Dwayne Stukes remembers when he had things covered. As a sophomore for Virginia in 1997, he became one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's most electrifying cornerbacks, with speed and a knack for making big plays when the Cavaliers needed them most. The son of a former NFL cornerback, Stukes knew he had the potential to play in the pros and shine at Virginia in the meantime.
But over the past two years, the 5-foot-11, 184-pound senior has suffered through a series of nagging injuries, the death of his closest friend and one harrowing afternoon against Georgia Tech wide receiver Dez White. Stukes now wants to prove over Virginia's final three games--potentially his last three games as a collegian--that he has the ability to follow his father Charles, who totaled 32 interceptions while playing for the Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams from 1967 to 1974, into the NFL.
"I wish I could have had a full season to play, to show people what I could do," Stukes said. "But I didn't, so I've got to do the best with what I've got."
The first of the Cavaliers' final three games involves Stukes's nemesis, White, who is averaging an ACC-leading 22 yards per catch this season for the seventh-ranked Yellow Jackets. Last season, White overwhelmed Stukes and the Cavaliers with six catches for 243 yards and three touchdowns in a game that was one of several low points in a year that, based on Stukes's performance in 1997, was supposed to be a fabulous one.
In the opening weeks of the 1997 season, Stukes scored Virginia's first points in its first three games, on two blocked punts and a fumble recovery. He finished with 54 tackles, 3 fumble recoveries, 5 passes broken up and 1 interception and received honorable mention all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors. Then the hardest year and a half of Stukes's life began.
In May 1998, his best friend and Cavaliers student equipment manager Albert Gibson committed suicide. Stukes's mother, Gloria Billups, said the two had been almost inseparable since they met while playing clarinet at Perry Hall Middle School outside Baltimore in seventh grade. "I've never seen Dwayne take to anyone like that," said Billups, who remembers vividly the day Stukes, always a bit of a loner, came home from school and told her he had made a new friend.
"I don't think anyone could ever know what I was going through, or what I was feeling," said Stukes, who has a tattoo memorializing Gibson on his right forearm and wore his initials on his helmet. "In everyday life, it affected me. That's something where you see a person every day for nine years of your life and then all of a sudden, he wasn't there."
Then, in the 1998 season opener against Auburn, Stukes suffered a torn hamstring that slowed him for almost the entire season. He played in Virginia's second game, against Maryland, but missed the next two games. He played some in Game 5, but missed much of practice during the next two weeks, which because of a bye week, were spent getting ready for what had become a huge game: then-undefeated and seventh-ranked Virginia against then-No. 25 Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
At one point, Stukes told his mother he was not even going to make the trip to Atlanta. However, he did--and was burned by White for touchdowns of 69 and 35 yards. Virginia squandered a 21-point second-half lead and lost, 41-38.
"I'm not going to make an excuse for last year," Stukes said Monday. "Dez White beat me."
Stukes began this season with his hopes renewed. But in the season opener against North Carolina, he injured the muscle that connects the quadriceps and hip flexor. After playing hurt so much last season, he sat out four games this year, while the Cavaliers' depleted secondary flailed in losses to Clemson and Virginia Tech and a 45-40 victory over Brigham Young.
Stukes has made two interceptions since returning against Duke on Oct. 9, but his best remaining chance to gain some renown might be Saturday against White, the wide receiver who made a name off him.
"It's not a matter of what he did to me last year," Stukes said. "It's a matter of now is the time to show the country how good I am."