Sol Graves always wanted to be an LSU Tiger.
But long before he had dreams of beating Georgia in Death Valley, he had an admiration for his father, White Graves, who was a member of the Chinese Bandits on LSU’s 1962 football team and went on to make game-changing plays in an LSU uniform in the years that followed.
Sol swelled with pride every time he could mention his father, the former LSU football player. And why wouldn’t he? After all, his pops still has claim for the longest scoring play in LSU history. When Sol was much younger, he showed his buddies a picture of his father returning that 100-yard interception against Kentucky in 1964.
But pride isn’t the only thing White gave his son. He also gave him memories that would last a lifetime, like getting access to the visitor’s locker room when USC came to town in 1979.
Sol’s future was destined from the beginning. LSU football was always going to be his passion because it was his father’s before him.
“From the beginning, that’s what I always wanted to do: play at LSU,” Sol said. “My dad’s identity to everyone was a football player at LSU. And he was my coach growing up, so I can’t remember a time I wasn’t an LSU fan. He would listen to the games on the radio and I was right there with him.”
Being the son of a former LSU safety had its advantages. One of those simple advantages was just getting to play catch with a former professional football player. White played 40 games for the Boston Patriots for three years before going to Cincinnati in the expansion draft for another year and eventually graduating from dental school. He moved to Monroe in 1973 with his wife, Linda, and opened up his own practice.
“I never had to advertise,” White said. “I put a sign in the front yard that simply said White Graves, D.D.S. I had a woman run in the first day I opened up and ask, ‘Is this the White Graves that played football at LSU?’”
Today White continues to practice dentistry in Monroe while his son practices as an orthopedist at North Louisiana Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Clinic.
Sol might not have ever settled down in Monroe if it weren’t for his father. And in truth, White, himself, almost didn’t. Thanks to LSU, among other things, it made perfect sense.
As a sophomore at Crystal Springs High School in the late 1950s, White’s team faced off against Mendenhall High School. Then LSU assistant coach Carl Maddox was in attendance to look at some players Mendenhall had, including a 240-pound fullback that White would get to know very well over the course of four quarters.
“I was playing safety that night, and they handed it off to the big fullback and it was like the whole world opened up and here he came,” White said. “And I tackled him. Maddox came down after the game and said, ‘Son, if you want to come down to LSU, come by the coaches office and we’ll get you in the ballgame and feed you dinner.’”
Ole Miss and others offered White later in his high school career but by then it was too late. White had already fallen in love with LSU, and it didn’t hurt that he had friends going to LSU either.
So naturally Sol became a diehard Tiger fan as a boy, but even such, he almost didn’t make his way down to Baton Rouge. After White helped develop Sol into a quarterback that would shatter records at Ouachita Christian — Sol once threw for a school-high 409 yards in a game in 1985 and tossed 50 touchdowns as a senior while spending most of the third and fourth quarters on the bench — Sol’s first SEC offer came from perhaps LSU’s greatest rival, Ole Miss. After choosing LSU over Ole Miss decades before Sol, White wouldn’t be able to live it down if his son flipped the script.
“I had to eat so much crow back then,” White said.
But Ole Miss rolled out the red carpet, and LSU didn’t. In fact, Sol was the only recruit in attendance for his visit with Ole Miss in 1985, and he attended dinner with Ole Miss head coach Billy Brewer, along with the athletic director and university president. At the time, Miami and LSU were talking to Sol, but Sol still didn’t have an offer from the Tigers. Ole Miss was the clear-cut favorite.
“Driving back from Oxford, I said, ‘I think I’m going to go to Ole Miss,’” Sol recalled. “I can’t remember if dad stopped the car or if he just looked at me. He said, ‘You don’t need to commit to Ole Miss right now.’ You didn’t back out of a commitment back then. I ended up not committing and went to Miami the next week. They offered and I think it wasn’t but 48 hours later LSU’s quarterback coach came to OCS and spent an hour with me and offered me after that. Had it not been for dad, I probably would have committed to Ole Miss.”
As the story goes, Sol got to experience what it was like to be an LSU Tiger. But unfortunately, when he arrived on campus, LSU had another hotshot quarterback. His name was Tommy Hodson, and he had a leg up on Sol and other incoming freshmen.
