The Hit Man
This article appears in the September 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
What's not to love about Crockett senior linebacker Brandon Graham as a football player? Start the list anywhere you'd like. The 355-pound bench press. The 4.46 time in the 40-yard dash. The 220 career tackles and 39 career sacks.
By the numbers, Graham might be high school football's most devastating hit machine.
But the real upside to the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Graham, who is rated the nation's No. 2 linebacker and No. 5 overall recruit by SchoolSports.com, is that while his on-field intensity is peaking toward razor sharpness, he already understands how great players become soft.
"I never feel like I'm better than anyone out there," says Graham, 17, who has committed to play his college ball at Michigan. "If it weren't for my coaches and my teammates and my drive, I'd be nowhere. I can see how people in my position get distracted. People talk about you so much and compare you to other great players. I can see how you can think you're better, but you're not."
For Graham, success is all about the competition. The thrill of the chase. The you against me. If it comes down to piling up numbers vs. indulging in those good, old-fashioned competitive juices, he'll choose to simply enjoy the competition. Even on those rare days he's made up his mind not to.
Take, for example, the Ann Arbor Nike Camp at the University of Michigan this past spring. Already verbally committed to play for the Wolverines, Graham was told by the Michigan brass that he didn't need to run the 40-yard dash, so he left his spikes at home. But once he saw guys laying it all on the line in their sprints, Graham couldn't resist, stepping to the line in gym sneakers and still managing to run a 4.63.
"His competitive nature is second to none," says Crockett first-year head coach Rod Oden, 28.
It's a nature that extends well beyond the football field. This year, Graham and his dad, Darrick, have taken a serious interest in paintball competition. For Graham, paintball is like a little taste of playing middle linebacker: You're always at the point of attack.
"We were riding around one day and saw the paintball range, and we've been hooked ever since," he says. "You get two teams together, and the last guy standing wins. It's like high-tech dodgeball, man. You get hit, you gotta go."
On the gridiron, Graham is usually the one doing the hitting and is almost always the last guy standing. As a junior, he recorded 110 tackles, 40 tackles for loss, 16 sacks and four interceptions, returning three for touchdowns.
Coach Oden is a fan of Graham's stats as much as the next guy. Probably more so. But it's Graham's humility in the face of that success that Oden enjoys most.
"He's a humble kid, and he realizes he can get better," says Oden, a former Northwestern High fullback and linebacker. "He also realizes he's helping his teammates get better by being out there and playing a team game. And ultimately, that's important to him."
Graham gives more than lip service to that team-oriented mindset. In addition to his defensive duties at linebacker, he started every game last year at left guard on offense, playing both ways all season and being on the field for nearly every snap of every game. And he did it by necessity. Crockett's varsity roster totaled just 26 players at a school with a male student body of only about 180.
Fact is, Graham is the second-largest body on the team. If he didn't play o-line, the Rockets' fortunes would suffer. To plenty of blue-chip recruits, that wouldn't matter. To Graham, sitting out half the plays would mean turning his back on half the competition.
Of course, it's on the defensive side of the ball that Graham's competitive spirit is quantified. Last season, he averaged more than eight tackles and better than a sack per game. And over the course of a varsity career that began when he was still a 14-year-old freshman, Graham is averaging more than six tackles and 1.1 sacks per game.
"His lateral movement is exceptional, and his football sense is phenomenal," says Oden. "He plays with the depth and range to either come up and hit you and hurt you or to drop back 15 or 17 yards and pick you off. Most linebackers are good at one or the other. He reads and reacts in microseconds. He knows where the ball is going before it starts going there. He gets into read-and-react stuff we haven't even coached him on yet."
His impact on the Rockets' program has been considerable. Entering this season, Crockett owns a 27-8 record since Graham donned a varsity uniform, including last year's 12-1 campaign in which the Rockets reached the Division 5 state semifinals.
For his part, Graham says his ball-hawking style is based mostly upon instinct.
"I've just been around football all my life, and so I think my vision is my strength," he says. "I see a little more before it happens than most guys do. It just seems like I already know where the ball is going to end up. I can tell when it's a run play and I can tell when it's just play-action on a pass play. I like to guess. It keeps me on my toes. I do my homework, though. What the team we're playing tends to do influences my play a lot, and knowing what they tend to do has a lot to do with my success."
Playing in the Big Ten next season will do a good deal more than keep Graham on his toes. And he knows it. He's not about to get soft after all these years playing on the razor's edge.
"I feel like I can play at that level, but I'll definitely be nervous next year," says Graham. "Once I have it in my mind that I can for sure play with those guys, I'll be fine. It's the contact at that level that makes you nervous. Those are big, big guys. But once I get my confidence, it'll be trouble for everybody else."
Like we said, what's not to love?