Late afternoon was melting into evening, the last day of July, the day before the Woodbridge High Vikings’ first football practice. The only sound in that part of the school’s main lobby was the hum of a nearby soda machine and the distant chants of the cheerleading squad practicing down some unseen hallway.
“When I was 8, I had a dream,” said Hand, a 6-foot-4, 256-pound senior defensive end who is one of the most sought-after high school players in the country. “I couldn’t make this up. I had a baby-blue suit on. I was committing to a college. I was a wide receiver — ’cause that’s what my dad was. ‘The number one player in the nation — Da’Shawn Hand! What school is he going to choose?’ ”
In the childhood dream, there was a hat in front of him — which, per signing day tradition, would reveal which college he had chosen. But when he put the hat on, it was blank. That’s how the dream ended, in mystery.
Now he peered into the trophy case. On the bottom shelf, a shriveled football was scribbled with the words: “1972 Commonwealth District Champions 10-0.”
“Two weeks ago I was in the bed, just lying awake,” he said, still lost in his thoughts. “I almost cried. I’ve been working hard, and now it’s almost here.”
Nowadays when Hand dreams, he often does so in bright colors — the famed crimson of Alabama, the snappy blue and orange of Florida, the classic maize and blue of Michigan. The top-ranked football recruit in the nation by Rivals.com, Hand has pared his list of possible destinations — from a starting point of 94 offers, through a process of elimination that factored in academic concerns, championship potential and gut feeling — down to these three finalists.
On Friday night, when Hand, in the green and yellow of Woodbridge High, explodes out of a three-point stance in the Vikings’ season opener against Battlefield High, the countdown to his highly anticipated Decision Day will begin.
And on Nov. 14, the day of his 18th birthday, Hand will put on a tailored, baby-blue suit — for it had to be so — and announce his choice. Millions of people in one pocket of the country will rejoice. Twice that many, in two other pockets, will curse and weep. Some will tweet, text and e-mail vile things to him, as has already happened with other schools eliminated from the list.
“Picking this college,” his mentor and former position coach John Harris tells him, “is going to be the first major decision of your adult life.”
But adulthood and childhood are still elbowing each other for the same space in Da’Shawn Hand’s life. It is a battle that is waged, to some degree, within all soon-to-be-18-year-olds. Adulthood always wins in the end, of course, but some are better than others at staving it off until the right time.
‘I’m gonna be there'
Seventeen. What did you really know at that age? What does anyone really know? Sharif Hand knew one thing: He was going to be there for the baby.
That’s right — he was 17, a junior in high school in Philadelphia. He had gotten a girl pregnant. She was only 14. There was a meeting in the girl’s living room. Him. Her. His mother. Her mother. Her stepfather. “What are you going to do?” they asked him.
Sharif Hand thought about his own father, absent from his life from the start, and drew upon that emptiness.
“My answer was, ‘Well, I’m not gonna be like my dad — I’m gonna be there,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘And I’m gonna take care of him.’ And I’ve tried to keep to that word to this day. I might not have done everything right. But I was always there and always around.”
The baby was a boy, born at 6:42 a.m. on a Tuesday, 8 pounds 1.6 ounces, and he was named Da’Shawn.
“He was always naturally big,” said Da’Shawn’s mother, Nicole Graham, 32. “When he started school, he was taller than the other kids but still pretty skinny. But then in middle school, he started to stand out with his size. We’d have kids over to play, and they looked like his little brothers.”
They settled into an agreement, Nicole and Sharif — an arrangement predicated upon what is best for Da’Shawn: They would share custody, one of them taking over periodically, depending upon who had the better, more stable situation at the time.
“The approach we took was, no matter where we were in our lives, nothing was going to come between the decision we made for our son,” Sharif Hand said. “There were times she moved out of Philly and moved to a place where the schools were a lot better, and so she took him there.”
So it was that Da’Shawn spent kindergarten with his dad, first through fourth grades with his mom, fifth grade with his dad, sixth and seventh with his mom. Finally, when Sharif settled in Woodbridge, finding steady work as a construction contractor, Da’Shawn came to live with him — this time permanently.
In a sense, the three of them all grew up together, so young were Nicole and Sharif. The latter was sentenced to probation in 2007 following a guilty plea to misdemeanor charges stemming from what he described as a domestic dispute involving the mother of another of his sons. He is seeking to have the charges expunged from his record, an effort, he said, for which the woman in question has written a letter of support.
But in Da’Shawn, Sharif saw a clean slate, a chance to redeem himself. Once a good football player himself, a wide receiver with speed to burn, he had been bounced from his high school team as a senior because of bad grades. Instead of entertaining college offers, he wound up playing semi-pro ball for a couple of years before giving up the game.
“I still sometimes look back at that and wonder, ‘If I had played my 12th-grade year, where would I have been? What college offers would I have gotten?’ ” said Sharif, 35. “So grades play a big part in this house. Your grades are going to be right before we start talking about playing football. Because you don’t want to have any regrets in life. I stress that to him — regrets.”
Once, when Da’Shawn was a freshman at Woodbridge, he brought home a C in math on a midterm report. Sharif immediately pulled him out of the football team’s offseason weightlifting program.
“Hey, Sharif, I understand what you’re doing,” Harris, Woodbridge’s defensive coordinator at the time, told Da’Shawn’s father. “But we’re making a lot of progress here.”
