On the April day in 2010 when the Eagles traded up to select Brandon Graham 13th overall in the first round of the NFL draft, his former Michigan coach, Lloyd Carr, compared Graham to one of Carr’s other former players, LaMarr Woodley, who had just made the Pro Bowl with the Steelers.
Andy Reid, the Eagles coach who drafted Graham, compared him to ex-Eagle Hugh Douglas, who’d made three Pro Bowls.
Graham told reporters that day that his hero was the Ravens’ Ray Lewis, who ultimately would make 13 Pro Bowls.
More than a decade later, at age 32, as he neared the end of his 11th Eagles season, Graham finally made the Pro Bowl this week, along with defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and center Jason Kelce.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said tears were shed in the coaches’ quarters at NovaCare Monday night when the news came.
Head coach Doug Pederson said Wednesday that when he called Graham to inform him of the long-awaited honor, Pederson “really didn’t get much words in with him. He was so excited and so thrilled on the phone … and I was happy for him and his family. He’s worked extremely hard in his career, and probably [was] worthy of making it maybe a couple of times.”
Pederson called it “the cherry on top of his career.”
That image carried a bit of a valedictory tone, for a player who said Wednesday he would like to play 15 seasons. But Graham surely understood Pederson’s sentiment.
“Oh yeah, it’s been a journey, man. That’s why I said I was thinking about the journey, when I actually got that call from Doug, and I wanted to call my wife and let her know, and go crazy with her, and scream and have fun,” Graham said before pausing to breathe.
“I just thought about all the people that went through it with me. The players that have been on the field with us, the groups that I’ve been a part of, and the coaches I’ve been a part of. I couldn’t ask for better people and better situations to learn from, that helped me to this day. The mindset of ‘Just don’t quit. Just keep going.’ "
Graham told of a preseason conversation with his wife, Carylne. He said he told her: “Everybody thinking I’m old, I’m gonna show them old. I’m going to go out here. I gotta get to that Pro Bowl” before the Eagles move on to younger players.
Throughout his career, Graham has traveled the two long corridors of the NovaCare Complex that link the meeting rooms, cafeteria, and auditorium on one end to the weight room, training room, and locker room on the other end. Those corridors are lined with photos of Eagles Pro Bowl players.
“This one is very special to me, man, because I really wanted to get on that wall. I set one of my goals out to do that. That was one of the last touches,” he said.
Graham gave thanks to another high-effort Eagles pass rusher, retired defensive end Trent Cole.
“I’ve seen him at a high level every day, always excited, always having fun, so I try to take the same approach, because life is what you make it. You gotta accept whatever decision you made to get you to that point where you’re at, good or bad,” Graham said. “You know what’s up. You know what you gotta work on, but as long as you got air to breathe, baby, you can get there.”
A lot of people inside and outside the NFL don’t take the Pro Bowl very seriously as a measure of worth, but it’s unusual to find a player considered one of his franchise’s all-time greats who hasn’t been selected for one. Graham’s strip-sack of Tom Brady, the defining play of Super Bowl LII, ensured that he will always be remembered here.
For edge rushers, the honor tends to be about sack totals, not about what a player means to a defense, how he leads, how consistently he churns out his best effort, through good times and bad.
“He’s one of the best defensive players I’ve been around. I just assumed he’d been to a ton of Pro Bowls,” linebacker Alex Singleton said Wednesday. “In my mind, when I got here last year, I was like, ‘This dude’s a Pro Bowler.’ … He’s the best guy in the world, happiest guy in the world, most motivating, a true pro at this, and also a guy you love being around.”
Graham has never managed more than 9.5 sacks in a season; he got to seven this season back on Nov. 1 vs. this week’s opponent, Dallas. Graham has been shut out in the intervening six games. When asked about that drought last week, he said: “I’m just happy the group is eating.” The Eagles are tied for second in the NFL, with 44 sacks.
Asked Wednesday how it would feel if he could finally get to double-digits in sacks over the final two weeks, Graham said he would like that but that the Eagles’ playoff hopes are a bigger focus.
“That would be some real icing other than the playoff [berth],” he said. “The playoff. The playoff. I’m trying to get in, and that’s where we’re at right now. But that would be the second thing for sure.”.
The outlines of Graham’s career are well-known to Eagles fans. He was drafted with a pick that fans felt should have been safety Earl Thomas. Graham suffered a serious knee injury near the end of his rookie season, then spent 2011 and most of 2012 under defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who preferred veterans.
When Chip Kelly took over for Reid in 2013, the Eagles went to a 3-4 front, and Graham thought Kelly could pretty much take him or leave him. In 2014, Graham had the feeling Kelly – whose tenure ultimately was shortened by his disastrous jettisoning of DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy – was ready to leave him. The defensive staff was enamored of a younger pass rusher named Travis Long. It wasn’t until Long suffered an ACL tear in training camp that Graham figured he might have a long-term future with the Eagles.
“I was sad for him, but that did bring some light to my day because, for sure, I just knew I was gone,” Graham said. He added that he remains in touch with Long, whose career ended after another ACL tear the next summer. He said Long was among those texting Pro Bowl congratulations Monday night.