Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Requiem: Brandon Graham

Brandon Graham

Defensive End, 6'1, 268
Detroit, Michigan; Crockett Vocational Tech
Rivals: 5 stars, #2 inside linebacker, #15 overall
Scout: 5 stars, #3 linebacker, #14 overall
Committed to Michigan - February 20, 2005

Explosions In The Sky - The Birth And Death Of The Day .mp3
Found at bee mp3 search engine

It would have been really easy for Brandon Graham to have given up.

When Rich Rodriguez arrived in December of 2007, Brandon Graham had just concluded a sophomore season that featured several ebbs and flows. He started out hot - well, after being conspicuously absent from the Appalachian State and Oregon debacles. He finally "arrived" in the starting lineup for good for the Notre Dame game, whereupon he poured in 3.5 sacks in the bloodletting of Jimmy Clausen. From there, he accumulated 3.5 more over the next three games, putting him at seven sacks in essentially four games. He hit a wall after that, as his season total finished at just 8.5. Worse, he became a target for opposing offenses. If you go back and watch the 2007 Michigan State game, you will see that MSU gradually ground Michigan into the dirt with a power running game - a power running game that prominently featured runs directly at Graham, who failed to hold up under the assault. Still, we had seen enough flashes, and we knew what type of ability #55 had. When Rich Rodriguez stepped in, uncertainty was cast over the entire team, but especially the defense.

Graham could've taken the easy way out. As the calm, grisled resolve of Lloyd Carr was replaced by the boisterous hellfire and brimstone approach of Rich Rodriguez, Graham could've easily walked off the practice field, declaring his Michigan career to be over. He could've cleaned out his locker, snagged his transfer papers, selected any college of his choosing, sat out a year, and spent these last two years dominating while also relishing the results of victory. Nobody would've been surprised or especially vindictive if Graham had left. Instead, he chose to remain. As many around him chose to exit under the most bitter of circumstances, and as many who remained still refused to adjust accordingly, Graham said nothing. Graham put the work in. Graham did his job.

And in the process, he defied human nature. And won our hearts.

Deep down, beneath the superficialities and the social rules and norms that we have become hardwired to abide by, human beings are selfish. We don't adapt to change well, our biases and judgments rule our train of thought, and above all else, at the end of the day, we look out for number one. We are interested in advancing ourselves to the highest level we can obtain for the smallest amount of work. The majority of society regards "bums" and "moochers" with severe derision; most of the time for good reason. But make no mistake, even the people who tirelessly hold up our community with the hours of labor they put in would gladly desert their duties in exchange for ungodly sums of money. There isn't a human alive who wouldn't sit at home and do nothing if it meant riches and fortune would cross his path. Thankfully, this isn't how the world works. But the rule itself still applies. We are, at our very core, interested in the easy way out.

By choosing to buy into the vision Rich Rodriguez sold, and is still selling, Brandon Graham snubbed his nose at the easy way out. It became very clear early on that this would be messy. The whispers were there from observers of practice before the 2008 season, but they were only whispers. Once the season itself began, it became obvious to most, and by the time Illinois was done dry-humping Michigan up and down the Big House's field, we all knew we were in for a long, drawn out process. Even then, Brandon Graham could've mailed it in. He could've decided there was no point putting in the effort for a process that would not be finished by the time his career here was. He could've decided none of the pain and anguish was worth it when the end result was yet another defeat. That's another element of the human condition: reaction to adversity. How you face a challenge in front of you, how you react when things don't go the way you planned. How you respond when it seems like there's no reason for being. You can rattle off all the cliches that are out there. Adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it. It's not how many times you fall down, it's how many times you get up. They all fit. And they're all true. The majority of people, I imagine, when finding themselves in a situation that requires an inhuman amount of effort, pain and preparation but also is predestined to deliver nothing but pain, would run screaming. They would get out of such a situation faster than they thought possible.

Brandon Graham once again defied the very nature of humanity. Not only did he remain at his post, even as chaos reigned supreme and the firestorm grew around him, but he bought into what he had signed up for, even though it actually wasn't what he signed up for. Even among those who remained with him over the past two years, there remained some who did it simply because they had nowhere else to go, and their love for the game superceded everything else. For Graham, it was bigger than that. It was bigger than simply loving the game he plays. It was about loyalty to a man who seemingly has fewer followers every time he wakes up in the morning. It was about love for a football program that was bigger than him, and is bigger than all of us. It was about leaving an indelible mark in that program's history, one that will not be forgotten by time nor the followers who recall the tales of the ghosts of the past.

