Warren Graves was beginning to think his dream of playing college football would never materialize, but the Pawhuska High School senior said he had not given up hope.

“There was no way I could stop thinking that there had to be some way,” he said. “I just had to get a chance.”

The catalyst for Graves’ chance to play college football may have been his own dedication and determination. But it also connected to to his recent association with Jake Bruno, a county official whose 4-year-old daughter just happened to develop a friendship with the football prospect of the Huskies.

Bella Bruno was only 3 last fall when she served as a flower girl for the PHS homecoming. It was then that Bella, dad Jake and mom Lindsay Bruno became acquainted with Graves, who also was in the ceremony. At some point, football player Graves accepted an invitation to come to Bella’s fourth-birthday party, — which, at the time, was still weeks away.

“Her party happened to fall on the day after the Huskies played their last football game,” said Bruno, the director of Osage County’s Planning and Zoning Board. “I figured there was no way a high school kid was going to even remember about it, let alone get up and go to it the morning after playing his last high school.”

Graves may or may not have remembered the party, but his mother did. Ronette Ousley had heard her son tell the Brunos he’d come to Bella’s party, and she made sure he kept his promise. While he was at the party, Graves talked to Jake Bruno about his desire to keep playing football. Bruno — a former player himself — decided on a proactive approach to the situation.

“I sent game film of Warren to some coaches that I knew, and quite a few that I didn’t know,” Bruno said . “It was February before we went to visit any of the schools — a lot of colleges were already finished with their recruiting.

“But, there were several that expressed interest in Warren,” he added. “When he got that first text from a coach making him a college offer, Warren realized he was going to get the chance he had always wanted.”

Last week, when Graves signed a letter of intent to play for the Missouri Southern State Lions, Bruno could hardly ignore the way everything had worked out.

“And all because he went to a 4-year-old’s birthday party,” said Bruno.

Since transferring to Pawhuska (from Claremore) midway through his freshman year, Graves has been a key member of several PHS athletic programs. The first Huskies’ team he joined was a track-and-field squad which was well-stocked with jumpers and vaulters, but in desperate need of fast, dedicated runners.

Talk about a perfect fit! Graves made an immediate impact for the Huskies in the 100- and 200-meter sprint events. He nearly reached the state meet his first year and qualified in multiple events as a junior and senior.

As Graves has continued to improve, the talent-laden Huskies’ track squad has developed into a state contender.

On the football field, Graves (at 6-feet, 180-pound s) played at running back, wide receiver and defensive back. He scored 15 touchdowns for the 2016 Huskies, including their first and last ones of the season. Nine of his 15 TDs were for 60 yards, or more. He also scored off a fumble recovery, a punt return, a kickoff return and — on the night before Bella’s birthday party — on an electrifying, 100-yard interception return.