“Tommy Hodson was so far ahead of us in knowing the offense,” Sol said. “There was really not even a chance, and Hodson had such an unbelievable freshman year. Mentally, it was very hard because you go from playing all the time to not playing at all. And dad helped me at that time. I had people in my ear saying, ‘You need to transfer. You need to just come back to Northeast and play.’ But LSU was where I wanted to be.”
Hodson became one of the top freshman quarterbacks in LSU history by garnering First Team All-SEC honors in 1986. Sol redshirted and attempted seven passes from 1987 until 1989. His first pass, by the way, was a 71-yard touchdown pass. And as thrilling as that was, Sol’s patience was tested over a three-year period.
Sol had to bide his time to leave his mark at LSU. His moment under the bright lights of Tiger Stadium eventually came his senior year. And like his first career pass at LSU in 1987, the start of the 1990 season was nearly perfect. Sol threw a couple of touchdowns and led his team to an 18-13 opening victory against Georgia in Baton Rouge. His commitment to LSU was rewarded.
“We beat Georgia and then went on to beat Miami of Ohio, and I can remember seeing my parents after that Georgia game like it was yesterday,” Sol said. “They were waiting at the gate afterwards. Even though it was just the beginning of my senior year, this was what we worked for our whole lives. (White) was as much involved with it as anybody.”
From transitioning Sol from running back to quarterback in second grade to running pass routes for Sol when he was in middle school, high school and even at LSU, White was there with him every step of the journey. And White had hernia surgery to prove it.
“I cut too hard in the yard one day,” White said, laughing.
But White, along with the rest of Sol’s family, was there for Sol during his darkest playing days, which would soon come after the incredible Georgia victory.
“After the Miami game, I struggled at Vanderbilt and was benched after that game,” Sol said. “And that was tough. I never really thought about pressure or that this wasn’t a fun thing to be doing until that happened. To be the starter and be on top of the world and have it taken away from you… That was one of toughest things I went through.”
All the while, White and his family offered Sol a shoulder to lean on. Sol tasted what it was like to roam Tiger Stadium with the best athletes in the country. And like his father, he wanted to leave his mark.
Doubt entered. Would Sol have a picture to hang to inspire the next generation like White’s interception portrait?
Though White possesses pictures of the longest scoring play in school history — a play that thwarted a fourth quarter comeback by Kentucky in 1964 — to this day, he’s never seen the film. But he can remember that interception like it was yesterday, and how he picked off the pass in LSU’s own end zone and juked the quarterback before he “hauled tail” to the other end zone.
“We were getting ready to watch it on film, and (some teammates) got to cutting it up with me and (the coaches) cut it off,” White said.
And that isn’t even the play on film White covets to see most.
Nope, that play came later that season when White’s game-altering interception led to a 13-10 victory against Syracuse in the 1965 Sugar Bowl. White intercepted Syracuse quarterback Wally Mahle at LSU’s 6-yard line, setting up a game-winning drive that was capped by Doug Moreau’s 22-yard field goal.
Would Sol get another opportunity to leave his mark? Through grit and determination Sol worked his way back into the lineup and started at Alabama and led the Tigers to a 16-13 victory against Tulane in the Battle for the Rag.
“Sticking through the hard times, I thought of dad,” Sol said. “He was loyal to LSU and to his coach, and he was the first person to tell me as a freshman that you have to keep working and good things would happen. The easy way would have been to leave and walk away and go somewhere else. The difficult road was to stay and work at it and eventually good things would happen.”
Sol finished his senior year with 638 passing yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions, but more importantly, he finished his career with pride for sticking it out at LSU.
And Sol wasn’t the last Tiger in the family. His sister Kristen Wirtz made her way on campus two years after him. Wirtz was another athlete in the family, as she played basketball with the Tigers. And Sol’s oldest son Quin is an LSU graduate, while his daughter Anna Catherine is a senior at LSU. Sol’s youngest, James, is still playing football with the OCS Eagles.
Perhaps a picture hanging in Sol’s office effected the next Graves generation. Portraits of Graves’ playing days against Texas A&M and Georgia are easily spotted on the walls of his office on Louisville Avenue. And that’s not the only place you can find evidence of Sol’s impact in an LSU uniform. Hanging in White’s office is a picture of Sol and his teammates playing against Georgia in Tiger Stadium. The pride instilled in Sol at an early age was returned in full to a proud papa.