The letter sits in a storage bin with other childhood mementos, tucked in the middle of a Cleveland Browns spiraled media guide from 2000.
Two material items — which are tied together in the most unique of ways — represent the impact of Daniel Craig Pugh on the St. Paul football program.
The greatest in a long line of All-Ohio running backs for the Flyers, Pugh enters the University of Mount Union Hall of Fame this weekend in Alliance.
More than 20 years have passed since he authored a St. Paul career that many subsequent standouts have chased — but Pugh’s contributions to his high school cannot be measured even in the simplest terms. Not even the three feet within a yard out of the 4,307 he totaled.
The Gagliardi Trophy is presented yearly to the Outstanding NCAA Division III college football Player of the Year. Consider it the Heisman Trophy for Div. III, and it’s not small in meaning or stature.
Pugh was presented that award on Dec. 19, 2002 — two nights before his final collegiate game for Mount Union. In his last game, all Pugh did was run for 253 yards and four touchdowns as the Purple Raiders beat Trinity (Tex.), 48-7, for their third straight and seventh Div. III national championship in a 10-year span.
His leaping, over-the-top touchdown run late in the title victory was captured beautifully. The photo was featured over two full pages in color in Sports Illustrated — as it also gave him 2,303 rushing yards and 41 total TDs, which at the time set an NCAA all-division record for touchdowns in a season, surpassing Pro Football Hall of Famer and Heisman winner Barry Sanders (Oklahoma State).
However, you won’t find that massive trophy and everything it stands for anywhere near where Pugh resides today in Montana. Instead, one is at Mount Union (he was given two), and the other sits in the St. Paul High School athletic office.
There is a specific reason the trophy resides in Norwalk.
“I was given that award, but achieved it largely because of those who supported and gave me the opportunity to be in that position,” Pugh said. “But if only Dan Pugh looks at it every day, what’s the meaning in that? If I can show someone else that this is achievable, then I wanted to give it back to St. Paul — to show the kids who follow me what is out there.
“No one had left St. Paul to reach that level of success at a university at the time, so I wanted it to be a token of my appreciation to Coach (John) Livengood and other terrific mentors like Tom Baker and Bob Lippert,” he added. “But Coach Livengood, he especially gave me something at age 14, which was a vision and chance to chase something special through work ethic, teamwork and commitment. So it’s much better that a St. Paul kid can appreciate that — and try to be something better.”
But Pugh’s influence didn’t stop in the form of a trophy.
One of his father’s friends asked if it would be possible for Dan to send a note of encouragement to his son, just starting to play football at the age of 11.
Pugh did one better.
He sat down and penned a full letter in 2001 to the young man he’d never met. Among the highlights, he wrote, “I hope you keep on playing good, but remember to stay on top of those grades. You can’t get into college if you don’t keep those grades up, it all starts now … and remember to keep your priorities in line, and everything will work out for the best: 1. God, 2. Family, 3. School, 4. Football.”
The young man he wrote that letter to was Joe Graziani, a 2008 St. Paul grad. Over his final two seasons in 2006 and 2007, Graziani accumulated 3,041 all-purpose yards with 40 TDs. That included 1,281 yards and 22 TDs in 2007 as a running back.
How much did the letter mean to Graziani? When asked, it took him less than an hour to produce it, in mint condition — tucked away in the old Browns media guide.
"He was always the idol everyone was striving to be growing up,” Graziani said of Pugh. “He really inspired a generation of St. Paul football players. I just remember seeing a letter from him and being super excited as much as a little kid can be starting his first year of tackle football. That certainly motivated me to work hard to what I became by the end.”
What might get lost in the message of the letter, however, was how it impacted future generations. Graziani clearly never forgot about the letter, and continued it with small, kind acts of his own.
“It inspired me to be that same role model to kids younger than me,” Graziani said. “Whether it was taking pictures or spending time with a younger person and trying to be a good role model for people … I tried to pay it forward to the classes behind me, what the likes of Dan Pugh did for me and my class. He instilled it in me by doing something like that.”
When Pugh was a junior (1996), he ran for 1,765 yards and 29 TDs as St. Paul reached the state semifinals for the first time in program history. The next year (1997), he pushed that to 2,368 yards and 34 TDs in 14 weeks as the Flyers fell in the Div. VI state championship game.
In the years since, St. Paul won a state title (2009) and played for three others (1999, 2004, 2014) while winning six regional championships along with numerous Firelands Conference titles and playoff appearances.
“I revel in those memories often, and looking back, it does feel like we laid the groundwork and foundation,” Pugh said. “It really started though with Coach Livengood and has continued, obviously.
“But it’s tremendous to see the success that has been bred, year after year,” he added. “Winning is an attitude. There was no other option, and that’s why you prepared yourself for each game. It’s neat to see the program succeed in such a way.”
It’s worth noting there have been seven different All-Ohio running backs in the 20 seasons post-Pugh — and several others who had numbers that warranted consideration.
And even today, two decades later, there are those in the backfield who “get it.” When asked if he knew who Pugh was, current junior running back Cam Caizzo quickly rattled off his Mount Union accolades, and pointed out he has the only retired number at St. Paul, and ran for more than 2,000 yards in a season.
“It’s really inspiring, because a lot of kids, being we’re such a small school, maybe there is that mindset that they can’t go play college football,” Caizzo said. “Personally, it’s a goal of mine — and Dan Pugh has shown that it’s attainable to do at a high level.
“That’s a huge inspiration to not only me, but other players,” added Caizzo, who has 1,504 yards in 18 career games. “I really look up to that. I’ve never met him, but what he did is a goal for me — and something that’s really inspiring to push for.”
There is little doubt Pugh’s trophy and letter, among other things, have left a lasting legacy. Look close enough, and you'll see it every day.
“I think Dan Pugh to St. Paul has been more than an athlete,” Graziani said. “Who in the prime of their college career takes the time to write some sixth grader a letter about keeping their priorities in line?
“To do that says who he is as a person above what he achieved as an athlete,” he added. “It speaks to everything he is about."