4B -Football Saturday - November 14, 2008
November 14, 2008 - Football Saturday -S5B
By Courtney RatkowiakI Daily Sports Editor
The field was just dirt, the yard lines
drawn in with chalk.
It was only green from about April to
July,the grassgone amonthbeforethe Detroit
Crockett football team started its fall condi-
As the months passed and the days started
getting shorter, parents drove to the field and
left their headlights on so their sons could fin-
ish practice after dusk.
"It was kind of like that Peanuts character ...
the dusty guy," former Crockett assistant coach
Tim Hopkins said. "That's exactly how every-
body would go home, with dust up their face,
dust up their nose, socks dirty. You'd never stay
clean on that practice field."
It was a public park, meaning the team's
home field wasn't exactly home. Nothing was.
The high school itself was a long trailer, and
before games and practices, the team would
walk across a parking lot to their makeshift
locker room in the basement of Spain Elemen-
If you stood on the 50-yard line of the "Shack
on Mack" and looked to the right, you could see
Ford Field. To the left, you'd see I-75, the road to
the Pontiac Silverdome.
And the 25-member team worked to play at
both places, consistently making it to the state
playoffs and molding Division-I college players.
Brandon Graham had played football for the
Detroit Giants of the Police Athletic League
for seven years when, in eighth grade, he was
asked to join that team with the trailer and the
dust field. He called it the best move he has ever
That'sobvious fromwherehe isnow, aMich-
igan junior defensive end who currently leads
the team in sacks. He was a Ted HendricksTro-
phy candidate for the best defensive end in the
country last year and is constantly questioned
about possibly leaving early for the NFL.
But it wasn't so obvious when he came to
Michigan as an overweight and undermoti-
vated freshman, with a self-described case of
senioritis that started after his last high school
football season and lasted all of his first year in
Throughout his football career, Graham had
his tightly-knit family both on his side and off
He had more than 60 members at Fan Day
this summer, and even his great-grandmother
asks for copies of his photos and articles on the
Internet so she can put them on her wall.
Buthis mother, Tasha, believes she shouldn't
have a strong influence on his football-related
decisions - he needs to "take his destiny into
his own hands."
Regardless of his decisions over the years,
Graham's football and family lives have been
The Michigan football team doesn't prac-
tice on Mondays, so Graham drives home to
Detroit to see his family.
His parents aren't together, and he's quick
to admit he's a "momma's boy." Tasha is the
first person he visits. And before he drives
almost 50 miles home, his grandmother, Linda
Graham, finds out what he wants to eat for
"We've had so much turkey and dressing on
behalf of Brandon, we're not going to want it
for Thanksgiving," Tasha said with a laugh.
"He wore it out."
That Thursday in November is always a pro-
duction for the Graham family. There are two
Thanksgivings - one at his mother's and one
at his father's. Tasha's feast involves 50 to 60
family members, most bringing a potluck dish
to pass around. After eating at his mother's,
Graham drives 10 minutes to his father's house
to celebrate a second time.
Graham may have left for college, but his
food tastes never really left home. He tries to
make dinner in his apartment at least twice a
week, working around football practice and
classes because he's "not too busy where (he)
can't cook." His favorite meal to make is spa-
ghetti topped with deep-fried chicken.
"I can cook real good, just from watch-
ing for so many years," Graham said. "I just
remember stuff so good.... My momma taught
me how to make this meatloaf she made. Aw,
man, just learned how to make that. So that's
gonna be another specialty right there."
ABOVE, RIGHT, BELOW: COURTESY
OF TASHA GRAHAM
FAR RIGHT: RODRIGO GAYA/Daily
He says he doesn't like to eat too late, but
laughs a little when he says he can work it off if
he does. It's probably because at the beginning
of his Michigan career, he couldn't.
BIG MAN ON CAMPUS
"You're two Reese's Pieces away from the
That's how fellow defensive lineman Ter-
rance Taylor, one year older than Graham,
called Graham out during his freshman year.
The kid that ran the 40-meter dash in 4.53
seconds as a high schoolfreshman weighed, by
his estimate, more than 300 pounds when he
came to Ann Arbor four years later. Graham
wasn't allowed to run the golf course as part
of the team's conditioning regimen because
the Michigan strength and conditioning staff
wouldn't be able to monitor his heart rate the
Former Wolverine coach Lloyd Carrrefused
to release Graham's weight at the beginning of
the year, and the rivals.com five-star lineback-
er recruit didn't live up to initial expectations
after being pushed to the defensive line when
he arrived at camp.
Being overweight had never been an issue
for Graham - he was always too busy to sit
still. He played on the offensive line in high
school, but that was when he wasn't a star
linebacker, kicker or punter.
As a senior, he was the first-ever player from
the state of Michigan tobe invited to the U.S.
Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio.
But playing in the All-American Bowl that
January meant Graham was ineligible for
high school track, where he threw shot put.
From that game until when he came to Michi-
gan for fall camp, his only exercise was play-
ing pickup basketball.
"I told him, 'When you get that weight on
there, you're the only one who has to get it off,'
" Tasha said. "'So eat crazy if you want to.'"
Three years later, Graham says he thought
he would still be in good shape, despite his
high school coaches' requests for him to keep
"I'mlike, 'Naw, I'menjoyingmysenioryear.
I worked hard for y'all for a long time, let me
enjoy my break,"'Grahamsaid. "There wasn't
nothingthey really could say to me that could
really get me to do it. I was like, 'Don't worry.
