Graham’s journey: From Detroit PAL to Super Bowl hero

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Before Brandon Graham starred at Detroit Crockett High, before he was an All-American at Michigan, before he was the No. 13 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and before he made arguably the play of Super Bowl LII, he was just a kid on some ragtag Detroit city fields — one of many success stories out of the Detroit Police Athletic League.

Graham started in PAL as a 10-year-old with the Detroit Giants, as a linebacker who quickly became a star running back.

“He was a tremendous athlete at that position,” said Dwight Ghant, Graham’s first PAL football coach. “We started giving him the football on third-down-and-20, or 10, and he’d get us a first down. He just caught on so quick, it was amazing.

“He was just a tremendous athlete.”

Detroit PAL had more than a dozen alumni playing in the NFL this past season, and Graham (Eagles) is at least the fourth PAL alum to play for a Super Bowl team in the last four years, joining Cameron Gordon (Patriots), Bennie Fowler (Broncos) and Devin Funchess (Panthers).

More: Oden in stands as pupil Graham delivers ‘Super’ heroics

Ghant’s first year coaching in PAL coincided with Graham’s first season, and he recalls the future All-Pro defensive end being extremely coachable, humble and eager to improve his skill set, as well as his peers’.

Ghant’s son, Clayton, also played on that team, and Graham often would come over to the house to hang out, occasionally even watching game film — yes, as a 10-year-old.

“He just kept getting better and better,” Ghant said of Graham, who played several years for PAL, which next month will host its grand opening of its new $20-million headquarters on the old Tiger Stadium site.

Graham, 29, had a quiet first half in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots, but made up for it with the play of the game late in the fourth quarter. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had been near-perfect to that point, and dropped back to pass with the five-time Super Bowl winner’s team trailing, 38-33.

Graham busted past 6-foot-1, 310-pound offensive guard Shaq Mason and got to Brady, stripping the football. Derek Barnett recovered for the Eagles, all but sealing the shocking 41-33 victory.

“Oh, I was very excited about it,” Ghant said. “He’s good at making big plays.

“I was very proud of that young man, to see him get that opportunity to experience something a lot of people never get.”

Detroit PAL serves a purpose far greater than grooming athletes. Many of its kids come from single-family homes, and even ones that come from two-parent homes often face temptations that can lead to wrong turns in the so-called game of life.

Graham, Ghant said, was fortunate in that he had lots of family members squarely in his corner, looking out for him, especially mother, Tasha. He has continued his good ways as he’s gone on to college, and the NFL.

His reputation as a good guy has only grown over the years, and he continues to support the place he got his start, PAL, with local football camps and speaking at PAL banquets.

“He just stood out,” Ghant said. “Even now.

“The way he was raised, I could see the success coming.”