as a linebacker as well as be a special teams star, Nebraska coaches floated an idea Stoddard’s way at the beginning of winter conditioning: Would he be interested in trying to play fullback?
Thought about It, Then Accepted It
It was tough for Stoddard to give up on his dream to be part of Nebraska’s linebacker mix, but he thought long and hard about the decision to give fullback a try, and he answered with the same, selfless, game captain-type leadership he’s become known for: “Yes I would like to play fullback.”
Having earned Papuchis’ trust on special teams, Stoddard is eager to earn the same kind of respect and confidence from Ron Brown, Nebraska’s running back/fullback coach. “Being a walk-on sometimes is not a pretty job,” Stoddard said. “Most of us don’t have the glamour jobs, but we look at every chance we have to get on the field as important. Sometimes, we’re the ones who make our special teams, well, special, pun intended. We set the tone, and it takes a huge amount of desire, a huge amount of fire and a huge amount of drive.”
One look at Stoddard’s facebook page, and you can see where he draws inspiration – from people like actor Will Smith, comedian Larry the Cable Guy and local baseball/New York Yankee hero Joba Chamberlain. “I relate to people who came up the hard way,” Stoddard said. “Will Smith had to work for everything he’s ever gotten. So did Larry the Cable Guy and Joba. No one ever gave them anything. They worked like crazy for everything.”
So has Stoddard, who knows he continues to battle rather huge odds for more playing time. Still, he has accepted his latest challenge for all the right reasons. “This senior class wants to be the leaders of this team,” he said. “We all believe Coach Bo when he says we have to do things we’ve never done to go places we’ve never been.”
Whether Stoddard plays a down at fullback, Papuchis is confident he will find another way to leave his mark on the 2012-13 team. “When a guy plays 25 to 30 snaps in every game like Graham has over the last two years, I see him as a starter. At least that’s what he is to me. Our walk-on program is as critical a part of our program as anything else because of guys like Graham and so many others.”
Will Stoddard's Story Spur Another Dream?
Stoddard’s story, though, has its own place in history. His time between selling Runzas and never having played football to being invited to walk on at Nebraska happened in less than five years. And that makes you wonder how many other young boys out there might sit down and daydream next fall when the music comes on and someone asks: Can You Feel It?
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Voices from Husker Nation
I really enjoyed this article on
Graham Stoddard. Born and raised in Lexington, Neb, I have been all over the
world during my 21-year Air Force career. I have followed the team since I can
remember. I have seen it and done it, and I can feel it when I read articles
like this. Yes, a true Big Red fan
can feel the buzz. Thank you for the
fine articles. Pete
Gomez, Blytheville, Arkansas