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Brandon Graham, hero of the Eagles, had to fight for success

Brandon Graham in 2008.
Brandon Graham in 2008.

In Sunday’s Super Bowl, most fans figured the New England Patriots would beat the Philadelphia Eagles, led by the heroics of quarterback Tom Brady, who had already won a record five Super Bowls. 

But in the waning minutes, with Brady poised to lead another game-winning drive, a lesser-known Philadelphia player named Brandon Graham broke through the line, trying to get to Brady before he threw the ball.

That Brandon Graham even had a chance to be the hero was shocking. He grew up in Detroit and went to the University of Michigan. His first two years there, he weighed more than 300 pounds, and was just as lazy in the classroom – when he actually got there. But before his junior season, everything changed. He became a weight room warrior, doubling his records, and losing 40 pounds.

He told me it was hard, but simple: “I just listen to the coaches, and do what they tell me. They’re not trying to mess you up. They’re trying to make you better.”

He also went to class every day, and was on track to graduate on time. He had such a good junior season, however, that some thought Graham might leave early for the 2009 NFL draft. But he came back to improve his game, and get his degree.

The decision came with a price. That summer his mom had just gotten in her car when two young men busted the glass, and reached in to take her purse. They thought it’d be easy – but it wasn’t. “I know my momma – I know her!” Graham told me. “We’re the same. If someone’s trying to take something that’s not theirs, we’re gonna fight.”

In the struggle that followed, the thieves got her purse, broke her arm – and gave Brandon Graham all the motivation he needed to work his hardest to earn his degree, and get his mom out of that neighborhood.

During games, strength coach Mike Barwis kept telling Graham what happened to his mom last summer, and what Brandon was playing for. “This is your chance. You need to fight for it. Don’t give up, and don’t give in. This is your chance to make it all right.”

It worked every time. Graham played “like someone’s trying to take my lunch money.”

When the Wolverines were losing his last game, Graham could have played it safe to avoid injury before the NFL draft, but he went full-blast on every play – scaring his family, but impressing the scouts. The Big Ten named him the league’s co-Most Valuable Player, one of the few defensive players to win that honor.

For the first day of the NFL draft, Brandon’s family and friends gathered in a hotel room to watch, while a camera crew watched them. When the Philadelphia Eagles announced they were selecting Graham with the 13th overall pick, ESPN captured the explosion in Graham’s hotel room -- a scene of unrestrained joy. They would sign him a five-year contract for $22 million.

He had done it. His dreams for his mother and sisters had come true.

Since then, Graham has played eight years for the Philadelphia Eagles, multiplied his bank account, and been named team captain.

All that put him in position to make the crucial play on Tom Brady. Graham got past his man, and knocked the ball out of Brady’s hands. A Philadelphia teammate recovered it, which led to an eight-point victory for the Eagles – their first Super Bowl title – a ring for Brandon, and more money and fame.

But after achieving his original goal, this was all gravy. But it’s a lot of gravy.

John U. Bacon is a freelance sports commentator. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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