“They get thrown off, like ‘Whoa,’ ” said the 16-year-old junior, who with his black-rimmed glasses, handshake as tight as a blood pressure wrap and serene groundedness can at times pass for 30.
“There are different things like that I want to know to set myself up after football,” Hand said. “NFL I was told stands for ‘Not For Long.’ And if I don’t make it to the pros, I want to make money like I did make it to the pros.”
The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Hand has dozens of scholarship offers and two boxes of recruiting letters proudly stored in his grandmother’s bedroom, but by all accounts he handles himself like a second-stringer just happy to have a spot on the roster.
That humility was ingrained early. His father, Sharif, used to instruct 5-year-old ‘Shawnie’ to wash the dishes — before putting them in the dishwasher — to give him a sense of responsibility and the value of work.
So he was Dishpan Hand before he was Da’Shawn Hand, who first played football at age 12 in Elkton, Md. He was so good so soon that kids from other teams would knock on his door and ask him when his next game was.
Now, in a sense, it’s adults doing the same thing. A man at one recent game overheard Hand’s mother, Nicole Graham, cheering for her boy. The man told her that the reason he came to games was to watch her son. Fans at a game in Franklin County, in southwest Virginia, told Sharif Hand they were there to watch Da’Shawn.
These days, everybody is.
“This is the number one player in the country,” said Rivals.com evaluator Mike Farrell, who has observed Hand on film and at combines and who plans to be on the sideline Friday night for Woodbridge’s game at No. 11 Hylton. “And I’ve seen enough number one players in the country and enough defensive ends and enough players in [the class of] 2014 to say this kid is head and shoulders above everybody else when it comes to talent level.”
Managing that talent has not been an issue, because Hand tries to learn from others’ mistakes, whether within his own family or in the cautionary tales about athletes from newspapers, magazines and books that his mother saves or suggests for him.
Sharif Hand was a junior in high school in Philadelphia when Da’Shawn was born. Sharif’s brother, 1995 All-Met Offensive Player of the Year Damone Boone, a former West Springfield running back, also became a father while in high school. Boone’s son, Marcus, plays for Woodbridge.
“Basically, he watched me grow up,” Hand, 34, said of his son. “I don’t want him to get any kind of fake impression of how this real world is, so when I talk to him, I really talk to him like he’s an adult.”
Hand’s mother, who lives in Delaware, does likewise: Take nothing for granted. Have a Plan B and a Plan C. School over football. Be a leader not a follower. Don’t let anyone sell you a dream. If you’re late, someone else won’t be and might get a promotion over you.
“That’s what [my dad] wanted to instill in me. No secrets,” said Hand, who has approached his college recruitment with a sort of wary innocence. “He just wanted to prepare me for the real world. He didn’t want me to be shocked or taken advantage of. He just taught me how to be a man.”
Boone played at Maryland, carrying only nine times in two seasons before dropping out. He delivered furniture and worked security at Rosecroft Raceway before enrolling at Carson-Newman in Tennessee. He knows the consequences of poor choices and inferior grades and how opportunities can dry up.
In turn, so does Hand, who has heard the stories from his uncle. That’s why when the brothers and their boys meet each week to dissect game film, the adults all but ignore the standout plays and dwell on the mistakes.
“You’re not impressing us,” said Damone Boone, one of about 20 extended family members who attend Woodbridge’s games and sit as a cluster. “Me and Sharif tell him, ‘Okay, Shawnie, you made the tackle here but what about the block right here you missed?’
“He has more of a love of the game than I did,” Boone said. “He’s more of a student of the game than I was. He wants to learn and that’s what it’s going to take. You have to learn your craft. I was just playing. I wasn’t thinking about the future.”
Hand always has. As an eighth-grader at Beville Middle School in Prince William County, Hand would bus to Hylton High for a geometry class. He would return to Beville in the middle of a period, so with that free time he would tutor students in math or help out in the school library. He endeared himself to the adults in the building.
“Most kids at this age, their mind doesn’t match their body in middle school,” Beville Athletic Director Hess Moore said. “But his did. He always knew what he wanted to do and when it came down to leaving [middle school] and going to high school, football wasn’t what he looked at first. It was which school had an engineering program.”
That was Woodbridge, not Hylton, the school in his zone. So Hand enrolled at Woodbridge to pursue an interest in engineering that he had developed from tagging along to job sites with his father, a construction worker.
“He would treat me like I was a natural employee, like I was an adult,” Hand said.
That’s how Hand, who has 553 Twitter followers but has issued only 24 tweets, handles his business. He once called a college-affiliated Web site to chastise a writer for mischaracterizing his interest in that particular school.
Since then, he has stopped doing interviews with team sites, but the mail from the schools they report on continues to roll in at about 15 pieces per day, Woodbridge football coach Kevin Smith said. One school sent 54 letters in one day, an homage to Hand’s jersey number. College coaches fax Hand good-luck notes the days of Woodbridge games.
Six colleges, including Virginia Tech and Virginia, offered Hand scholarships after his freshman year. Those pursuing him now include Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State.
Hand has talked about majoring in engineering, a rarity for a big-time college football player. “If there’s anyone out there who can handle both, I think Da’Shawn’s it,” said Carlos Castro, who helps head the Career and Technical Education program at Woodbridge and who taught Hand his freshman and sophomore years.
Hand likes to build things and tear them apart, to see how they work. But he also likes “crunching numbers and negotiation,” as he puts it, so he’s thinking about studying sports business, a major that would be easier to manage for a college football player with demands on his time.
One peek in his grandmother’s boxes of letters would indicate that he will be given every opportunity to pursue either degree just about anywhere he likes.
“Mom and my grandmas are like, ‘Oh, this is so amazing,’ ” Hand said in a jokey falsetto in imitation of the women in his life. “But my dad instills in me there’s always somebody out there working harder than you. You need to just bring it every time and don’t think about it.”