And he has succeeded at all of the above. The vision Rich Rodriguez has for the future of Michigan football - Brandon Graham bought into it and believes in it. The vision Mike Barwis has for the strength and conditioning of the young men who put in the work in that weight room - Brandon Graham believes in it, and has sacrificed to prove it. The football program that Brandon Graham grew up loving and dreamed of being a part of - he became a part of it, even as it transformed and was exposed to the evils of the real world as the shell of isolation was shed from around Schembechler Hall. The mark Brandon Graham sought to leave in Michigan football history - he left it, and it's one that none of us, young and old, will ever forget. This summer, somewhere in the world, a grandfather will sit down in his favorite rocking chair, call over his young grandson, and he will teach the lad the ways of Michigan football. He will tell him the story of Bo Schembechler taking over a stale football program and pulling off one of the greatest upsets of all-time. He will tell him about three yards and a cloud of dust, the Ten Year War, and numerous upsetting New Years in sunny southern California. He will tell him about the tradition of the #1, and how it started before many of us were alive. He will tell his grandson of Desmond Howard's magic, the Catch, and the Pose. He will speak of the majesty of the Rose Bowl, and how Tyrone Wheatley once owned it. He will speak of Mercury Hayes. He will speak of the day Shawn Springs slipped. He will slowly pronounce "Tshimanga Biakabutuka", and explain why that name is so important. He will tell the tale of a team that came out of nowhere to capture a national title. He will talk about Brady, and Thomas, and Terrell, and Walker. He will grow sour and speak of the audacity that was Clockgate in 2001. He will mention the perseverence of those like Daydrion Taylor and Zia Combs, who gave more than what was asked of them in the name of Michigan Football. He will talk about where he was when we lost the man who meant the world to us, and the heartbreak that has never ended since that fateful November 2006 day. He will tell the story of Lloyd Carr refusing to give up even when his final season began with a dud. He will talk of how Henne and Hart dragged their broken bodies across the finish line and gave us all a day to remember with glory on New Years 2008.

And then the elderly grandfather will pause. His trembling hand will remove his bifocals slowly, and he will dab away the mist that has formed in his eyes. His young grandson will ask what troubles him, and he will say, "Nothing, my boy. Nothing at all." And then he will talk about one of the greatest warriors any of us have ever had the pleasure of watching play for the team we all love more than anything else. He'll tell the tale of the 2008 Wisconsin game, and how while it served as an ominous foreshadowing of what was to come, it also reminded us of why we watch, and why we never give up, and how Graham had three sacks in the game which aided the comeback. He'll talk about how Brandon Graham declared "We won't lose to State", and that while his declaration ultimately came up false, it was no part because of him. Then, as he begins to talk about the 2009 season, he will sniffle and cough a bit, and he will muse about the story of redemption that came apart as it progressed, but also how Graham never wavered, how his determination and drive never relented for one snap. The old man will talk about how Graham desperately tried to salvage a bowl bid with four sacks in the final two weeks, including one glorious sequence where he almost single handedly killed an Ohio State drive - but of course, despite nothing short of 100% effort from Graham, those around him failed, and the drive ended in a touchdown, the game ended in a loss, and the career just...ended.

And he'll have made to sure to make special mention of this:

And as the old man's story about the 2009 football season ends, he will segway into a story about commitment, belief, and sacrifice, and how sometimes, even though it may not be ideal, pleasant, or desirable, sometimes you have to sacrifice yourself for something you believe in. Which is exactly what Brandon Graham did. You never heard a peep out of him. All the transfers, all the quitters, all the people showing their true colors by crying to the media, all the losses, all the humiliation that we've endured over the past two years - absolutely none of it is because of Brandon Graham, and the work ethic he showed, the humility he displayed, and ultimately, the martyrdom he exhibited as his career at Michigan faded away into our minds' eyes.

I guess in that sense, Brandon Graham is responsible for a large portion of the heartache we've experienced. Heartache because in a just world, men who lay it all on the line for that which they believe in and love so dearly are rewarded as such. We've seen such sacrifice here recently, in Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims. They weren't in an ideal situation, and they put in the work and effort anyway. But even they were rewarded for their sweat. They got to taste the NCAA Tournament. For Brandon Graham, there was no such light at the end of the tunnel, no bowl game to go out with a bang on, no redeeming victories over Michigan State or Ohio State in the final two years in which he sacrificed like no other.

If I ever met Brandon Graham, I'd like to give him a hug and a pat on the back. I'd like to reminisce about his destruction of Glenn Winston. I'd like to have a laugh with him and ask him to describe how it felt to score a TD his senior year. And then, after the laughter had faded, and the generic conversation had ceased, I'd like to shake his hand, look him in the eye, and thank him. Thank him for the sacrifice he made. Thank him for never giving up. Thank him for representing everything good about Michigan, and the good side of humanity. Thank him for believing in his coach when so many don't.

And then I'd lower my eyes, and just like with Manny and DeShawn, I would apologize. It would be awkward, it would be hard, and Graham would probably say it's unnecessary. But I would do it anyway, because I would feel obligated to. I would say that it's a fucked up world where someone can do everything right and still end up on the wrong side of things. I imagine he would smile - he always does - and say he's okay and he wouldn't change a thing. It would be reassuring, I suppose.

He'll never read this, but on behalf of all those who support the Maize and Blue, thank you, Brandon Graham. Thank you for being the light in the darkness. Thank you for being the rock we could all cling to in the storm. Thank you for being strong, even if those around you were not.

Thank you for smiling, even if there was no reason to smile.

One day, I will tell the story of Brandon Graham to my children and grandchildren, and I will feel remorse. Not just because of the underlying tone that is the cruel unfairness of the universe. But because they will have not seen greatness as it happened.

#55, 268 pounds of twisted blue steel. Farewell.


Dark Blue said...

Nice Other Brian, real nice. BG would be proud.

Papa Steve said...


Neva Li said...

Actually, he will read it - the link was posted to his Facebook page.

He's a delightful young man and has worked hard and accomplished much. And he's nowhere near done yet, of course.

Kurt said...

Just read this today and it's a very fitting tribute to #55. While the team glory remained elusive, I will always remember the excitement of watching #55 play.