HAMMOND — Two of the greatest life lessons that continue to impact Southeastern Louisiana center Joe Graves came at two entirely different junctures.
The first was courtesy of his mother, Carla, who stipulated that before he could entertain the thought of after-school play, Graves had to complete all of his homework at the family dinner table.
When she got home, Carla meticulously checked over her son’s work before allowing him outside.
“That was always the subliminal message to me: School’s important and you have to do your best,” Graves said.
The second happened two years ago, when Graves believed things had fallen into place, earning a starting spot during preseason camp on SLU’s starting offensive line. That’s when the Covington High graduate was approached by his position coach, Travis Mikal, following a subpar practice by the team.
“He asked me what I was doing,” Graves said. “I told him I was playing hard and doing what he asked. He said I had awesome leadership qualities and had to speak up and be vocal all the time.”
With Graves nearing the end of his career, those two qualities have served him well. He’s regarded among the brightest student-athletes in the Southland Conference and a pillar of strength for the Lions.
“He’s been an outstanding representative of our program on and off the field,” SLU coach Ron Roberts said. “He came here as a true freshman when we were trying to build this thing and since then has been a three-year starter. I can’t thank him enough for what he’s done.”
Though his senior season hasn’t gone according to plan — SLU (4-4, 3-3) hosts Incarnate Word (4-4, 3-3) play at 6 p.m. Saturday — Graves remains steadfast in his belief the Lions must set a standard over their final three games for returning players to follow.
Given the fact SLU is the reigning two-time conference champion and took part in the NCAA playoffs, it’s the ultimate show of leadership.
“We have to set the example for the underclassmen about how to finish even when things aren’t going your way,” Graves said. “You have to keep playing hard and make the best of a situation.”
Graves arrived at a time when Roberts took over SLU’s program with visions of trying to build something special.
Roberts said the coaching staff identified Graves as a potential building block; a player with great character and high academic achiever that would be around for the long haul.
Graves, who initially committed to Northwestern State, signed with SLU and proved Roberts correct on several fronts, taking advantage of some depth issues to play his freshman season at guard and center.
Graves became a starter as a sophomore, putting into motion a career that has included 35 consecutive starts heading into his next-to-last home game.
“You go through the ups and downs, and before you know it, you’re at the end of your journey in college and you’ve got three games left,” he said.
Graves has twice been named honorable mention All-SLC, helping SLU to the two highest single-season rushing totals in school history with 3,271 yards in 2013 and 3,651 yards in ’14.
Moreover, Graves, who graduates in May with a degree in social studies, has been a three-time first-team selection to the conference’s all-academic team.
Graves has a 3.85 grade-point average, including a perfect 4.0 every semester since his sophomore year. He plans to pursue his master’s degree in history while serving as a graduate assistant football coach.
“Hopefully that sets the standard for other guys on the team,” Graves said. “You can be a good football player and you can do all the things you want athletically and be a star student. There’s nothing wrong with that.”