When I get up there, it's going to be the same
thing. I might not even be as tired because I
never got tired in high school."'
Hopkins left Crockett after Graham's
junior year, right after helping him seal his
verbal commitment to Michigan, and both
Tasha and Hopkins said the high school
coaching change may have been a main rea-
son for Graham's lack of motivation the next
"Brandon suffered just because of the fact
that he didn't have that direction," Hopkins
said. "When he gets assignments, he likes to
carry out those assignments. So the people
who took over that role for me didn't really
have a game plan, in terms of keeping him in
His sophomore year, even after significant
weight loss and a promising fall camp, Gra-
ham was still criticized for his work ethic
after the Wolverines' season-opening loss to
"Brandon needs to get focused and do the
things that he's capable of doing," Carr said
after the loss.
Hopkins said Graham is "always going to
show you his animation - that's how he is,
that's when you know he's having fun." But
according to Hopkins, Carr's philosophies
didn't mesh with the work ethic of Graham
or Michigan fifth-year senior linebacker John
Thompson, another Crockett alum.
"Well, the old regime was kind of robotic
for him, as well as John Thompson," Hopkins
said. "So they really had a tough time tryingto
identify with that group. Not that Coach Carr
and the like weren't good people, for some.
They were from backgrounds that they came
from. It wasn't them playing on those fields
like we did.
"That's why it was easy for them to follow
the new regime, because that's something
they were used to. They were challenged,
they were motivated with conditioning, they
would run until they couldn't run anymore,
and it was mind over matter. So that's why you
see a big difference in him now."
But two games after Carr's comments, Gra-
ham had what he called "the biggest game of
(his) life." He started against Notre Dame and
racked up 3.5 sacks in the Wolverines' 38-0
Since then, his play has been mostly pro-
ductive. He led the team in sacks last year
with 8.5. This year, he was named the Big Ten
Defensive Player of the Week after notching
three sacks and two forced fumbles in Michi-
gan's 27-25 win over Wisconsin in September.
Be around Graham for more than five min-
utes, and it becomes obvious why he might
not respond well to a "robotic" coaching
style. Dubbed a "big kid" by both his father
and high school coach, Brandon is talkative,
confident and almost always smiling.
"When he laugh, when he really laughs
real hard, it's the funniest thing you ever
heard," former roommate and junior run-
ning back Brandon Minor said, shaking his
head in amusement. "It sound like acar pull-
ing off or something. Like tires burning or
But ask Graham if there's truth in the
rumors that he might bolt for the NFL a year
early, and the tone of his voice gets quieter
and a lot more uneasy.
He's heard this question before - plenty
This year, at least once a week, agents or
other NFL draft enthusiasts have friended
him on Facebook. When he accepts the
requests, they message him with their pitch-
es on why he should go pro. He reads the mes-
sages but never answers them.
Graham doesn't discuss where he thinks
he'll be next year - that distracts him, and
he's too wary of the rumors that might start
when he starts talking.
It doesn't mean everyone else isn't set on
what they think he'll do, especially his fellow
"They always ask me," Graham said. "They
always be like, 'You ain't staying, you ain't
Both his parents said they don't feel he's
prepared to leave college ball. Tasha says he
"still has some growingto do."And more than
anything, both Tasha and Graham's father,
Derrick Walton, said they want Graham to
earn his diploma.
But Hopkins, who said he had the "going
pro" talk with Graham after this year's Notre
Dame game, was the most straightforward.
"He'll be back," Hopkins said. "He's defi-
nitely not leaving. ... I can guarantee you,
especially with the record and the team's
experience, that Brandon would be back."
Whether Graham's Michigan career ends
in two weeks or another year from now, foot-
ball starts and ends with his family.
It started after his kindergarten teacher
told Tasha that the too-chatty Graham might
have behavioral problems, and Walton put
him in football to contain his energy.
Graham got hit hard in an early game, came
home and said he wanted to quit - until Wal-
ton told his son that quitters never win.
"He's a momma's boy, but you can't really
tell," Tasha said. "I tried to make him as tough
as I could, as a woman. ... Momma's boys are
just like leeches - they hold onto you. I want-
ed him to get out there."
His love for football increased when Wal-
ton cut Graham's hair every Saturday while
the two watched the Michigan game on tele-
"That's before I even watched pros," Gra-
ham said. "I just thought this was always the
pros, being in college. That's how hard my
dad used to be on Michigan."
Right away, Walton thought his son would
be a star - he told family and friends soon
after Graham started playing that he "had
plans for him" and that he "knew he was
But Tasha just wished her son wouldn't get
hurt. She was afraid the bigger boys would
crush Graham. She didn't like when practice
ran late and didn't trust his coaches initially.
And she wondered when he'd finally give it
When Graham was in sixth grade, it looked
as if that might actually happen. The two
were driving around and looking for new
houses when another driver ran a yield sign
and totaled Tasha's car. Graham, who had
just taken off his seatbelt, broke his leg and
suffered a huge gash on his forehead.
He couldn't play football for a year but still
didn't want to stop.
"We won some money from that case and
I was like, 'Well, Brandon, you got money to
have the scar removed,' and he's like, 'Naw,
that makes me look like a tougher football
player,' " Tasha said. "I'm like, 'Man, are you
crazy?' He loves football. SoI can'tknockhim
She progressively wondered when he'd
stop trying to play at the next level - first
with the Giants, then in high school.
See GRAHAM, Page 6B