From where the undersized running back is standing behind the line of scrimmage, every play is chaos. There’s the clarity of the ball being pressed into his gut and his hands closing around it to secure it, but everything ahead is disorder. There’s the way the play was drawn up, taught, and reviewed all week, and the way it unfolds in reality. Massive bodies pound into each other, some in the place they’re supposed to be, some in a different place and moving the wrong direction entirely.
The next choices are up to the running back, as he probes his way forward, looking for an escape.
It’s a moment that’s faced Long Beach Poly alum Raymond Graham countless times on the football field, and countless times off it. Graham has overcome unspeakable tragedies in his 20 years on Earth, and begins 2021 in a new state at the start of a new life.
Graham’s story begins before he was conscious of it, his circumstances shaped by a maelstrom of violence that was not of his making or his choosing.
“Growing up was hard for me,” he said. “Both of my parents were in gangs, my mom was in 20s and my dad was in Insanes. I grew up around gang violence from when I was very young, drugs being sold on the corner and at my house.”
Graham remembers three things about 2005, the year he turned five. First, his father went to jail for a decade-long stay. Second, his mother, Tasha Brown, signed him up to play Pop Warner football with the Long Beach Browns, and he instantly fell in love with the sport. Third, his uncle Maurice Brown was shot and killed outside of Tobos Bar in May. While Maurice was not a member of a gang, police said the shooting was gang-motivated, in part because of his connection to his sister, Raymond’s mother.
A known shot-caller for the Rollin 20’s, Tasha’s life became shadowed by a dark cloud of violence as she was listed as a potential witness in the trial against the man who shot her brother. Graham remembers seeing someone point a gun at her while they were driving, and remembers someone setting her car on fire outside their apartment.
One night in January of 2007, seven-year-old Raymond was home watching television with his mom and siblings when there was a knock on the door.
“She opened the door and they shot her in the head right in front of me,” he said. “She fell to the ground and I couldn’t understand what happened. I woke my brother up and pulled him off the bed. She died there in front of us. It still haunts me to this day—I won’t open the door at night.”
That unimaginable tragedy was the beginning of hardship for Graham, not the end of it. Another uncle was shot and killed, his grandparents died of cancer, his older sister that he went to live with was sentenced to life in prison. Another brother died in a car accident, another uncle died of AIDS.
“My sister and I were going house to house trying to find a way to live,” said Graham. “It was just back to back to back to back. I was lost in the head growing up. I didn’t have anyone to guide me.”
Ray and his sister bounced from house to house, running away when things got bad. He was too young and too battered by tragedy to understand everything that was happening around him, or to find a way forward.
Graham began to find the guidance he was looking for on the football field. He did everything he could to make sure he was at every practice, that he talked to every coach, and he didn’t hide his story from anyone.
“I met Ray when he was 10 years old, he was a close friend of my son’s and on the same team,” said Long Beach City Councilman Al Austin. “He spent the night at my house on a number of occasions—I watched him grow from a kid to a young man, using football as his sanctuary. Working out, playing games, training, but also dreaming, talking about college. His drive was always to make his mom proud.”
Austin said that the youth football community in the city put its arms around Graham, aware of the tragedy he’d endured and determined to help him find a way out of his circumstances.
As a freshman, Graham enrolled at St. Anthony and lived for a year with the Pacheco family, volunteers at the school. Then he transferred to Poly and moved in with Ululani Kiaha-Nuhi and her family, where he had stability and peace for three years of high school and football.
“Raymond drew people to him everywhere he went and certainly at Poly,” said Rob Shock, the school’s boys’ athletic director. “It takes a village to raise a child and he had a village of people who stepped into his life in different parts. Unfortunately we hear this story over and over again—but Raymond was able to use football as a way to get through his hard times.”
Graham became a favorite of Antonio Pierce, the former Super Bowl champion who was Poly’s coach during Graham’s time at the school.