“Coach,” the elder Hand replied, “I appreciate everything you’re doing for Da’Shawn. But I wouldn’t be as upset if I thought he busted his behind for that C. He skated and got that C. I know my son. He shouldn’t get no C in that class.”
The C rose to a B within a couple of weeks, Da’Shawn was allowed to rejoin his teammates for weight training, and nearly three years later the young man carries a 3.71 grade-point average into his senior year. He thinks he might want to get into civil engineering or architecture. Or maybe sports management. Or maybe all of the above.
Maybe he’ll design NFL stadiums. Maybe he’ll play in them, too.
A college choice
The question is, Do you know which school you’re going to pick and are just not ready to say — or are you still deciding?
“It’s a beautiful day outside,” Hand replies, stone-faced.
“It’s a beautiful day outside.”
He is in a fluorescent-lit studio off the main floor of the World Gym in Dale City, just down Minnieville Road from Woodbridge. Da’Shawn has been coming here three times a week all summer to work out with personal trainer Kevin “K.J.” Johnson, a high-energy, hard-driving man who calls his cadre of clients “Team Ascension.” On this day, the group consists of maybe a dozen youngsters — doughy teenagers, scrawny wrestlers, a female soccer player and a handful of area football players.
Every time Johnson blurts out “Full speed!” — roughly once every 30 seconds — the group answers back in unison: “All the time!”
At the center of the room is a tire the size of a small car — a TB516 (20.5R25), made by Triangle Tire and designed for earth-movers and excavators, 539 pounds of steel-belted rubber. During one drill, Johnson has the members of Team Ascension pound the tire with sledgehammers.
And sometimes, when he’s bored, Hand will walk over and casually flip over the tire.
“He has scary strength,” Johnson says. “He’s got it all — all the physical skills, all the intangibles. He’s smart and respectful and so talented. I may do this my entire life and never get another athlete like Da’Shawn.”
The college letters started arriving at the Hand household at the end of Da’Shawn’s freshman year. The first was from the University of Virginia, a questionnaire. The first offer, he says, was from Boston College, that April. More offers started coming in — Virginia, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, N.C. State. On Da’Shawn’s 17th birthday, there arrived 54 separate letters (representing his jersey number) from UNC. There would be, by the Hands’ count, 94 official offers in all.
The first round of cuts was easy. The Montanas and Wyomings could be eliminated simply because Da’Shawn couldn’t see himself living there. A couple dozen others could be trimmed because the football programs and/or coaching staffs stunk. From what was left, he investigated each school’s Academic Progress Report and graduation rates, as well as the types of defenses they ran and the program’s likelihood for future success.
He talked at length about the decision with his father, with Coach Harris and with his uncle — Sharif’s half-brother — Damone Boone, a former star running back who was the 1995 Washington Post All-Met Offensive Player of the Year out of West Springfield High. He kept his inner circle small.
The tougher cuts came after Hand had arrived at a top 10 list last winter and, finally, a top five by January. Virginia Tech was eliminated because it didn’t offer his preferred majors. South Carolina was the victim of a “gut feeling.” Ohio State’s downfall? “I don’t want to talk about it,” he says.
That left him where he is today, with a final three of Alabama, Florida and Michigan. Most recruiting gurus believe he is leaning toward Michigan, but Hand himself won’t give the slightest clue — or even acknowledge whether he is even leaning anywhere in the first place. He will, however, be making some official visits this fall, beginning with Michigan next month.
“After four years of sales pitches, I think that stage is over,” Harris says. “The last sales pitch they have is just this [football] season coming up.”
Ready for the future
What little Hand says of the recruiting process these days is mostly in terms of how done with it he is — how mentally checked out of the process he is. He tilts his cellphone to show the “messages” screen: There are 36 unread texts.
“Everything’s going by too fast,” he says. “Some days I’m just like, ‘No.’ . . . Sometimes I just don’t like dealing with the world. I just put everybody on hold. But then afterwards, I’m like, ‘Dang, I hope nobody’s feelings [got] hurt.’ ”
Several times, Hand has taken a personal vacation from the recruiting game, sending texts to all the college coaches — there are strict limits on how many texts the coaches can send recruits but no limits the other way around — that he was going to be laying low for a while. When one coach violated his embargo, he nearly struck the school from the list on the spot.
“Times are different now,” said Xenia Boone, Da’Shawn’s aunt and Damone Boone’s wife. “In Damone’s day, all he had to do was turn off his pager and take his [landline] phone off the hook, and he was unreachable.”
The pitfalls for the superstar young athlete are the same as they have ever been, only now those pitfalls have more and better means of making their way to your doorstep.
“I talk to him about what’s out there — about the peer pressure and the girls and what can happen,” Sharif Hand said. “Diseases. Pregnancy. How to stay safe. Especially now, with all the attention he’s getting, I talk to him about that a lot. And so far, so good. . . .
“We try to prepare him, but you can only do so much, and then you’ve got to let them get out there in the world.”
Back at World Gym, Team Ascension’s workout is over. Da’Shawn helps put away the equipment, then smiles and offers his massive hand for a death-grip handshake to anyone dumb enough to accept. Heads pivot on the stationary bikes and ellipticals as he turns to leave.
His goals for these next few months, he says, are simple: “Fun. Fun and success. Play football. Live life. Not care. That’s about it.”
He blows through the door and out into the parking lot. He’s young and free and unburdened, for the time being.
And it’s a beautiful day outside.