EUGENE – Thomas Graham Sr. rose to his feet in a reaction of excitement and surprise so quickly he experienced a head rush that sent him right back down into his seat in Autzen Stadium.
His son, Oregon cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., had seemingly come out of nowhere to intercept a pass in the fourth quarter of the Ducks’ 42-35 win Saturday over Nebraska.
“I almost passed out,” Graham Sr. said.
While Graham Sr. gathered himself, his wife Tamisha Graham jumped up and down while screaming: “That’s my baby, that’s my baby.”
Her “baby” right now is very much the man on Oregon’s defense, which appears to have greatly improved over last season thanks in part to the play of Graham Jr. Through two games, the former four-star recruit out of Rancho Cucamonga High School in the California city of the same name already has two interceptions and two pass breakups, one leading directly to an interception.
Graham Jr. is sure to experience his share of lows this season. Too many elite quarterbacks and receivers operate within the offensively-driven Pac-12 Conference for that not to happen. Nevertheless, he appears to have the makings of becoming an elite cornerback. Not simply because of his extreme athleticism. Graham Jr. has embraced the nuances of the sport he loves to become as mentally prepared to perform at a high level as he is physically. And this is all by design. Part of a plan put forth by parents that demanded excellence from their two children and to avoid the mistakes made by a father who admittedly failed to reach his athletic potential due to lack of guidance and a poor attitude.
The result is a daughter who is an elite hurdler and a son who could become a dominant defensive back for a program desperately in need of difference makers on that side of the ball.
“He’s a big-time player,” UO coach Willie Taggart Taggart said following Saturday’s game. “For him to be as young as he is and know as much football as he does, he’s great to have and it’s great to know he is gong to be here for a while.”
--- Team Graham
Graham Sr., a graduate of San Diego High School, grew up playing football and participating in track & field. The son of a single mother, his athletic career peaked at San Jose City College because, the former cornerback said, he lacked academic focus and missed not having the guidance of a father to push him.
“I was a guy who never wanted to take responsibility for my actions,” Graham Sr. said.
Tamisha played softball in high school and grew up academically driven, eventually earning her masters degree in counseling.
The couple has two children, Thomas, 18, and Jasmyne Graham, 20, forming what the family calls “Team Graham.” Dad took charge of preparing the children for sports. Mom handled the academic side. Team Graham's goal has been to assure that their children remain focused and driven to succeed.
Oregon does not allow true freshmen to speak to the media. Jasmyne recalls life as a Graham child.
“Growing up, my dad would always tell us not to disrespect his name,” she said.
Graham Sr. repeatedly asked his children: “What do Grahams do?”
“We give 110 percent,” his children would respond in unison.
At times, they grew tired of the mantra.
“We get it, dad,” they would say.
Later on in life, they truly got it.
“As I got older I realized what he was trying to do,” Jasmyne said. “Everything we do we’re doing it in honor of ourselves.”
Graham Sr. said he demanded that his children live in the moment and strive to excel.
“Not just in athletics," he said. "I want them to compete in life...It doesn’t matter what you do. If you are a fry cook at McDonalds, be the best fry cook you can be.”
His children, as it turned out, were destined for much greater heights.
Dad coached them hard leading up to high school. He often blurred the lines between father and coach.
“I’d have to say, ‘dad, turn off the coach switch,'” Jasmyne said with a laugh.
Graham Jr. rarely did. He pushed as the bad cop while mom mostly played the good cop.
It all paid off.
Jasmyne became an elite hurdler, earning a scholarship to USC before transferring to UNLV this year. She hopes to qualify for the 2020 Olympic team.
--- Chasing big sister
Graham Jr.'s road toward becoming a college athlete began with chasing big sis as a small child.
Her success as a youth often made Graham Jr. invisible to outsiders.
“Nobody knew we had a son,” Graham Sr. said. “Everybody thought we just had a daughter because she was so successful.”
Jasmyne showed zero mercy to her little brother. She’d roughed him up a little from time to time if he got out of line. But she did most of her damage in races, repeatedly dominating her little brother in head-to-head races. She’d mock his times at track meets, pointing out that hers were much faster.
“I’d say, ‘you’re slow,’” she recalled. “He was.”
Jasmyne drove her little brother nuts. But, Graham Jr., who started playing tackle football at age 6 and competed up a level all of his life, wasn’t obsessed with sports as a little boy. Math and animals peaked his interest the most. The National Geographic Channel held his attention more so than televised games and highlights.
“He was always eager to learn,” Graham Sr. said. “I didn’t think he would be sports minded.”
Still, Jasmyne remained Graham Jr.’s white whale. Until he finally caught her, past her and won a race in the eighth grade while she was a sophomore at Roosevelt High School in Corona, Calif.
