The field was just dirt, the yard lines drawn in with chalk.
It was only green from about April to July, the grass gone a month before the Detroit Crockett football team started its fall conditioning.
As the months passed and the days started getting shorter, parents drove to the field and left their headlights on so their sons could finish practice after dusk.
“It was kind of like that Peanuts character … the dusty guy,” former Crockett assistant coach Tim Hopkins said. “That’s exactly how everybody would go home, with dust up their face, dust up their nose, socks dirty. You’d never stay clean on that practice field.”
It was a public park, meaning the team’s home field wasn’t exactly home. Nothing was. The high school itself was a long trailer, and before games and practices, the team would walk across a parking lot to their makeshift locker room in the basement of Spain Elementary/Middle School.
If you stood on the 50-yard line of the “Shack on Mack” and looked to the right, you could see Ford Field. To the left, you’d see I-75, the road to the Pontiac Silverdome.
And the 25-member team worked to play at both places, consistently making it to the state playoffs and molding Division-I college players.
Brandon Graham had played football for the Detroit Giants of the Police Athletic League for seven years when, in eighth grade, he was asked to join that team with the trailer and the dust field. He called it the best move he has ever made.
That’s obvious from where he is now, a Michigan junior defensive end who currently leads the team in sacks. He was a Ted Hendricks Trophy candidate for the best defensive end in the country last year and is constantly questioned about possibly leaving early for the NFL.
But it wasn’t so obvious when he came to Michigan as an overweight and undermotivated freshman, with a self-described case of senioritis that started after his last high school football season and lasted all of his first year in college.
Throughout his football career, Graham had his tightly-knit family both on his side and off his back.
He had more than 60 members at Fan Day this summer, and even his great-grandmother asks for copies of his photos and articles on the Internet so she can put them on her wall.
But his mother, Tasha, believes she shouldn’t have a strong influence on his football-related decisions — he needs to “take his destiny into his own hands.”
Regardless of his decisions over the years, Graham’s football and family lives have been constantly intertwined.
The Michigan football team doesn’t practice on Mondays, so Graham drives home to Detroit to see his family.
His parents aren’t together, and he’s quick to admit he’s a “momma’s boy.” Tasha is the first person he visits. And before he drives almost 50 miles home, his grandmother, Linda Graham, finds out what he wants to eat for dinner.
“We’ve had so much turkey and dressing on behalf of Brandon, we’re not going to want it for Thanksgiving,” Tasha said with a laugh. “He wore it out.”
That Thursday in November is always a production for the Graham family. There are two Thanksgivings — one at his mother’s and one at his father’s. Tasha’s feast involves 50 to 60 family members, most bringing a potluck dish to pass around. After eating at his mother’s, Graham drives 10 minutes to his father’s house to celebrate a second time.
Graham may have left for college, but his food tastes never really left home. He tries to make dinner in his apartment at least twice a week, working around football practice and classes because he’s “not too busy where (he) can’t cook.” His favorite meal to make is spaghetti topped with deep-fried chicken.
“I can cook real good, just from watching for so many years,” Graham said. “I just remember stuff so good. … My momma taught me how to make this meatloaf she made. Aw, man, just learned how to make that. So that’s gonna be another specialty right there.”
He says he doesn’t like to eat too late, but laughs a little when he says he can work it off if he does. It’s probably because at the beginning of his Michigan career, he couldn’t.
Big man on campus
“You’re two Reese’s Pieces away from the offensive line.”
That’s how fellow defensive lineman Terrance Taylor, one year older than Graham, called him out during his freshman year.
The kid that ran the 40-meter dash in 4.53 seconds as a high school freshman weighed, by his estimate, more than 300 pounds when he came to Ann Arbor four years later. Graham wasn’t allowed to run the golf course as part of the team’s conditioning regimen because the Michigan strength and conditioning staff wouldn’t be able to monitor his heart rate the whole time.
Former Wolverine coach Lloyd Carr refused to release Graham’s weight at the beginning of the year, and the rivals.com five-star linebacker recruit didn’t live up to initial expectations after being pushed to the defensive line when he arrived at camp.
Being overweight had never been an issue for Graham — he was always too busy to sit still. He played on the offensive line in high school, but that was when he wasn’t a star linebacker, kicker or punter.
As a senior, he was the first-ever player from the state of Michigan to be invited to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio.
But playing in the All-American Bowl that January meant Graham was ineligible for high school track, where he threw shot put. From that game until when he came to Michigan for fall camp, his only exercise was playing pickup basketball.
“I told him, ‘When you get that weight on there, you’re the only one who has to get it off,’ ” Tasha said. ” ‘So eat crazy if you want to.’ “
Three years later, Graham says he thought he would still be in good shape, despite his high school coaches’ requests for him to keep working out.
“I’m like, ‘Naw, I’m enjoying my senior year. I worked hard for y’all for a long time, let me enjoy my break,’ ” Graham said. “There wasn’t nothing they really could say to me that could really get me to do it. I was like, ‘Don’t worry. When I get up there, it’s going to be the same thing. I might not even be as tired because I never got tired in high school.’ ”
Hopkins left Crockett after Graham’s junior year, right after helping him seal his verbal commitment to Michigan, and both Tasha and Hopkins said the high school coaching change may have been a main reason for Graham’s lack of motivation the next season.
