Hardly anyone pays attention to a place kicker unless he makes--or especially if he misses--a game-winning kick. And no one pays attention to the holder unless he muffs a snap. Well, at least not at most schools.
Things are a little different at No. 2-ranked Virginia Tech, where senior place kicker Shayne Graham, only the second player in Big East Conference history to be named first-team all-conference four consecutive seasons, always has been a local hero. And his holder, senior Caleb Hurd, even had his own World Wide Web site this season that jokingly touted him for the Heisman Trophy.
"Yeah, who would have ever thought that . . . even as a joke," said Hurd, who plays no other position. "Can you imagine?"
The duo is loved in, and around, Blacksburg, Va., because they grew up in nearby Pulaski, where they were teammates and friends at Pulaski County High School long before they discovered they also are distant cousins. Their popularity rose significantly late this season when, with Hurd's steady hands placing the ball for him, Graham booted a last-second, 44-yard field goal against West Virginia to keep the Hokies undefeated and in contention for the national championship.
The kick occurred the same day that the 20 finalists for the Lou Groza Award, which honors the nation's top place kicker, was announced--and Graham, despite his career-long excellence wasn't on it, a slight Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer called a "tragedy." (Florida State's Sebastian Janikowski eventually won the award for the second time in as many years.)
"Make no mistake," Beamer said this week, Tuesday night's Sugar Bowl against No. 1-ranked Florida State "might very well could come down to special teams. It could come down to the kicking game. And I wouldn't trade Shayne Graham and the guys we have out there working with him for anyone."
Graham said he would love to have a chance to decide the game.
"Anybody who is a competitor wants to do something to make the final outcome their decision," said Graham, who consumed a half bottle of Pepto-Bismol prior to every game for more than five years--first out of nervous habit and then out of superstition--but stopped doing so a few years ago because it was actually making him sick after the games. "I finally got my chance this year and if it comes up again, I hope I can perform as well."
If nothing else, Graham--who made 17 of 22 field goal attempts this season to became the Big East's all-time leading scorer with 371 points--will have consistency on his side.
"Caleb's been my holder since my junior year in high school," Graham said, "so it takes away a little bit of insecurity when I'm on the field because I always know things are going to be done right when he's doing it."
Graham said he had offers from North Carolina, Boston College, Virginia and Georgia before choosing Virginia Tech. The dealmaker? The Hokies were willing to bring Hurd along for the ride.
"I wasn't recruited by anyone [out of high school]," Hurd said. "I don't know if it was just a part of Virginia Tech's recruiting tactics or what, but I guess the coaches found out I was already going to Tech for engineering, so they called me. They made it sound like it was a recruiting call and said that while they were watching him they were watching me, too, and that they'd love to have me walk on if he came on the team."
Said Graham: "The coaches brought the idea up to me and then they called Caleb. Just knowing he would be there helped me make my final decision. I knew it would be an advantage for me while performing and trying to win the job. I knew he would make me feel more comfortable."
What neither knew--and couldn't have dreamed--was that Hurd would become so popular. During a televised game against Clemson in the third week of the season, several Virginia Tech graduate students held up a sign that read: "Hurd for Heisman."
"I thought it was some friends of mine," Hurd said, "but it turned out to be some graduate students who thought it would be fun. Then they started a Web site and people started getting on it and like 200 people joined the Web site. It really took off."
Hurd, of course, received no votes for the Heisman, but he has enjoyed a marvelous ride alongside Graham. Reality, which is starting to settle in on both players, is that the Sugar Bowl will be their last game together. Though Graham may go on to an NFL career, this time Hurd won't be joining him.
"It's going to be weird," Hurd said. "In high school, that's what I thought it was going to be like--watching him in college on TV. And instead I kind of lucked into this position. I know he'll have a great career, but it's definitely going to be different to watch him out there and know I was part of his operation for six, seven years and that I'm not anymore."
Special correspondent Lee Feinswog contributed to this report.