After Grand Valley State scored a touchdown to take a 14-10 lead with 2:46 left in last Saturday's Division II championship game in Florence, Ala., no one in Braly Stadium wore a bigger smile than North Dakota senior wideout Dan Graf. That was a bit peculiar, because Graf's team was losing, but it's even more unusual when anyone is wearing a bigger smile than Graf. If life handed Graf lemons, he'd happily make lemonade, but he'd be sure to make several flavors of Kool-Aid as well in case someone didn't care for lemonade. He's that nice.
So when quarterback Ryan Brady put Grand Valley State on top with what appeared to be a game-winning 12-yard run, Graf simply grinned and found something positive to cling to. "This is what you dream about: two minutes and 40-some seconds and a chance to win a championship," said Graf. "You can't ask for anything better." The Fighting Sioux put an even bigger smile on Graf's face when they drove 80 yards in nine plays, capped by a one-yard touchdown run by Jed Perkerewicz that gave North Dakota a 17-14 win and its first national championship.
One of the few things Graf doesn't like is getting roughed up, which explains why he didn't play football at Aberdeen (S.Dak.) Central High as a freshman or sophomore. "I was so little [5'9", 120 pounds], I always got pounded," says Graf, who is now 6 feet, 180 pounds, of his experience in junior high.
Nonetheless, before his junior year the team's quarterback, Josh Heupel, talked his buddy into coming out for the team, and he was used sparingly as a defensive back. As a senior Graf played receiver and safety in addition to returning kicks. Heupel wound up at Oklahoma and led the Sooners to the national title last season. Graf got a scholarship to North Dakota, and after redshirting as a freshman, he scored on the first three receptions of his career en route to becoming the school's alltime leading receiver, with 142 catches.
On Saturday, Grand Valley State limited Graf to three catches for 41 yards, though the first, a 27-yarder on the second play of the game, set up a field goal. Although they allowed only 15.4 points per game, the Lakers are not normally known for their defense. When your offense scores 58.4 points per game and your star quarterback, Curt Anes, throws 48 touchdown passes, the defense tends to get overlooked.
However, in Grand Valley State's first-round playoff game, against Bloomsburg, Anes was knocked out with a dislocated left knee. In the next game, Anes's backup, Todd Wojciechowski, was sidelined with bruised ribs. That forced Grand Valley State coach Brian Kelly to go to Brady, a wideout who had been an option quarterback in high school. Brady rallied the Lakers to a 33-30 win over Saginaw Valley State in the second round. The next week Kelly rotated Wojciechowski and Brady in a semifinal win over Catawba, and he did the same against the Fighting Sioux.
Without Anes the Lakers could not move the ball consistently against North Dakota's rugged defense, but they put together an impressive 10-play drive in the fourth quarter. Trailing 10-7, the two Lakers quarterbacks drove the team 81 yards, including Brady's scamper up the middle. That in turn put the game in the hands of North Dakota junior quarterback Kelby Klosterman, which seemed to Sioux fans like a shaky proposition at best.
Statistically, at least, Klosterman had a miserable day, completing only 8 of 27 passes for 139 yards. When he ran the ball, things didn't go much better. On a sweep in the third quarter he took a hit, which left him with clouded vision for the rest of the afternoon. Still, he was at his best when it counted most. Facing a potential game-ending fourth-and-two on the last drive, he gained seven yards on another quarterback sweep. Four plays later, again facing fourth down, he dumped a quick pass to wide receiver Luke Schleusner, who got open with the help of a pick from Graf and ran 58 yards to the Grand Valley State one-yard line, setting up Perkerewicz's game-winning run.
The postgame revelry marked the first of many celebrations that Graf will partake in this month. On Dec. 18 he'll take his last exam before graduating with a degree in fisheries and wildlife biology, and 11 days later he'll marry Beth Klancher, whose brother Kevin is a former Fighting Sioux quarterback. As Graf posed for pictures with the championship trophy, the huge grin on his face made a little more sense than the one he'd sported an hour earlier. It was still the biggest in the stadium, but this time his teammates offered plenty of competition.