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STANFORD LINEBACKER Shayne Skov can pinpoint the precise moment when he set himself down the path toward becoming one of college football's most intimidating players. He was 13, standing on a patch of dirt masquerading as a field at a practice in Guadalajara, Mexico. Skov peered through his face mask at the toughest running back on his team, the Carneros.
The two players matched up in an Oklahoma drill, the quintessential test of football toughness: Two players line up 10 yards apart, and on the coach's whistle they charge at each other and collide, like a couple of rams. (Fitting in this case, given that carnero means ram in Spanish.)
Skov abhorred the Oklahoma drill. He'd never felt tough enough. A few years earlier, before his family moved from San Francisco to Mexico, Skov's father enrolled him in Bay Area inner-city sports programs to toughen him up. Skov hated contact so much he begged to quit.
But on this day he decided to see what would happen if he delivered a blow instead of receiving one. On the whistle he sprinted, gritted his teeth and leveled the tailback, who jumped up from the dust angry.
The coaches, stunned at Skov's vicious hit, blew the whistle and sent the players at each other again. Skov felt nervous and shocked, but he went right at the running back and flattened him again. Skov cherishes that memory as "the moment where it clicked," and his teammates whooped in approval of his transformation. "You can be the recipient of the blow," he says," or you can be the cause of the blow."
Skov's current team, Stanford, experienced a similar epiphany in December 2006. After the Cardinal took its lumps in a 1--11 season, the school fired second-year coach Walt Harris. New coach Jim Harbaugh installed a pro-style offense, then the Cardinal defied modern football convention by bunching up the field and ramrodding their way to relevance. Harbaugh sold his new program to five-star talent such as Andrew Luck, which helped attract the highly touted Skov, the first commitment of Stanford's 2009 class. Three consecutive BCS bids followed.
Stanford had the same number of victories the past three seasons (35) as Alabama, has won five of six against eternal tormentor USC and enters this season as a favorite for the national title. "We're still the new kid on the block," says coach David Shaw, who took over in 2011 when Harbaugh left for the 49ers. "To me the next step is, I don't want to be the new kid on the block. I want to be the kid that's always on the block."
Skov has emerged as the face of the new program—and it's an interesting face, adorned on game days with KISS-style eye black and topped by a Mohawk. Don't be fooled, though. His younger brother, Patrick, a Cardinal fullback, describes him as "a nerd-meathead combo." Indeed, Shayne is smart enough to major in management science and engineering and witty enough to tweet hilariously about yoga pants, helmet acne and the infuriating overuse of the word cray. He's geeky enough to devour the works of George R.R. Martin and lose himself in role-playing games such as Skyrim. Recently, he drew laughs in a class when he said he wanted to work in the defense industry; everyone assumed he meant the NFL, but he was actually talking about working on weapons systems.
The NFL is certainly an option. Tailbacks can't block him, quarterbacks audible at the mere hint of his blitz and he's the lead agitator behind the Stanford defense's #partyinthebackfield hashtag. "He's got the ability to play at the highest level," says Shaw, "and be one of those special players."
His next step seems logical, but Skov's 23-year journey has never been simple. His family jokes that Skov—who was born to an African-American mother and a white father and spent three years in Mexico—is "half-black, half-white and half-Mexican." His saga spans two countries, two coasts and two languages. He's been thrown off the football team at one school, voted head prefect at another and suspended for an academic quarter for a DUI at a third. There have been three knee surgeries, a two-year delay in entering the NFL draft and, now, one final season to prove he's healthy.