The father figure in James Graham’s life was Granddad.
Robert Graham was a father to 12 and a grandfather to 23. He was a diesel mechanic, a church deacon and a youth football coach. He liked doing magic tricks. And before his death in April 2016 at the age of 76, he was a central figure in the life of his grandson James, now a freshman quarterback at Georgia Tech.
“I think about him every day,” Graham said.
Graham last saw his biological father at the age of 10. But his maternal grandfather was a constant presence. Graham lived with him for a few years as a teen, soaking up his love, attention and wisdom. As Graham begins his first year as a Yellow Jacket, his grandfather is his inspiration.
“He always pushed me in the right way and led me down the right path,” Graham told the AJC. “He was a great supporter. He taught me most of everything I know. He was just the best. He’s the reason I’m really pushing right now.”
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Graham spoke in a small conference room at MANA, a non-profit in Fitzgerald that produces an enriched form of peanut butter that is distributed to malnourished children around the world. Graham’s mother, Bridget Daniels, works there as an office assistant. As strongly as her second son feels about his grandfather, so her father felt about him.
“He always saw something special in James,” Daniels said. “He did. He said, ‘That boy there’s going to be special.’ He always told me that.”
Graham’s home sits on 37 acres of land on the outskirts of Fitzgerald, property purchased by Robert Graham in 1986 when he and his family were still living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Ben Hill County, about halfway between Macon and Valdosta, has a population of about 17,000. It’s largely rural, covered by farmland and groves of pine trees. Fitzgerald is its county seat, a town founded in 1895 by Civil War veterans from both the Union and Confederacy.
Daniels’ family property has four houses on it, and Daniels and three of her sisters live there. Robert Graham grew up on a farm in Fitzgerald, left as a teenager to live with an older sister in Delaware before finally settling with his wife, Juanita, in Fort Lauderdale. They returned to Fitzgerald in 1986.
After staying in Florida to finish high school, Daniels followed. She has five children; James is the third. His grandfather was the one who encouraged him to go to church. He taught him to drive. When Robert Graham was in the midst of his cancer fight, Daniels sent James and his older brother Trey to live with him, both to tend for him but also to be in his presence.
“He just taught him basic life skills,” she said. “What a mother couldn’t teach her son.”
Jason Strickland, Graham’s coach at Fitzgerald High for his first three seasons, saw that his quarterback had a superior role model.
“His granddad was just a hard, hard blue-collar working guy and a great work ethic, which is probably where James got a lot of that stuff from,” said Strickland, now coaching at Pierce County High.
Strickland’s perspective comes from plenty of observation. He said that Graham is highly competitive, loves to practice, hates to be taken out of games and leads in such a way that he draws teammates to him, but at the same time isn’t afraid to challenge them.
In Graham’s sophomore year, his first year as the starting quarterback, the Purple Hurricane had lost most of their offense to graduation.
“(We) just didn’t know what we were going to have coming back, and kind of as we got into his sophomore year, his athletic ability and his leadership, character, all that type stuff came through,” Strickland said. “He carried us to the state championship (game) that year as a sophomore.”
Graham was a one-of-a-kind player for Strickland. He said that in two decades of coaching, he was the best athlete that he has coached.
“He just does stuff that, I don’t know, it just kind of makes you shake your head sometimes, figuring out how the human body can do that,” Strickland said.
He expanded on his observation.
“Change of direction, jumping, just absolutely full-speed, wide-open and be able to come to a complete stop,” Strickland said. “He just does things that normal humans can’t do.”
They were exploits that, before he died in the spring of Graham’s sophomore year, Robert Graham delighted to experience. After games on Friday night, they talked over the game on Saturday mornings.
“He’d be like, if he saw him do something that he should have done a different way, he’d tell him,” Daniels said.
Graham developed into a four-star prospect as a dual-threat quarterback, rated the No. 38 prospect in the state of Georgia. Alabama wanted him to play defensive back, and Miami recruited him as a running back. He initially committed to play slot receiver for Virginia Tech before switching to Georgia Tech late in the process.
The opportunity to play quarterback was not a small part of coach Paul Johnson’s pitch.
“I think that’s what really changed his mind,” Daniels said.
Graham starts his time at Tech knowing it will be a challenge, both to move up the depth chart at quarterback and to handle the academic load. But, speaking in May, days before his graduation, he anticipated what the experience could do for him. His goal is, either by making it to the NFL or using his degree (or both), to provide for his mother a life that she can’t afford now.
“I know it’ll make me a better person,” he said. “It’ll change me. When I look back at Tech, I’ll be like, It brought me a long way.”
Regrettably, the man who helped send him on this journey won’t be there to witness it.
“But I know my daddy would be really proud of him now, especially going to Georgia Tech, being such a prestigious school and everything,” Daniels said. “He would be really proud.”
The fourth in a series of profiles of members of Tech’s incoming freshman class.