Think back to the Orange Bowl last January. On the surface it was just another dominant win for Stanford, a farewell game for Jim Harbaugh, and another great night for Andrew Luck. Beyond that, though, it was the night that Shayne Skov rose to prominence on the national scene. Those of us who had been following the Cardinal throughout the season certainly weren't surprised by Skov's performance, but even we were impressed. Here's what I wrote about him that night:
Stanford's defensive star (and GMC's Orange Bowl MVP) was sophomore linebacker Shayne Skov. Rocking a vicious mohawk and enough eye black to make Alice Cooper proud, Skov was flying around the field all night long, whether covering tight ends down field, stuffing running backs at the line, or pulling down Taylor in the backfield. It was the best game of his young career, and I'm certain it will earn him several preseason mentions on various All-PAC-12 and even All-America lists.
When Luck announced a few days later that he would be returning for another year, the expectations for this season instantly skyrocketed and fans around Cardinal nation began counting the days until this season would begin. We talked about Heisman Trophies, All-America honors, Rose Bowls, and even national championships. The sky was the limit.
But imagine what it must've been like for Skov. Even as he and his teammates were still celebrating that win over Virginia Tech, his excitement certainly must have drawfed anyone's who was watching in the stands or on television. I certainly have no experience in this area, so I hesitate to speculate how an elite athlete might feel in moments like that one, but I have to imagine that Skov knew he had arrived.
Even though he had been playing the game for years and likely had always been one of the better players on the field, there is an obvious adjustment for even the best players when they come from high school to Division I college football. If there had been moments during his freshman year when Skov doubted his ability or place in the game, those had certainly faded away during his breakout sophomore season, and it's not hard to imagine what he must have been thinking after that January night in Miami: I am one of the best football players in America.
He might not have thought those exact words, but I have to imagine that he was looking forward to this season much more than we were. As his name kept popping up on various preseason watch lists, I'm sure he saw this not as a challenge but as validation, and his ferocious play during the first two weeks clearly put him on a path to secure many of those awards and honors.
And then he was injured in the first half of the third game. I cannot lie to you; when I saw him rolling around on the turf and clutching his knee, my first thoughts were selfish. I wondered who could possibly replace Shayne Skov. I wondered what this injury would do to the season. I wondered if Stanford could still realistically challenge for a national championship.
It wasn't until Skov returned from the lockerroom during the second half that I really understood. This injury wasn't about me or the thousands and thousands of Stanford fans praying for positive MRI results, it was about a twenty-one-year-old kid who wouldn't be playing football for a long time. His teammate and fellow linebacker had come out for the second half with the number 11 scrawled on his biceps in Skov's trademark eye black, a fitting tribute to his friend (and the first indication that the injury was season-threatening). As Skov lay on the bench in warmups, his knee heavily wrapped, teammates stopped by to talk, but their attention had already begun to switch to the game.
And that will continue. Skov will likely have surgery soon, and his recovery will be measured in months, not weeks. During this time he'll do his best to remain with the team in a leadership capacity, but it will be difficult to lead while standing on crutches. He'll likely sit in the film room with Jarek Lancaster and Blake Lueders and James Vaughters, guiding them through the defensive game plan, but that too will be hard.
Soon enough it will be next January, a year from Skov's Orange Bowl coming out party, and the Cardinal will likely be playing in another BCS bowl game, whether in Pasadena or New Orleans or someplace else. If the team is fortunate enough to win, the celebration might be even bigger than it was at the end of last season, especially if the prize is a national championship.
Skov will be there on the sidelines, walking with a limp and exhorting his fellow linebackers. After the game someone will hand him a hat and a t-shirt, and he'll stand with his teammates as they hoist a trophy. It's possible that he might look at the celebration and think that he doesn't belong alongside the rest of the players who had blocked and tackled that night, but I'm hoping he won't.
Skov has been the heartbeat of the defense for more than a year, and if they are able to continue playing as they've been, it will be because of him. If they win a championship of any kind this season, it will be because of him.
The road ahead for Shayne Skov will be difficult, but he should realize that his presence has made the road ahead for Stanford football much smoother.
[Photo Credit: US Presswire]