“He got tired of being her little brother,” Graham Sr. said.
Jasmyne didn’t take the loss well. At first. She blamed gender.
“He’s a boy,” she said with a laugh. “Him winning was an issue for him, not me. He should be faster.”
The dynamic between the two changed. Graham Jr. went from 5-foot-3 (the same height as his sister) to 5-9 in just over a year. Suddenly, Jasmyne was looking up at her little brother.
“Once he got taller and started lifting weights, I knew that if I hit him, he was going to hit him back,” Jasmyne said.
Graham Sr. noticed a change in his son. He became more confident.
“Once he started beating his sister, he thought he was the king of the house,” Graham Sr. said.
He was, at least when it came to speed. Jasmyne didn’t like it but what was done was done. Dad came next on Graham Jr.’s race list.
During a junior high football practice, Graham Jr. was dominating teammates in races. Dad decided to take him on.
Big mistake. It would be the last race they ever had against each other.
--- Student of the game
Once Graham's confidence grew, he went all in on football. He trained harder and studied harder. He dove into watching game video. His games. College games. NFL games. It didn't matter. He studied and learned.
“He knows the routes from teams he played in 7th and 8th grade,” Graham Sr. said. “ He has a really great memory…I think he’s going to be a coach when he is done playing.”
Graham Jr. played varsity as a freshman at Roosevelt High where his sister graduated from in 2015. He transferred to Rancho Cucamonga before his junior year. There, he blossomed into a superstar and began receiving numerous accolades.
Graham Jr.’s high school coach, Nick Baiz, said his star cornerback/receiver was a little shy early on. By his senior year, however, his personality blossomed. Graham Jr’s positive energy proved infectious to his teammates, as did his study habits.
“He’s always kind of been a student of the game,” Baiz said. “His intellect and maturity allow him to understand what the coaches are telling him on film”
Whenever Baiz would get worried before a game, Graham would be there to pick him up.
“He’d always tell me before a game, ‘coach, we’re about to whoop that (butt). Don’t worry,'" recalled Baiz.
Graham Jr. rarely got beaten during a game. But when he did, his support system would all look at one another and know it was go time.
“Let’s go, baby boy,” they’d scream.
Then, something bad would happen for the other team.
“Any time he’s ever done something bad he comes back and does something better to erase that,” Jasmyne said. “He takes it to another place.”
Recruiters flooded the Graham’s home with letters and calls. Rivals.com rated him as the No. 12 cornerback in the nation. Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Nebraska, the entire Pac-12 and a host of other major programs pursued Graham. But most of them were all wasting their time. Graham Jr. committed to USC, his dream school, in July of 2015 before his junior season.
That lasted a year. In the summer of 2016, the USC staff failed to reach out to Graham Jr. for a few weeks. So, he decommitted. USC tried to get him back on board. No dice.
Jasmyne, who had been looking forward to attending college with her little brother, was not happy. But she understood. Graham kept his options open all the way through his senior season.
Graham Sr., always the tough critic, wondered if his son had what it took to play for a team in the Southeastern Conference. He wondered if his son was a ‘UCLA kid,’ which in their household of USC fans, including a Trojan for a daughter, meant “soft.”
Tamisha, however, had greater belief in his son’s abilities.
“I’d said he was a ‘UCLA kid’ and she’d say he could play in the SEC or anywhere he wants to because he’s that guy,” Graham Sr. said. “Thomas and her are like Starsky and Hutch. A Stick and a clutch. They go together.”
Graham Sr. wanted his son to go to Notre Dame. Jasmyne liked Nebraska best for her brother, after USC, of course. Tamisha envisioned her son attending Arizona State.
Graham Jr. remained undecided.
Then, Willie Taggart entered the picture.
--- Oregon bound
Oregon introduced Taggart as its new head coach on Thursday, Dec. 8. That weekend he traveled to Rancho Cucamonga to visit the Grahams.
By Dec. 15, Graham had committed. Taggart’s smile, personality and honesty won over Team Graham.
“Taggart changed everything,” Graham Sr. said. “He sat down and it wasn’t all about football, it was more about life. He said he had a plan to help make Thomas a better man.”
Unlike most recruiters, Taggart didn’ boast about preparing Graham Jr. for the the NFL. He didn't promise him that he would start right away. Taggart simply offered Graham Jr. a chance to compete and to get an education in a disciplined yet nurturing environment.
Graham Jr. had already visited Oregon while being recruited by former Ducks defensive backs coach John Neal. Graham Jr. liked the small-town atmosphere of Eugene and became enamored with the Oregon's scenic outdoors.
“I could see myself living here,” he told his mom.
