Overcoming tragedy to tackle two sports

May 15, 2008

Subscribe to Commodore Nation magazine / View Archived Issues

He remembers the day vividly. It is like a reoccurring bad dream. The day was Dec. 14, 1996 - the day that would change Jamie Graham's life forever.

It is gameday now as Graham laces up his sneakers to take the floor against top-ranked Tennessee. However, before he can take the floor, his mind flashes back to that December day. It is the picture in his locker of his mother, Jamie Denise, that takes him back. As he does before each game, Graham kisses the picture and heads to the court.

He'd much rather be able to kiss her.

On that day in 1996, Graham was at basketball practice one minute and being rushed to the hospital the next.

His mother had been stabbed 13 times with a knife while trying to break up a spat between two others.

Graham was just 8 years old at the time. He was terrified and befuddled. He didn't have a father figure at the time, and his mom had just passed.

"After hearing that she'd been stabbed, I just broke down," Graham said. "Even going back to school was tough. It was around Christmas, which made it even tougher having a Christmas without her."

After his mother's death, Graham and his younger brother Jamonte, now 12, moved in with his grandmother, Hattie. Hattie would work until 7 p.m., so his uncle, Odell Bradley, and his aunt, Comaneci Graham, watched Jamie and Jamonte until Hattie got home from work. Despite being so young, an additional amount of responsibility was placed on Jamie to watch over Jamonte.

"As I grew up, the responsibility fell upon me to take care of my little brother and make sure he was going to school on time and make sure he was up and ready," Graham said. "It all came down on me."

Instead of taking the easy way out and straying the wrong direction after the tragedy, Graham has stayed on course. That extra responsibility has helped him grow into the person he is today.

"It will make you grow up quickly," said Anthony Law, Graham's football coach at Whites Creek High School. "He handled the whole situation so well, that it had to work out for him."

Even now as a freshman at Vanderbilt, Graham maintains his father-like watch over Jamonte.

"He is the only one staying in the house with my grandma right now, so I tell him to take care of her and make sure he is taking care of his business at school," Graham said. "I gave the school my number, so if he gets in trouble at school, they can call me. If I have to leave from my class, then I'll leave just to make sure that he's doing all right because in the long run he's going to have to take care of me one day."

That type of maturity and responsibility is one of the reasons why Graham has been able to accomplish something during the 2007-08 school year that no other student-athlete in the Southeastern Conference has: play both basketball and football.

"It is very special," said Graham, who is on a football scholarship and is a walk-on on the basketball team. "I give thanks to God for giving me the ability to do both."

Just how rare is Graham's ability to play both sports at Vanderbilt? You have to go back to Fred Baker during the 1994-95 season to find the last Commodore to play both.

As impressive as it is for Graham to be able to balance two sports in the SEC while being actively involved in raising Jamonte, it may be even more impressive how he has been able to maintain his academics.

"Grades are actually the most important thing that allow me to do both," said the secondary education major. "As long as I keep my grades up I'll always be able to do both and keep my mind right."

Graham admits that it isn't easy to balance everything, but credits the support he has received from Vanderbilt for helping him juggle multiple tasks.

"It's tough, but you have so many sources, especially going to Vanderbilt and being an athlete," Graham said. "When it comes to class work and homework, I rarely think about it because it is just natural to do it. I do it and then I go to practice so it's not as hard as most people would think. It is definitely tough, but I just get through it some way, somehow."

The fact that Graham has been able to balance everything doesn't come as a surprise to Law.

"I think Jamie made up his mind a long time ago that he was going to do whatever it took to get whatever it was when he wanted, and he was going to do it the right way," Law said. "I believe that it is paying off for him now. He is one of those kids that are relentless, and he will not settle for just finishing, he wants to finish on top."

Paying off it is, but reaching his goal of being a mult-sport athlete in college was not always as clear for Graham, who grew up idolizing former professional football and baseball player Deion Sanders.

"My mind frame in high school was to always try to go somewhere where I could play two sports," Graham said.

However, after redshirting as a defensive back on the football team this past fall, Graham was not sure he should try to play basketball.

"After the football season was over, (Coach Bobby Johnson) talked with me and wanted to see if I wanted to play (basketball)," Graham said. "I was having mixed emotions about it because after being redshirted I wasn't sure if I was feeling like making the switch to basketball."

Graham eventually got over those initial worries and joined the basketball team on Dec. 4. He made his first game appearance against UT-Martin on Dec. 29.

The transition from football to basketball actually was not as hard as Graham imagined it would be.

"It was actually better than I thought," Graham said of the transition. "It was a hard transition as far as physical wise, but everybody is close, so it was as perfect as you can get. They invited me with open arms."

Especially helpful during Graham's transition were seniors Shan Foster and Alex "Red" Gordon.

"Whenever I needed to learn a play, (Shan) told me I could just come to his room, and that I could come there anytime," said Graham of Foster, whose locker is beside his. "For anything I needed, I could call Shan or Red."

Being able to pick the brain of two of Vanderbilt's leaders certainly helped Graham develop into a solid contributor off the bench at the end of the season.

"It's not fair for a guy to disrupt our entire first-team offense by himself and not play," basketball Coach Kevin Stallings said after Graham played six minutes against Tennessee on Feb. 26. "You have to reward the guys that are productive on a consistent basis in practice."

Playing that type of ball-hawking defense, much like a defensive back, is one of Graham's signatures.

"I take pride in it," said Graham of his defense. "I don't want anyone on the other team to get by me. Even Shan (Foster) and I laugh about it if I guard him (in practice) because he'll tell me about how much I wear him out. After a practice he'll come to me and say, `Thank you, you are getting me ready for what I'm going to see in the game.'"

That type of energy that he exudes, in addition to him being a local product, made Graham a fan favorite at basketball games. Every time he would sub in or out of a game, he would get the loudest applause of any of the reserves.

"It is a great feeling," Graham said. "The fans actually pump me up to play harder."

Despite his commitment to basketball in the winter, Graham continued to lift weights with football, and although he missed the start of spring football practice because of the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, Graham slid right back into football when basketball was finished.

This summer he hopes to work out with the football and basketball teams, and he has his sights set on playing both sports throughout college.

"I definitely want to (play both sports) all four years, especially with the fans, teammates and coaches, there is a bond there," Graham said. "That is something I'd love to do since I already started it."

Even though he still has many bright years ahead of him at Vanderbilt, it hasn't stopped Graham from setting his sights on his future plan of being a coach.

And his reason for wanting to be a coach shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

"I enjoy being a mentor," Graham said. "There are not a lot of mentors in high school right now being an influence to a lot of younger children. I want to be able to help people out. When I was there, it was basically my high school coaches who were my mentors."

For as much of an impact his coaches have had on him throughout his life, he has had even more of an impact on them and any others that know him.

"I tell you what, if he goes off and does his thing and still wants to get into coaching, and he wants to coach for me, he'll be my No. 1 hire," Law said.



Proud Sponsors of Commodore Athletics