SHAYNE SKOV'S TRANSITION FROM LAID-BACK LOCKER-ROOM CLOWN TO GRIDIRON TERROR is so startling that one teammate has compared him to Damien, the evil five-year-old in The Omen. There is the ghoulish eye black, which the 6' 3" 243-pounder paints on his cheeks in quantities that would make Gene Simmons blush. There's the warrior haircut of last season, a ginger Mohawk that Skov sported long after most of his teammates who had dabbled with the 'do had given it up. Then there's the debris trail. Skov tears up so much turf that he leaves divots in the grass. "Shayne drives everything he has into those cleats," says co--defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. "Even when he is on the new type of field turf, you can see the little chips of rubber flying. It's like he leaves a footprint."
Skov's drive earned him a starting spot halfway through his freshman year, in 2009, when he made 62 tackles, third best on the team, to earn the Menlo-Atherton Award as the Cardinal's top freshman. Despite missing two games with a leg injury last season, he led the team with 84 tackles, including 12 in Stanford's 40--12 win over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. "He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played," says coach David Shaw. "All out, all the time."
You might not guess that if you were you to encounter Skov, a thoughtful management science and engineering major, off the field. "In the locker room I'm actually quite docile and goofy," he says. "And I'm probably the laziest guy on the team when it comes to going out and doing stuff. But when I play football ... I guess there's something in the game that brings out something that's counter to my personality."
He first discovered the game's transformative influence in Mexico. The oldest of four children, Skov had spent his grade school years in San Francisco happily playing soccer and basketball. But before he entered junior high, his mother, Terri, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis, which inspired the family to move to the balmier climate of Guadalajara. There Skov and his younger brother, Patrick (now an incoming freshman fullback at Stanford), joined an American football club and got a rough introduction to the sport. Their team, Carneros, practiced on dirt fields and endured countless hitting drills, including one in which the whole team lined up in two lines facing one player. "With each blow of the whistle, they'd come straight at you from five yards away, and you had to hit two guys at once," recalls Skov, who played wide receiver and safety for Carneros. "If you were new, it was pretty traumatic because you spent a lot of time on your back. It was a much tougher way to learn the game, but I loved it."
Skov returned to the States for high school, spending two years at Piedmont (Calif.) High before transferring to Trinity-Pawling, an all-boys' prep school an hour and a half outside New York City, for three years. The summer after his first year there, he gained 30 pounds and switched to linebacker. "I like being involved in the action constantly," says Skov. "And I'd rather make the hit than be hit. Linebacker fills those needs for me."
And he fills an important need for Stanford, giving it a defensive leader who is reliable and passionate—at least when he's in gridiron mode. "I've learned that a lot of the game is attitude and mind-set," says Skov. "If you can tap into the psychological component, it can make up a great deal of your success."