Graham Jr. couldn't wait to get started at Oregon so he enrolled during the winter term. Tamisha and her daughter were against that idea. They wanted him to enjoy his senior year.
"I was also worried because he was only 17 and that's my baby, but I knew he was mature enough to handle it," Tamisha said. "My fear was letting go."
When he returned home for spring break, Jasmyne discovered a different person.
“He proved me wrong on so many levels,” she said. "He was a totally different person. He had grown up. He was still that goofy, funny, little kid, but he had matured in so many ways.”
The siblings have grown closer as they've gotten older. Jasmyne said despite their childhood spats, she's always viewed him as a very giving and generous person who she now leans on from time to time.
“There are times when I feel like I can’t do something or I’m down and I know that if I call him he will say, “you need to remember who you are,'” she said. "That always makes me feel better."
Graham Jr. was one of the centerpieces of recruiting class that ranked No. 18 in the country. Immediately during winter drills, Taggart began seeing signs that Graham Jr. could be special. Taggart noticed his maturity and appetite for knowledge. Plus, his energy and determination. He was Taggart's type of player. Someone who wanted to compete at everything, which had been Graham Sr.'s goal for his son all along.
Graham Jr.'s first roommate, former safety turned receiver Brenden Schooler, said the freshman clearly had natural football ability and instincts and a desire to learn. The two often sat around talking about the strengths and weaknesses of other players.
"He's just a football guru," Schooler said. "He loves it."
Sophomore wide receiver Dillon Mitchell said Graham Jr.'s attention to detail is clear in his play.
"Thomas has great knowledge of the game plan and that accentuates his athleticism," Mitchell said.
So much so that he immediately jumped into the mix at cornerback during the spring. That carried over to the fall where he has been competing with senior Arrion Springs and junior Ugochukwu Amadi for playing time. Those two started the first game when Graham had five tackles as a backup. He made his first start Saturday against Nebraska.
--- The head tilt
Knowing he would field questions about Graham Jr. following his performance against Nebraska, Taggart spoke to his star freshman before entering the post-game press conference.
"He told me to tell you that he is excited," Taggart said. "That's why he came to Oregon to help this football program and to help turn this program. He said to, 'make sure to tell them, coach, that I appreciate you for coming down to recruit me.'"
“I’m serious, he did say that," continued Taggart.
If Graham Jr. could speak to the media, one obvious question would be how he reacted to his day getting off to such and up-and-down start against the Cornhuskers.
On Nebraska's first play from scrimmage, Graham Jr. trailed a receiver who was eyeing a sideline pass over the cornerback's head. At the last second, Graham Jr. threw his hands out and tipped the pass, which was then intercepted by senior safety Tyree Robinson to set up Oregon's first touchdown.
Later that quarter, Nebraska senior wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El beat Graham Jr. on a jump ball in the right corner of the end zone. He had solid coverage but failed to look back for the football. Had Graham Jr. done so he might have made the interception. He also made contact with the receiver before the ball arrived and still got scored on to make the score 14-7, Oregon.
The play left his parents stunned, looking at each other with faces that read: “Did that just happen?”
But, just like when their son was in high school, they knew such a moment would only fuel their ultra competitive son. They also saw that signature head tilt to the right that Graham Jr. does when he is about to turn up the heat on his opponent.
"When that happens, game on," Tamisha said.
“If you beat him at something he is going to die trying to beat you back,” Graham Sr. said. “He’s a poor sport. He’s a poor sport to the fifth power.”
That competitiveness traces back to simple things like board games, video games, dominoes, card games and racing his big sister.
"When he loses, he won't let you leave until he wins," Graham Sr. said.
Late in the second quarter Graham Jr. intercepted Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee at the Nebraska 34 to set up a touchdown that gave Oregon a 42-14 lead. In the third quarter he broke up a pass. In the fourth he made the interception that left his father woozy.
Graham read and then jumped the pass intended for Nebraska's tight end over the middle and returned it 28 yards to the Nebraska 31.
“In the last six months he’s proven to me that he’s a high-caliber player,” Graham Sr. said.
After the game, Graham Jr. didn't have much to say about the game. He doesn't brag much.
“He goes back into lala mode,” Graham Sr. said. “He wanted to go home and play video games. The most you can get out of him is ‘it was solid,” or ‘it was lit.’”
Watching on television from afar with great pride was sister Jasmyne, who will travel to Wyoming to see her brother and the Ducks play the Cowboys on Saturday. She remains Graham Jr.'s first major conquest. Now she looks up to and is inspired by her little brother.
“I’m a fan of my brother,” Jasmyne said. “I feel like I’m his number one fan and number one supporter…It took so many fights to get here.”
It also took a lot of Team Graham pushing both along to the point where now the Graham children are thriving on their own.