Dano Graves never knew what it was like to lose football games.
He’ll admit that it was “just Pop Warner”, but Graves never remembers losing a football game growing up in the greater Sacramento area. He remembers his team winning the sectional title every year of his youth, a stretch he estimates to be at least five years long without a defeat.
Graves remembers the inscriptions in his yearbook his final year of middle school. In the memento, his friends and teammates wrote of how their high school careers were sure to be filled with success. “We are going to win state titles”, they wrote.
“We expected to win every time we stepped on the field,” Graves said. “We set before ourselves a goal and we did it because we expected to do it. I’ve always believed in the process of winning.”
During his record-setting high school career playing for renowned offensive mastermind Troy Taylor at Folsom High School, Graves lost a total ofthree games in 28 varsity starts. As a senior in the fall of 2010, Graves earned MaxPreps National Player of the Year honors by leading Folsom to their first state Division II championship, turning a town formerly known for Johnny Cash’s album about the state penitentiary into a town known for its insanely prolific offensive football.
Despite a high school career that included 151 total touchdowns in just two seasons, Graves has had to wait his turn. Between a winding road with a stop at the Air Force Academy before returning to Cal Poly and the circumstance of being stuck behind arguably the greatest rushing quarterback the Big Sky Conference has ever seen in Chris Brown, Graves has waited a long while to finally get his chance. Now, after redshirting during a 2015 season riddled with disappointment for the Mustangs, Graves will finally get his shot.
“The one thing I’ve learned is how to be patient,” Graves said. “It’s coming up on six years since I came out of high school so I’ve been waiting for this year for a good portion of my life.
“It’s been tough. Things just weren’t falling into place. The timing just wasn’t right. I promise you I will make the most of this chance.”
In his first year as a varsity starter in 2009, Graves started to craft his local legend.As a junior, Graves threw for 3,882 yards and 52 touchdowns while rushing for 874 yards and 14 more scores.That fall, Graves led Folsom to the sectional championship game for the first time.
The following year, Graves scored six touchdowns against Grant High to help Folsom its first-ever sectional championship. The following week, with Cal Poly assistant coach Justin Wood sitting in the stands and Folsom facing off against a Serra High team with three future Pac 12 defensive linemen and a linebacker going to Florida State, Graves scored six more touchdowns in the mud at the Home Depot Center in Carson to lead Folsom to a 48-20 win for its first ever state title.
“Dano Graves willed them to win,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh in June. “Watching that game was probably the best selling point I’ve seen or heard in my entire head coaching career. Justin Wood was at the game and he called me and said, ‘We need Dano Graves.’
“Before his time at Cal Poly, he lost maybe two or three football games in his entire life. He’s a phenomenal competitor.”
AAs a senior, Graves earned National Player of the Year honors by throwing for 3,702 yards and 62 touchdowns and rushing for 994 yards and 23 scores. His 85 total touchdowns were a state record at the time until Jake Browning, currently Washington’s starting quarterback as a true sophomore, threw for 91 touchdowns his senior year at Folsom. In his career, Graves completed 482 of 690 passes (70 percent) for 7,584 yards and 114 touchdowns and rushed for 1,868 yards and 37 more scores. Folsom punted three times Graves’ entire senior year.
“Dano was there for the pivotal change for our program when we took it to the next level,” said Taylor, who posted a 58-2 record at Folsom before becoming Eastern Washington’s offensive coordinator in the off-season. “He was a huge part of that. We had not won a section championship prior to his senior year and he was outstanding. He’s really competitive. His demeanor is really quiet. But he’s fearless. He’s a great thrower, an elusive runner, hard to bring down and smart.”
After piling up 9,452 yards of total offense and 151 total touchdowns over two seasons as the varsity starter at Folsom, one would think everyone would want the National High School Player of the Year. But Graves is 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. He received strong attention from Cal Poly, Air Force, Army, Portland State, Sacramento State and several Ivy League schools. Hawaii and Cal offered walk-on spots.
Graves elected to attend the Air Force prep academy for a year to garner more recruiting attention. The year did not earn him any recognition. After another year playing on Air Force’s junior varsity team, Graves transferred to Cal Poly before the 2013 season.
In San Luis Obispo, Graves sat the bench, watching as Cal Poly stumble to a 2-3 start that included an embarrassing loss to Yale. The following week Graves earned his first collegiate start, completing 13-of-16 passes for 169 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 116 yards and another score as Cal Poly rolled past Weber State, 47-0.
The following week in Missoula, Graves rushed for 91 yards and threw for 95 more as the Mustangs put the Grizzlies on the ropes in one of the most hostile environments in the FCS. With less than two minutes to play and Cal Poly clinging to a 14-7 lead, the Mustangs had a 26-yard field blocked by UM linebacker Jordan Tripp. The Grizzlies drove the length of the field and scored on a fourth down play with less than 12 seconds left to tie the game and send it overtime.
In OT, the Grizzlies took the lead and Graves threw an interception as Montana hung on for a 21-14 win. Two weeks later, Brown returned from his injury and never again relinquished the starting spot. In 2014, the brave, bruising quarterback set a Big Sky record with 1,265 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. Last season, with Graves on the sidelines as a redshirt, Brown became the first Big Sky quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards back to back seasons, finishing with 1,084 and 13 TDs.
Despite leading the country with nearly 390 rushing yards a game behind their vaunted triple-option attack, missed opportunities plagued the Mustangs last fall. Cal Poly lost on a missed two-point conversation at Eastern Washington. The Mustangs lost on a last-second field goal to Portland State. Against Southern Utah, CP fumbled five times, a plague that hindered the team all fall. All while Graves sat on the sidelines, watching one of the most unaccustomed occurrences in his existence: losing football games.
“Every game, I wondered if it could’ve been different,” Graves said. “That’s definitely something that is motivating me. There’s so much meat left on the bone from last year, so many things we could’ve done.”
Brown missed the Portland State game with an injury and Walsh elected to go with true freshman Khalil Jenkins instead of pulling Graves’ redshirt. Graves suffered a head injury the week before, making the decision easier and one that will pay dividends as the Mustangs open their season at Nevada on Friday night in Reno.
“Would we have won if I pulled it? Maybe,” Walsh said. “But the bottom line is from where we are now, it was a blessing in disguise that we have Dano Graves back. All that experience he has, all that winning he has, his attitude, who he is.
“He’s such a mature young man. One of the things I’ve always believed in as a football coach, especially on the offensive side of the ball is that the quarterback has to see the game through the coaches’ eyes and we really have a coach playing quarterback. He’s that intelligent.
“He is a winner, man. He has won everywhere he’s been and we expect him to do that his senior year here at Cal Poly.”