Through the first six weeks of his coaching tenure at Oak Grove, Pat Richard had yet to lose a football game. But that smooth-sailing introduction in 2011 quickly faded when the Panthers lost their starting running back for the season.
As a solution, Richard turned to Aaron Graham, a 160-pound freshman. And why not? He described Graham as a once-in-a-generation talent, the type of player he thought could soon lead the Oak Grove football program to a state championship.
“He wasn’t your normal freshman,” Richard said. “You could already see how good he would be. I told him, and I told all our kids, they would be playing for a state championship one day.”
That day has come.
Oak Grove will meet John Burroughs for the Missouri Class 3 title at 1 p.m. Friday inside the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
Richard followed through on his promise with the team. And on his prediction for Graham, who has run for 2,668 yards and 37 touchdowns in his senior season.
As he prepared Wednesday for the final high school game of his career, Graham looked back on how it all began — an undersized, wide-eyed freshman trying to prove he belonged.
“Oh my goodness. My brain was going crazy,” Graham said of his first career start. “I was just a little guy. I had no idea what I was doing.
“But that year, that helped me so much with knowing what to expect. I went from a kid who ran away from people to a guy who wants to run over people.”
Well, now he does both.
Graham will enter the state championship game with 6,972 career rushing yards and 83 career rushing touchdowns. He will graduate from Oak Grove as one of the best football players in program history.
His biggest concern, at least for the moment, is leaving with the first state championship in program history.
That accomplishment, of course, will take more than another strong effort from Graham.
See, when you run for more than 200 yards per game, word gets around. Defenses have built game plans around stopping the player who has grown into his 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame.
But it hasn’t worked. Not yet.
Graham’s presence in the backfield offers expanded running lanes for his teammates, most notably Landon Cairer, who has responded with 1,378 yards. The ultra-reliable rushing attack — which Richard says is the product of four years in the making — has tallied 5,986 yards this season.
“That’s the whole key,” Cairer said. “Aaron is a phenomenal player. Everybody knows that. So everybody just tries to stop him, but we have three good backs and (quarterback Austin) Blackston and everyone else who rotates in. And the line is doing their part.”
Graham has drawn only one Division I offer, which came from Navy. Richard, a former college assistant, laughs when asked about that.
But that’s far from Graham’s mind, at least for the moment.
“It’s kind of crazy. I’ve been dreaming about the state championship every night this week,” Graham said. “It’s hard to go to sleep when the day you’ve been thinking about for four years is so close.”
Asked how those dreams conclude, Graham replied, “A win. Every time.”