Iowa football recruit Aaron Graves already has a college degree, but he still has big goals

On a Thursday night in early May, Southeast Valley athlete Aaron Graves had his mind on things other than sports.

A shot putter for his track and field team, Graves, a heralded Iowa football recruit, was competing in preparation for the upcoming state championship meet that begins this week in Des Moines. In between throws, his mind was on a final school assignment that was due by midnight. 

"I asked him at the meet, 'How'd your last final (exam) go?," his mother, Amber Graves, said. "He says 'Oh, I still have to do it. I was planning on doing it after the meet.'"

The track meet ended after 10 p.m. that night. Graves completed the assignment at 11:15 p.m., with 45 minutes to spare. 

Oh, the score on his last assignment? A 95 out of a 100. 

His last final exam wasn't for one of his high school courses, either. It was a speech class offered at Iowa Central Community College

And that grade made Aaron Graves the youngest college graduate in his family.  

"I don't think it really hit on the actual day of until he was done with that final," his mother said. 

More: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

This summer, Graves will enroll at Iowa, where he hopes to maintain the academic momentum that began when he and his mother looked into him taking college courses as a high schooler.  

"I always knew the classes were going to be free," said Aaron Graves, one of the nation's top recruits. "I really didn't think I was going to get the (associate's degree) until a little later on when I saw how many credits I really needed and my mom kind of laid out the schedule of what I'd need to do to actually achieve that.

"And I thought, 'Why not?'"

His two lives intertwined on that May 5 night when he missed ICCC's spring graduation while at a track meet. 

Aaron Graves, DL, Southeast Valley

"I don't think it's really hit me yet either," Graves said. "I didn't even go to the graduation because I was at a track meet. Thinking about it I was kind of like 'Wow I'm really going into Iowa with a degree more than the other guys in my class.' It's something I don't really understand the accomplishment that it is." 

He will stand out in more than just the classroom at Iowa.

In weeks, he'll join the Hawkeyes football team as a highly-touted member of their 2022 recruiting class. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound pass rusher comes to Iowa City as one of the nation's top 150 recruits. 

"He just wants to succeed at everything in life," Amber Graves said. "He wants to get an 'A' in everything. That's just how he is." 

More:Iowa's football program lands its first 2022 recruit: Southeast Valley DE Aaron Graves

Graves passion for school led to early degree

From a young age, Aaron Graves was a whiz. His mother recalls him reading books and completing countless puzzles.  

"He had just turned two years old and we had these magnets on our fridge," Amber Graves said. "The magnets were all of the letters (of the alphabet) and he knew every one and all of the sounds. I was like, 'Wow, that's good. Good job Aaron!'" 

As an eighth-grader, Aaron and his mother learned of a Southeast Valley student who graduated with her associates degree from Iowa Central. Amber Graves is the school nurse at ICCC and asked if Aaron was interested in doing the same. He was.  

His athletic accomplishments are well-documented but Graves takes pride in being a stellar academic student. He's set to be one of a handful of Southeast Valley seniors to graduate with a 4.0 at their graduation ceremony Sunday afternoon. 

"When I was a freshman or sophomore and I got like a 'C' on an assignment I'd be mentally ruined for the rest of the day," Graves said. "I would just be mad the whole day over a few missed questions, I guess that's the competitive nature in me." 

Southeast Valley's Aaron Graves talks about the Jaguars Class 2A state title, no longer being a kicker and what's next for the high school senior.

More:Iowa football has an incredible start on its 2024 recruiting class: What's next for the Hawkeyes?

Amber Graves described the process as a "huge puzzle" trying to piece together the right high school and college classes for credits for both degrees. She credits the advisors at ICCC, Southeast Valley and Aaron's "Talented And Gifted" teacher through Southeast Valley for making it possible. Some of his coursework over four years included athletic training; statistics; physics; intro to religion and intro to ethics. 

In the end, Graves finished ICCC with a 3.9 GPA, just missing out on achieving a 4.0 average to this point. The class that ruined his lifelong average: medical terminology, where he says he got an "88 or an 89." 

A sense of both pride and relief came over the Graves family as Aaron became a dual-graduate. Looking ahead to the next several years at Iowa, Amber Graves hopes the experience has helped prepare him for life as a college athlete at Iowa. 

