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MOWING 'EM DOWN
Hank Hersch
August 29, 1994
New Haven's Roger Graham is nearly unstoppable in an open field—and driven to improve
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August 29, 1994

Mowing 'em Down

New Haven's Roger Graham is nearly unstoppable in an open field—and driven to improve

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Bring an untrained pit bull indoors and there is no telling what it will do. There is also no telling your football coach that your pal's new pooch has just soiled the carpet in his office. So University of New Haven running back Roger Graham grabs a fistful of paper towels and starts cleaning the trail blazed by six-month-old Bully. Graham doesn't complain; he's all too familiar with doing the dirty work and biting his tongue.

In his senior season at Spring Valley (N.Y.) High, Graham gained 389 yards as a fullback who mostly blocked for halfback Michael Joseph. New Haven recruited Graham as a linebacker, but he ached for a crack at tailback. An injury to sophomore A.J. Livingston in the Chargers' fifth game of Graham's freshman season gave him his shot; in the 30 regular and postseason games since, he has averaged 8.1 yards per carry and only once failed to rush for 100 yards—even though he hasn't started a single game in the last two seasons. Entering his senior year with 4,346 yards and 49 touchdowns, he could exceed Johnny Bailey's NCAA career-yardage record of 6,320 (for Texas A&I) as well as I he scoring mark of 464 points set by his idol, Walter Payton (for Jackson State). Graham's backup this season? Michael Joseph.

At 5'11" and 210 pounds, Graham is a hard, upright runner with keen vision, nimble feet and 4.5 speed. "People from home are always asking me, 'What's going on? What happened?' " Graham says. "It's been like I've had all this ability balled up inside me that no one knew about, and it sort of just exploded."

In the course of this incendiary turnaround, the soft-spoken Graham has grown more comfortable in his front-running role. After he led Division II in rushing as a sophomore with 1,717 yards, he did the big-time thing and bought gloves for his offensive linemen. (At an average of 287 pounds, they were big-time linemen.) Then, after he gained 1,687 yards as a junior and was awarded the 1993 Harlon Hill Trophy as the Division II player of the year, the state of Connecticut proclaimed a Roger Graham Day. He handled the ceremony with aplomb, though he did stop to ask a pal, "Does this mean every February 2 is my day?"

There was also a tribute at Spring Valley High, where coach Percy Boykin fielded the inevitable query: Uh, why didn't Roger do this when he was here? "I had good players ahead of him," Boykin says. Graham would regularly tell his lather, Locksley, a Jamaican-born truck driver, of the superstar back inside him dying to burst free. He told Boykin about his aspirations too. Boykin urged Graham to run the 100 meters to develop his speed.

Graham headed to New Haven as an 11-flat man, sure his time had come. Still, he had to convince the coaching staff that he belonged at tailback. "On the first day of camp I went to the meeting room and there were like 30 linebackers there, and I was, like, Oh, no," Graham recalls. "The running-back coach walked by, and I said I wanted to play running back, and he said, 'All right, come to the meeting.' If he hadn't come by, I might not have had the courage to try. But I got the playbook, and that was it."

Graham's surprising surge has another twist: Since his freshman season he has come off the bench. Alternating series with Livingston, he carried the ball only 18.2 times a game in '93. Now, with Livingston gone and new coach Tony Sparano installing a one-back, run-and-shoot offense, Graham should average 25 rushes per game, which might put Bailey's single-season standard of 2,011 yards in jeopardy. Graham, who writes down his goals at the start of every season, talks of scoring 30 touchdowns rushing and another 10 receiving. Reminded that he also returns kicks, he says, "Oh, yeah, I might get a couple that way too."

Such sky-high figures have a couple of tethers. One is Sparano's vow to rest Graham when the outcome of a game is assured. (Over the last two seasons New Haven won by an average of 52-18 while going 23-2.) The other is the Chargers' schedule, which includes seven road dates in six states and is one shy of a full, 11-game load. "I talked to 63 schools to schedule that one game, and Roger's name came up in 75 percent of the conversations," Sparano says. "They said, 'Coach, I'm sick of number 34.' 'Coach, I've played this guy twice before.' 'Coach, I hear his brother [Greg, a wide receiver] is coming there too.' "

Graham is putting his all into his final season. He spent the summer taking a class in his major, business administration, while toiling as a greenskeeper at a local golf course. In the afternoons he worked out, kept tabs on Bully and ran sprints in battered hightops. His goals include not only a raff of records but also a national championship for New Haven. "The way this has happened has worked out for the best because it has made me work that much harder," Graham says. "It's all come down to how much I want it, and I've always wanted it real bad."

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