Small-town Iowa star Aaron Graves is the youngest Iowa football recruit of the Kirk Ferentz era. Here's why he's destined for rare feats
GOWRIE, Ia. — There's a bowling alley in Gowrie, Iowa, population 979.
Tucked between a bank and Jamboree Foods, Gowrie Bowl's faded-blue storefront takes up only four parking spaces. It's out of business now. All four windows are covered. Two have images on them: One has a bowling pin, the other an ice cream cone.
Across the street, there's a tiny brick building with room for two doors on either side and a window in the middle. It's now a store called Liberty Market, but this used to be the office for Gowrie's 130-year-old newspaper, The Gowrie News.
Drive past the old newsroom and turn left. Keep driving.
Soon, you'll see a baseball field on the right. There are no bleachers. No outfield fence, either. A wall of corn stalks covers left field, like in "Field of Dreams." The twirling white propellers of a wind farm loom in the distance.
A solitary football goal post sits in right field. It looks out of place. But it's not.
This serves as the practice field for Southeast Valley's football team, a Class 2A program with kids from Gowrie and neighboring towns south of Fort Dodge.
On this makeshift gridiron, you'll find the youngest Iowa Hawkeye football recruit of the past 20 years.
That recruit is 6-foot-5, 240-pound 16-year-old Aaron Graves, a sophomore standout for Southeast Valley. When he received and immediately accepted his Hawkeye offer in June, he became the youngest Iowa recruit of the Kirk Ferentz era — about a month removed from his freshman year of high school.
"You’d never, ever, ever guess that kid’s a sophomore in high school," said Southeast Valley head coach Mike Swieter, glancing over at Graves after practice Tuesday.
No, you really wouldn't.
His frame has already filled out considerably. When in pads, Graves looks like a senior about to head off to college ... not a kid who just started driving. As a freshman defensive end on varsity last season, Graves ranked second in 2A with 11 solo sacks. He logged 15 solo tackles for loss among his 52.5 total tackles.
"He was going against seniors and dominating them. I mean, dominating them," Swieter said. "Not just looking good. Dominating them."
Swieter knew about Graves several years before he started high school. He'd coached Aaron's two brothers, twins Zach and JJ, since their freshmen seasons in 2015. Even then, when Aaron was in sixth grade, it was clear he'd be special.
He was just bigger, stronger and better than everyone else.
"All I heard about was this young kid coming — that he was a horse," Swieter said.
By the time Graves showed up for his first high school summer camp, Swieter needed only one practice to know Graves was the real deal.
"He’s got so much energy, it’s unreal," Swieter said. "He has a motor that’s just unstoppable. He just brings it from Day 1. The hardest thing with him is not hurting his other teammates, because he absolutely goes hard on everything that he does. Everything. He brings it every single play."
In-state colleges noticed Graves, too. Coaches from Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa all came by to watch him after his freshman season.
Swieter remembers one visit from former assistant Reese Morgan and current Hawkeye assistant LeVar Woods, when they were in town to see Southeast Valley running back Kyler Fisher, who became a preferred walk-on at Iowa.
He pulled the two Hawkeye coaches aside and walked them into the gym, where Graves was practicing with the basketball team. Graves, who plays his club basketball for the Adidas-sponsored Iowa Barnstormers, led Southeast Valley with 18.5 points per game last year. He shot 50.3% and 46.8% from 3-point range with 5.6 boards per game ...
... as a college defensive end-sized freshman.
"That was what definitely got (the interest going)," Swieter said of that day in Southeast Valley's gym.
Soon, Graves was on the Iowa City campus in March for a junior day. He returned on June 23 for a lineman camp. By that point, Iowa coaches had seen everything they needed to see.
On June 25, Ferentz called Graves to offer him a scholarship.
A lifelong Hawkeye fan, he accepted on the spot. He was working as a lifeguard at his local pool when he got the call.
"That was interesting," Graves said with a wide grin, holding a half-finished ice pop in his right hand. "I never thought it would happen this early, but it’s just awesome now that it’s actually happened. It’s like, I could be the next A.J. Epenesa or some other good Hawkeye football player. It’s just really exciting."
Now, Graves is happy he can just focus on high school football for the next three years. Swieter said he'll play defensive and offensive line, as well as on different special teams packages. If he continues to perform like he did as a freshman, he will be one of the highest-rated linemen in the Midwest. In 247Sports' initial 2022 recruiting rankings, Graves is the No. 63 overall prospect in the country.
That type of recruiting profile could have drawn interest from college football's elite programs down the line. But that wouldn't have mattered.
For Graves, Kinnick Stadium has always been the dream.
"I can’t wait," he said. "It’s just a feeling I’ve been waiting for for a long time."
Graves paused briefly and smiled.
"And now, I have three years until I can actually do it," he laughed.
"But when I do it, it’ll just be surreal."
Matthew Bain covers recruiting, Iowa/Iowa State athletics and Drake basketball for the Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Network. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.
Your subscription makes work like this possible. Join today at DesMoinesRegister.com/Deal.