“Brandon suffered just because of the fact that he didn’t have that direction,” Hopkins said. “When he gets assignments, he likes to carry out those assignments. So the people who took over that role for me didn’t really have a game plan, in terms of keeping him in shape.”
His sophomore year, even after significant weight loss and a promising fall camp, Graham was still criticized for his work ethic after the Wolverines’ season-opening loss to Appalachian State.
“Brandon needs to get focused and do the things that he’s capable of doing,” Carr said after the loss.
Hopkins said Graham is “always going to show you his animation — that’s how he is, that’s when you know he’s having fun.” But according to Hopkins, Carr’s philosophies didn’t mesh with the work ethic of Graham or Michigan fifth-year senior linebacker John Thompson, another Crockett alum.
“Well, the old regime was kind of robotic for him, as well as John Thompson,” Hopkins said. “So they really had a tough time trying to identify with that group. Not that Coach Carr and the like weren’t good people, for some. They were from backgrounds that they came from. It wasn’t them playing on those fields like we did.
“That’s why it was easy for them to follow the new regime, because that’s something they were used to. They were challenged, they were motivated with conditioning, they would run until they couldn’t run anymore, and it was mind over matter. So that’s why you see a big difference in him now.”
But two games after Carr’s comments, Graham had what he called “the biggest game of (his) life.” He started against Notre Dame and racked up 3.5 sacks in the Wolverines’ 38-0 rout.
Since then, his play has been mostly productive. He led the team in sacks last year with 8.5. This year, he was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after notching three sacks and two forced fumbles in Michigan’s 27-25 win over Wisconsin in September.
Be around Graham for more than five minutes, and it becomes obvious why he might not respond well to a “robotic” coaching style. Dubbed a “big kid” by both his father and high school coach, Brandon is talkative, confident and almost always smiling.
“When he laugh, when he really laughs real hard, it’s the funniest thing you ever heard,” former roommate and junior running back Brandon Minor said, shaking his head in amusement. “It sound like a car pulling off or something. Like tires burning or something.”
But ask Graham if there’s truth in the rumors that he might bolt for the NFL a year early, and the tone of his voice gets quieter and a lot more uneasy.
He’s heard this question before — plenty of times.
This year, at least once a week, agents or other NFL draft enthusiasts have friended him on Facebook. When he accepts the requests, they message him with their pitches on why he should go pro. He reads the messages but never answers them.
Graham doesn’t discuss where he thinks he’ll be next year — that distracts him, and he’s too wary of the rumors that might start when he starts talking.
It doesn’t mean everyone else isn’t set on what they think he’ll do, especially his fellow Wolverines.
“They always ask me,” Graham said. “They always be like, ‘You ain’t staying, you ain’t staying.’ ”
Both his parents said they don’t feel he’s prepared to leave college ball. Tasha says he “still has some growing to do.” And more than anything, both Tasha and Graham’s father, Derrick Walton, said they want Graham to earn his diploma.
But Hopkins, who said he had the “going pro” talk with Graham after this year’s Notre Dame game, was the most straightforward.
“He’ll be back,” Hopkins said. “He’s definitely not leaving. … I can guarantee you, especially with the record and the team’s experience, that Brandon would be back.”
Whether Graham’s Michigan career ends in two weeks or another year from now, football starts and ends with his family.
It started after his kindergarten teacher told Tasha that the too-chatty Graham might have behavioral problems, and Walton put him in football to contain his energy.
Graham got hit hard in an early game, came home and said he wanted to quit — until Walton told his son that quitters never win.
“He’s a momma’s boy, but you can’t really tell,” Tasha said. “I tried to make him as tough as I could, as a woman. … Momma’s boys are just like leeches — they hold onto you. I wanted him to get out there.”
His love for football increased when Walton cut Graham’s hair every Saturday while the two watched the Michigan game on television.
“That’s before I even watched pros,” Graham said. “I just thought this was always the pros, being in college. That’s how hard my dad used to be on Michigan.”
Right away, Walton thought his son would be a star — he told family and friends soon after Graham started playing that he “had plans for him” and that he “knew he was something special.”
But Tasha just wished her son wouldn’t get hurt. She was afraid the bigger boys would crush Graham. She didn’t like when practice ran late and didn’t trust his coaches initially. And she wondered when he’d finally give it up.
When Graham was in sixth grade, it looked as if that might actually happen. The two were driving around and looking for new houses when another driver ran a yield sign and totaled Tasha’s car. Graham, who had just taken off his seatbelt, broke his leg and suffered a huge gash on his forehead.
He couldn’t play football for a year but still didn’t want to stop.
“We won some money from that case and I was like, ‘Well, Brandon, you got money to have the scar removed,’ and he’s like, ‘Naw, that makes me look like a tougher football player,’ ” Tasha said. “I’m like, ‘Man, are you crazy?’ He loves football. So I can’t knock him for that.”
She progressively wondered when he’d stop trying to play at the next level — first with the Giants, then in high school.
And even watching him in college, the mother of one of Michigan’s top players still feels the same way.
“I look at the pro game and I’m like, ‘Man, is he ready for that?’ ” she said. “You’ll be out there getting all them hits over and over and over again. But I try to be in the back, let him decide on his own or whatever he’s going to do. But man, it’s just that doubt in my head.”
And just as Graham’s involvement in football starts and ends with his family, his response to his on-the-field challenges and his mother’s doubts have been constant. He always gives her the same answer.
“He tells me, ‘Mommy, I got this,’ ” she said. “I got this.”