Standing in the hallway outside of the Crisler Arena media room, linebacker Chris Graham smiled as he recalled the hit he put on Michigan State running back Javon Ringer in the first half of Saturday’s 28-24 win in East Lansing.
“I was making sure he didn’t turn around and hit the ‘L’ button (a juke move in Playstation 2) on me like Illinois did to me,” Graham said. “I was trying to close the distance as much as possible.”
That hit sparked a ferocious Michigan defensive effort in the first half. With a laugh, Graham joked the unit could’ve used another one of his jarring blows as a spark in the second frame.
That’s the attitude Graham takes to the field. He’s always ready with a positive attitude.
But there’s more to Graham’s ever-present smile than meets the eye.
Growing up in a rough Indianapolis neighborhood, Graham faced tragedy when his oldest brother, Lionel Christian, was murdered in 1997. Graham, then in seventh grade, describes it as a “wrong place, wrong time” incident.
“It’s something you don’t want to look back into,” Graham said. “I look forward just to seeing his face with a smile, just the way he tried to instill in us – to be strong and keep moving on and do the right thing. That’s what I’m trying to do to show the younger ones behind me.”
It’s Lionel’s example that has motivated Graham to take a positive outlook not only on the prospect of the NFL after this season, but also during his time as a Wolverine.
Graham thanks his parents for keeping him, his four brothers and his five sisters safe from the prevalent drug use and gang violence.
His parents did their best to make their home a haven to all the neighborhood kids, and Graham brought that mentality to Ann Arbor.
“It takes a great family to move through that,” Graham said. “My house glowed in the neighborhood because it kept everyone that came to my house out of trouble.”
Graham, who has become a media darling for his easygoing nature, has come into his own during his senior season.
The upbeat outside linebacker made a name for himself in his last season – especially dropping back to defend the pass. He said he feels great about his pass defense, considering he couldn’t catch a ball or drop back in coverage before working with linebackers coach Steve Szabo.
But more important, Graham’s positive outlook has kept the Wolverine defense afloat after the unit took a beating in the first two games of the season.
He’s spent time in practice trying to get Szabo to crack a smile, a feat he said is only accomplished when Szabo jokes back with his group of linebackers.
On and off the field, Graham always tries to bring energy and excitement because he knows when he’s pumped up, he’s ready to make plays.
“That’s the thing that coach wants,” Graham said. “He wants 110 percent, and I’m going to try and give him 112. When I’m excited and aggressive like that, it helps me play a lot better.”
Graham is one of those players Michigan coach Lloyd Carr loves to coach.
“He’s a guy as a coach you never have to worry about when that phone rings late at night that he’s going to be an issue because he isn’t,” Carr said. “You know that.”
But more than his coaches, Graham’s teammates respond to his energy. Defensive end Tim Jamison shook his head when he recalled Graham’s play in East Lansing and called it the hardest hits he’s seen from Graham all season.
And while Graham refuted the claim, saying he’s hit that hard all year long, he can keep his smile beaming – just like his brother Lionel taught him.