FORTVILLE — Charles DeGraff never gave surrender a second thought.
Even when the searing pain in his right shoulder from a near completely torn larbrum was enough to send many crumbling to the turf, the Mt. Vernon linebacker opted to ignore it, tighten the pads and rev back up.
“Relentless” is how Marauders head coach Doug Armstrong described the grit that drove DeGraff, better known by his middle name, Vanya, to his friends, teammates and coaches.
“That injury was not going to stop him,” Armstrong said. “It is always a team-first thing for him. He was always going to do what he could to help us win. He doesn’t know how to quit.”
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Instead, DeGraff’s full throttle mentality kept him on the field every game this season. He was slowed partially with a dislocated finger in Week 2, but he played through the last five-plus weeks with what was later diagnosed as two labral tears — one in each shoulder.
“In the Richmond (sectional) game there was a lot of pain. I remember one play there was a bad snap, and I was right there to make the sack on the quarterback. But right when I hit him, my whole arm went numb,” DeGraff recalled. “At times, it would completely go numb. There was intense pain for around five minutes, but then it went away.”
To the dismay of opposing teams, DeGraff refused to do the same. While less than 100 percent, he feasted for a state-leading 13 sacks and 122 total tackles, earning him the 2016 Daily Reporter Defensive Player of the Year.
“Honestly, the fact that it was my senior year. I wanted to go all out,” DeGraff remarked on his career season. “I wanted to give it the best I had. I wanted to say I did that.”
The numbers the two-time All-Hoosier Heritage Conference selection produced spoke loud and clear.
On five occasions, DeGraff recorded two or more sacks in a single game. He posted a career-best three sacks twice this season and dwarfed his 2015 season total (eight sacks) by five.
His solo tackle numbers jumped by 37 while he led the team and HHC in tackles for a loss with 21 overall, which was third best in Class 4A.
“Our coaches did a really good job of positioning him in places where he could rush the passer and make plays,” Armstrong said. “Run or pass, regardless, he was relentless to get to the football.”
Part of what made him so difficult to contain actually sent the first shockwave through his broad 5-foot-11, 190-pound frame, said DeGraff, who had corrective surgery on his right shoulder earlier this week.
Feeling a sharp twinge after a fierce hit for one of his 10 solo tackles in Week 5 against Delta, the irritation began. A steady diet of ice treatment, ibuprofen and a shoulder brace issued by his doctor to help stabilize the joint and limit movement kept him a step ahead of the discomfort most of the time.
Winning, however, proved the best medicine and the Marauders gave DeGraff seven consecutive vitalizing doses.
After the team opened the season 1-3, Armstrong challenged the Marauders to run the table the rest of the regular season. Once they completed a five-game run and finished second in the HHC at 6-1, the Marauders and DeGraff reset the counter to three. They won two more games before narrowly losing to Delta 12-6 in the sectional championship Nov. 4.
“It was rough this season with the injury, but it was definitely worth it,” DeGraff said. “The one thing coach Armstrong always said was that people would doubt us, especially after starting the season as bad as we did. But the team didn’t lose hope. We knew what we needed to get done after we got our heads on straight.
“That was the biggest accomplishment for me, going 8-4 after starting 1-3. It was phenomenal.”
DeGraff and the defense played a key part in the turnaround, dropping the team’s points-allowed average to 18.8 on the season and 13.8 during the streak. In the sectional semifinals, the defense posted its first shutout since 2014 as the Marauders beat Pendleton Heights 13-0 on Oct. 28.
DeGraff had nine total tackles, three for a loss and a pair of sacks in the game.
“With me, Nathan (Seifert), Mitch (McCarthy) at linebacker and the three down linemen, our defense, I would say is the best defense Mt. Vernon has ever had, but that’s just me saying that,” DeGraff said. “We had to get things under control and get things rolling. I mean, Cole Van Slyke, the dude had two pick-sixes in one game. We had one game where we had three interceptions, so we were all over the place. It was fantastic.”
Spearheaded by the senior linebacker trio, the Marauders piled up 63 tackles for a loss, 25 sacks and 12 interceptions this year. DeGraff’s quarterback takedowns equated to 74 negative yards. He had five sacks in three sectional games and double digit tackles twice with nine for a loss and a season-best 15 tackles in the regular-season finale against Yorktown.
Often in the “Marauder” position on the outside in the unit’s 3-3 set, DeGraff was a hybrid, moving to the defensive line for added pocket pressure, which kept Delta scoreless in the second half during the sectional title game. DeGraff teed off against the Eagles for two sacks, 24 negative yards, and 14 total tackles.
“We struggled at times offensively, but we always had defense to rely on,” Armstrong said. “Those guys, Vanya, Nate and Mitch, and the others, they knew it, and they took pride in it.”
Tying Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger senior Frankie Yanko in sacks this season was a surprising bonus, DeGraff admits, since he’s much of a numbers tracker.
As for his recovery timetable, however, he has that one memorized to the day.
Four to six months for the right to heal and medical clearance before August of next year after surgery to repair the other tear.
“Everyone tells me, you’d rather get this done now then when you’re older,” DeGraff said.
In the meantime, his pursuit hasn’t stopped as he continues to chase down a potential career in college football.
Interested in the University of Indianapolis, DeGraff, who carries a 525-pound max squat and a 295 bench, went to an unofficial visit at Indiana University and saw what could be. He “loved” the idea.
“He’s got goals of playing in college, and he’s always been a pretty determined guy. He’s got good family support, and I’m sure if he wants to continue playing after he recovers, he’ll be able to do just that,” Armstrong said. “I didn’t see many people at the high school level block him well, so I would think the way that he plays, he would continue to be a playmaker. What he may lack in size, he makes up for in strength and especially determination.”
The Sack Artist
Charles “Vanya” DeGraff, Mt. Vernon
Position: Linebacker/Defensive Lineman
By the Numbers: 122 total tackles, 94 solo tackles, 28 assists, 21 tackles for a loss, tied for state lead with 13 sacks, averaged 1.1 sacks per game, totaled 74 yards lost from sacks, averaged 10.2 tackles per game, one fumble recovery, and a defensive touchdown.
Awards: Two-Time All-Hoosier Heritage Conference
Hobbies: NetFlix, “My favorite show is LOST. I love that show. … I recently picked up watching One Tree Hill, again. I get some flack for that, but it’s not that bad.”
Family: Tamara, Mother; Charles, Father; Kelsey Taylor, Michelle Taylor, Kaylnn DeGraff, Stephanie Taylor, Michaela DeGraff, Sisters.