Lew Johnston couldn't help but chuckle when word of his coaching staff's blunder found its way onto ESPN's broadcast of the Virginia Tech-Virginia football game last Saturday. The staff had cut Shyrone Stith--who this season has become Tech's first running back since 1977 to open with four straight 100-yard rushing games--when he was a freshman at Western Branch High School in Chesapeake, Va.
Fortunately for Johnston, who is in his 15th season at Western Branch, the cut list for the junior varsity team was posted on a Saturday morning, when Stith could not find a ride to school--and he never saw it.
The team had lost nearly a dozen players because of academic reasons. So the following Monday, when Stith showed up for practice the coaches did not turn him away.
"His freshman year, he was 5-foot-nothin' and weighed 125 pounds soaking wet," Johnston said of Stith, who at 5 feet 8, 203 pounds is now known as much for knocking over defenders as he is for racing around them. "He was one of those little guys who got caught in the shuffle."
About two weeks later--as the junior varsity and varsity teams practiced kick returns against one another--Johnston couldn't believe what almost got away.
"I was upset because this one little JV kid just kept flying down the field every time and kept making the varsity look awful," Johnston said. "I went over to the JV coach and said, 'Who is this kid?' He didn't even know his name, but he told me he'd find out."
By the end of that freshman year Stith was promoted to the varsity, and ran 70 yards for a touchdown on his first carry. Three years later, the no-name kid owned the school's career rushing (2,234 yards) and scoring (39 touchdowns) records.
"I saw him his junior year of high school on film," Virginia Tech running backs coach Billy Hite said. "I think I saw about five plays and said, 'I'll take him.' "
What Hite didn't realize was how quickly he would need him. But with backup tailback Marcus Parker suspended before the 1996 season and starter Ken Oxendine having separated his shoulder in the second quarter of Virginia Tech's season opener at Akron, Stith got the call.
"All I remember thinking was, 'Please, Coach, please don't put me in,' " Stith said. "I didn't think I was ready. The team was just coming off the big win in the Sugar Bowl the year before, and all anyone was talking about was getting back there. I didn't want to let anyone down."
He didn't. Stith rushed for 119 yards in the 21-18 win over Akron and totaled 155 more yards over the next two games--both wins against Big East opponents--while Oxendine recuperated. Stith finished the season second on the Hokies' rushing list with 89 carries for 474 yards and five touchdowns.
Stith stayed in Blacksburg the following summer to hone his skills. Two weeks before the start of his sophomore year, however, Hite asked Stith to take a redshirt year to preserve his three years of eligibility.
Stith returned last season as a backup to Clemson transfer Lamont Pegues and gained 699 yards and three touchdowns on 133 carries. He led all rushers in the Hokies' 38-7 victory over Alabama in the Music City Bowl, and has been superb this season.
His 521 yards rushing through four games marks the fourth-best rushing start in Big East history. No Hokie has rushed for over 100 yards more than six times in a single season, but Stith seems primed to surpass that mark. He had 113 yards and scored a career-high three touchdowns in the 31-7 victory over the Cavaliers.
In addition to his rushing totals, Stith ranks ninth nationally in kickoff returns (31.0 yards per return) and sixth nationally in all-purpose yards (186.5 yards per game).
And, thanks to that redshirt year, he will be back in 2000.
"All we heard last week was about Thomas Jones," Virginia Tech all-American defensive end Corey Moore said of Virginia's heralded running back. "But we play against Shyrone Stith every day in practice. And if you don't think he's that good, then you're not paying enough attention."