The Trinity League in California is viewed by many to be the highest level of high school football. Multiple Heisman Trophy winners have started their football career playing in the league — Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and most recently Bryce Young, to name a few.
So, given the context, when you hear that the Los Angeles Times voted now-Michigan freshman defensive tackle Mason Graham as the player of the year, you can begin to understand how impressive an achievement that is.
That’s a title typically reserved for quarterbacks or skill position players. Quite frankly, any player but a pure lineman is more likely to receive consideration.
Graham garnered this accolade during his senior season at Servite High School, a season in which he put up some gaudy numbers and displayed impressive versatility. He had 14 sacks on the year, all while simultaneously playing nearly every snap on the offensive line, and — as Servite head coach Troy Thomas will tell you — Graham’s contributions went beyond the numbers:
“He carried a heavy load here,” Thomas told The Daily. “He basically put the team on his back. … The group that we had last year, I think they really worked hard together and put Servite back on the map as far as football goes — and Mason’s a big part of that.”
Last season, on the back of Graham, the Servite Friars made it all the way to the CIF-Southern Section finals, losing 27-7 to Mater Dei. But just getting there was no easy feat, and something that hadn’t happened in a while.
After a state championship in 2009 and a second-place finish the following year, Servite fell into mediocrity for nearly a decade, its record consistently floating at or below .500. But alongside Thomas, Graham helped bring Servite back to relevancy in the Trinity League — and the country as a whole.
If Graham can put a team on his back, dominating both sides of the line of scrimmage against the best talent high school football has to offer, what’s to say he can’t do something similar — only limited to defense, of course — for the Wolverines if given the chance?
Thomas certainly thinks he will.
“He’s not a done product coming out of high school,” Thomas said. “He’s going to continue to work hard, get bigger and better.”
Coming to play for Michigan was never a guarantee for Graham. Going into his first season at Servite, Graham was a 215-pound linebacker. Whether it be a lack of size, a shortened junior season due to COVID, or something else, he wasn’t necessarily a highly sought-after recruit. Originally he verbally committed to play at Boise State, with most of his offers from schools of a similar caliber.
“I’d say I was underrated (back then),” Graham said Monday.
That was the case until his senior year of high school. Suddenly, Graham exploded onto the national recruiting scene, garnering an offer from Michigan after he recorded six sacks in his first two games.
More offers from prestigious football programs followed suits such as Oregon and USC, but Graham stayed firm with the Wolverines. A month after he signed in December 2021, Graham was enrolled in Michigan, already gearing up to find his place on the depth chart.
Still, even as a four-star recruit, Graham had 246 players ranked ahead of him in the 247 composite list. In hindsight, the ranking obviously didn’t mean much.
At Michigan, not a single name sits above his on the depth chart.
That isn’t common for a freshman.
There are a lot of things that aren’t common about Graham. In his time at Servite he played rugby and basketball, threw shotput and was a talented wrestler. Graham was, and quite frankly still is, a rare form of athlete even if he’s narrowed his focus to one position in a single sport.
“He was developing himself as an athlete, and that’s something that I think helped him become who he was, who he is now,” Thomas said. “As an older player, as an older person, now he can start zeroing in and focusing his body into developing into the best football player.”
That’s the thing — he just has so much more time. Reaching his potential won’t be easy, but Thomas doesn’t see that as an issue.
“I knew he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the grind of college football,” Thomas said. “I mean he’s been grinding since the day he stepped onto campus, probably before he even came to Servite.”
That’s just who Graham is. The impact he had on Servite’s program isn’t something that Thomas will soon forget.
Through four games this year, Servite hasn’t even played a Trinity League game and already sits at 1-3. The Friars already incurred as many losses this year as they had the entirety of their last season with Graham.
Servite’s football program will probably be okay in the long run, it’s a storied program rich in tradition, but there’s no denying that losing a player the caliber of Graham has set it back.
Now Graham is in Ann Arbor, already making his mark starting on the defensive line as a true freshman. When talking to The Daily in between pleasantries, Thomas was asked about how Servite was doing this year. He answered candidly:
“It’s been ok,” he said with a slight chuckle. “We’re missing Mason Graham.”
After it’s all said and done and Graham moves on to the next challenge, Thomas will probably tell you that Michigan will miss him too.