Heart and soul: How Detroit shaped Brandon Graham into a champion

This is the cover story of the September 22 issue of Gameday Magazine, which can be found at the Lincoln Financial Field Pro Shop as well as Philadelphia-area ACME supermarkets this weekend.

Vinny Curry sits in his locker stall at the NovaCare Complex, lacing up his Carolina blue Nike high-tops. The eighth-year defensive end is in a gregarious mood, casually engaging in a conversation when a question elicits a spark. Curry is asked whether he’s at all surprised that head coach Doug Pederson called Brandon Graham the “heart and soul” of the team.

“Hell no, I’m not shocked to hear that,” Curry says all fired up. “That dude is like my brother. Even last year, it didn’t feel right without him (Curry was in Tampa Bay). I never took an NFL snap or played an NFL game without him. I couldn’t be happier for a nicer guy. All the success he deserves, everything that’s coming his way.”

Graham is in his 10th season after being the 13th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. The longest-tenured Eagle on the defensive side of the ball, Graham signed a three-year extension on March 1 to hopefully spend his entire career in midnight green.

Graham is one of the most jovial people you will ever encounter. Always sporting a smile. Always engaging with people, lighting up the room. On clean-out day to conclude the 2018 season, Graham stood in the hallway outside the locker room and shook hands, high-fived, or hugged every member of the media.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Graham, however. A promising rookie season was derailed by a torn ACL that limited him to just three games in his second year. Graham always had backers in his corner. He points to the longest-tenured Eagle Jason Peters and former defensive end Trent Cole as teammates who offered support. They told him to practice hard and take advantage of whatever reps he had.

“My mindset was when I get back, they’re going to wish they never said what they said,” Graham says of his critics. “I still feel like that now. They are going to pay for what they said because I was injured.”

With 5.5 sacks in a full 16 games in 2012, it looked as if Graham started to turn the corner. However, the 2013 season brought a new coaching staff and scheme. Graham went from a hand-in-the-dirt 4-3 defensive end to an edge rusher in a 3-4 front. He played just 27 percent of the snaps and totaled three sacks and two tackles for loss. He acclimated to his new position in 2014 with a significant uptick in tackles for loss (13.5) as well as playing time.

The Eagles banked on Graham continuing to ascend as a player and signed him to a four-year contract. He was an opening day starter for the first time in 2015 and delivered what was then a career-high 6.5 sacks in 858 snaps, still a personal best. The hiring of Jim Schwartz as the defensive coordinator in 2016 meant a return to defensive end for Graham. He has started every game since, minus the 2017 regular-season finale when the Eagles rested a majority of the starters.

In that Super Bowl-winning campaign, Graham tallied a career-high 9.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. He was also voted a team captain on defense. Then, Graham cemented his status as a legend in the Eagles community with the play that Schwartz, and fans all around the world, will remember fondly years from now.

“I think when it’s all said and done, when I’m in a rocking chair somewhere and I think of Brandon Graham, I’m still going to think of the forced fumble in the Super Bowl, and that was from a defensive tackle position,” Schwartz said.

The strip-sack of future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady in the fourth quarter led to a Jake Elliott field goal that gave the Eagles a 41-33 lead with just 1:05 remaining. It is one of the greatest plays in the history of the franchise.

“Wow, what a blue-collar player, an incredible person in the locker room. Loved by everybody,” Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie says. “He just gives it his all. It was nice to see him produce one of the most iconic moments, not just for the Eagles, but in NFL history.

“He deserved it. He had done all of the work and timed it. He found the one vulnerability, that moment with Tom, and usurped it. He timed his move perfectly.”

“Football turned into something that I did not expect it to turn into,” says Tasha Graham, Brandon’s mother.

Growing up in Detroit, Brandon was always a bouncing ball of energy. Tasha recalls meeting with Brandon’s kindergarten teacher and being told that Brandon, despite getting good grades, would eventually be a discipline problem. Tasha took the criticism to heart. As a single parent, Tasha did everything in her power to keep Brandon on the straight and narrow. She figured that she had to keep Brandon busy or the streets would take care of that.

“When she told me that Brandon was going to have a discipline problem,” Tasha recalls, “I said, ‘Not on my watch. Not my kid.’”

She would be leery about a lot of stuff because it was Detroit,” Brandon says. “She didn’t want her son doing anything he wasn’t supposed to with people that he shouldn’t be with. She would always want to meet my friends and things like that.”

“He was always a good kid. He just liked to play with the other kids in class. He always did his work and all of that other stuff. He just liked to play,” says Derrick Walton, Brandon’s father.

The solution? Football.

It was nearly a short-lived experiment, however. Seven-year-old Brandon was run over by a ballcarrier during a one-on-one drill in a practice during his first year and wanted to quit. Fortunately, for Brandon and the Eagles, his father talked him out of it.

“We made him play his first year out. Once he got the hang of it, he caught on real quick because he was an active kid, I knew he was something special,” Walton says. “That first year, I knew he was something special.”

Graham’s youth football coaches guided him to Detroit’s Crockett Vocational Technical High School where he earned All-America honors from a variety of publications. He was also named the Michigan Gatorade Player of the Year at a school that, Graham says, was “hanging by a thread.” If the team wanted to practice at night, parents would park their cars along the sideline and use the headlights.

“We loved it. We took care of it,” Graham says of Crockett. “It was the struggle, but we still won.”

Crockett won the Detroit Public League title and reached the state championship game during Graham’s tenure. Graham earned a scholarship to nearby Michigan and became the first defensive player to be named team MVP twice in school history. He was also a second-team All-America selection and first-team All-Big Ten Conference pick as a senior in 2009. He also finished as a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top college defensive end.

“If you make it through Detroit, you can make it anywhere because it’s a rough city to be a part of,” Tasha Graham says.

Brandon Graham not only made it. He’s thriving. He’s got everything he could have ever dreamed of both on and off the field. He’s married with two children and is in the prime of his career. It’s the relentless passion that he has for life which is why he’s the “heart and soul” of the Eagles.

“Life is always good. It’s really good because I have two kids now (Emerson and Bryson) and a wife (Carlyne). I just have to come out here and focus on balling,” Graham says. “When I’m at home, I’m at home with the kids. I want to spend as much time with them as I can. I know how I felt growing up. I want to make sure I support them and go to everything I can go to.”

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