"I hope it gives him confidence to try new things," Amber Graves said. "He's done something that was hard and succeeded and I just hope that carries through as he works through college. I think it's a big confidence-builder of doing something that was hard and now he can look to the next hard thing that he can do." 

More Hawkeye recruiting news:Iowa football secures commitment from 2023 3-star safety Zach Lutmer one day after offer

Expectations away from the classroom remain big too

Athletically, Graves is one of the most prolific to come out of Iowa in recent memory. At 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, he made a name as a dominant two-way lineman for Southeast Valley High. He'll play defensive line for the Hawkeyes and his football resume includes two All-Iowa Elite team selections by the Des Moines Register.

This fall, he led the way to Southeast Valley's first state championship in 2021. But that's not all. 

Graves is a four-sport athlete. He's the school's all-time leading scorer in basketball (1,356 points), all-time leader in shot put in track and field (52 feet, 2 inches) and is a two-time district champion and two-time fourth place finisher in the state wrestling finals. 

Graves committed to Iowa in 2019 as a freshman and never wavered. He's the second-highest rated prospect in their 2022 class as a four-star recruit and the No. 128 player in the country, according to 247sports. His short recruitment closed the door on other likely Power 5 offers. 

Southeast Valley sophomore Aaron Graves poses for a photo after practice in Gowrie on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019.

Graves was never in the attention that with being a major recruit. He approached the recruiting process with the same business-like approach that he does in the classroom.

"I could be a two-star or a five-star and I don't think it would change how good I really am to myself," Graves said. "My buddies always tell me that I could've went on all of these visits around the country and it's like, 'Yeah, but I knew where I wanted to go since I was young so I didn't see the need to waste my time or any coaches' time.'

"I committed (to Iowa) right then when I go the offer and didn't look back." 

More:Leistikow: Iowa football lessons learned from the 2022 NFL Draft

Graves is still in the mix for more high school awards. He's competing in Iowa's track and field championships beginning Thursday in shot put. He's still in season but has eyes on football as well. In addition to his track schedule, he lifts four times a week, goes through a running workout five times a week and adheres to a diet plan where he eats four meals per day in preparation for his arrival to campus. 

"What drives him, it's just how he's built," Amber Graves said. "He's always been a goer. He always wants to be busy. He's happier when he's busy. He likes to know what's the next thing, what's the next goal." 

What's Aaron Graves' next big goal? 

Graves enrolls at Iowa in June. No surprise: He wants to graduate with a master's degree there. He plans to major in physiology in the university's exercise science program. Ideally, he wants to become a strength and conditioning coach. 

Graves is a weight room legend. He lifts 525 pounds on the deadlift, 470 pounds on squat, 345 pounds on bench press and 325 pounds on power clean. 

"I like helping my teammates with lifting," Graves said. "Seeing them progress really gives me a sense of pride that I could play some type of role in that. I just like seeing athletes develop." 

Southeast Valley sophomore Aaron Graves (center) runs a drill in practice in Gowrie on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019.

On the field, there won't be any pressure for Graves to contribute early with the depth the Hawkeyes return on their defensive line. But given his physical traits, defensive line coach Kelvin Bell is eager to add him. 

"Aaron's going to come in here looking like the rest of the guys who've been here for three or four years," Bell said of Graves this spring. "The challenge is he didn't get a Covid year with Coach Bell learning the in's and out's of the system nor did he get the 15 (spring practices) our early enrollees had. So he's going to come in physically looking like Tarzan, we just got to get him to be like Tarzan. But I'm excited that he's here, trust me." 

More:Is Iowa football's defensive line poised to make a big leap? Returning experience says so.

Until he arrives at Iowa, Graves has more time on his hands than perhaps ever before. He's planning on sleeping much more, attending graduation parties, playing a few rounds of golf and gathering what he needs to move onto campus. 

When he arrives, he'll be in pursuit of the "next big thing" to accomplish. He'll keep perspective for whatever he goes after.  

"When I'm older I don't want to have a regret and think what could've been if I worked harder," Graves said. "So put in all the work now to see how good I can get and by the end I don't think I'll have any regrets. If that ends up being an NFL career or just having a college career I'll be able to live with it because I worked my butt off the whole time." 

Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at