“The thing I like about Ray,” said Pierce during Graham’s senior year. “The kid has no fear—he sees a hole, he hits it, and he’s gone.”
A successful football play takes a week of planning and seven seconds of execution. A successful life takes a lot more—and not all players on the field of life are playing the same sport by the same rules. Things have always been harder for those in Graham’s situation. While preparing to move on and play at the Junior College level, Graham was arrested while riding in a car with friends, one of whom had a stolen phone on him that had been tracked.
Graham was in the Santa Ana Juvenile Detention Center for two days, sick to his stomach.
“For two days all I was thinking is, ‘Do you want to be in this world? Do you want to be stuck in this situation?’” Graham said. “Life is like a tightrope. I have family in jail, my brothers and sisters have apologized to me for not being there for me, and I don’t blame them because they didn’t have control over their lives. But I wanted to have control over mine.”
Graham was released and faced no charges, thanks in part to a letter-writing campaign that included figures like Pierce and Austin speaking up on behalf of his character. In tearful conversations with both men, Graham realized he needed to change his life in ways that weren’t necessarily fair to him.
“AP sat me down to talk about it and looked out for me because he’d been through what I went through,” said Graham. “To have Al in my corner—we had a long talk that night at his house about me being around the right people, how the wrong people can get you caught up even if you had nothing to do with it, and even if they’re your friends.”
“That kid has a special place in my heart, and I talked to him like my own son because I think that’s important,” said Austin. “I remember that conversation like yesterday—I told him I was disappointed in him and I told him he needs to focus on his dreams.”
After a standout start to his Junior College career at El Camino, it looked like he was well on his way, with his grades and his on-field production in shape. Then, Graham tore his ACL.
By that time he was staying with Brandi Brown, a cousin who lived in the Lakewood suburbs and provided a place to stay that was far away from the life Graham was trying to escape.
“When he tore his ACL, I was in tears,” said Brown. “I’m normally positive Pam but that sent me down a cycle of despair. Like, why? Did this kid really need that one last thing to go through?”
Remarkably, the injury didn’t break Graham, either. He said he was conscious of it as being his last test, the last thing he had to overcome while trying to make it to college. To help him stay positive and focused, he started The Make Change Foundation with Camm and Nolan McDonald, two friends from Poly who were playing at Florida State. The purpose of the non-profit foundation was to feed the homeless and less fortunate, and the trio personally raised money for and handed out hundreds of meals to the homeless in Long Beach.
Graham said the work helped him stay thankful for the help he’d received from the families and coaches who’d looked after him in his life.
“It’s a reminder that it can always be worse, that other kids had it worse than me,” said Graham. “There’s kids out there right now who don’t have the support that I had.”
After returning from injury and rushing for 585 yards and three touchdowns his sophomore season, Graham got the scholarship offer he’d been waiting for: from Prairie View A&M, an HBCU in Texas. It was also the alma mater of his cousin Brandi, who drove him to Texas.
On the way, she tried to leave him with words of wisdom.
“You’re here for a reason,” she said. “All your other siblings—things are harder. For some reason, you were the one that’s been chosen All the other circumstance that you could have fallen into, you said, ‘No thank you, I want a different route.’”
Graham spent most of the drive reflecting on his journey. Asked why he had to go through the things he went through to get to college, he didn’t romanticize his own story or glorify the unspeakable pain he’s been through.
“I ask God every day, why did I have to go through this?” he said. “I honestly don’t know. I just have to have faith there’s something waiting for me. I hate it. I really do hate it. But it’s made me a strong person.”
Graham was the first person in his immediate family to graduate high school, the first to attend junior college, and now the first to attend a four-year university. Graham lost his mother 13 years ago, and spent most of his life battling his circumstances, trying to find a path through the contradictions and challenges in front of him.
After driving to Texas at the end of December, he woke up January 1st in a new life, at the college where he’ll play football and try to become the first in his family to get a college diploma. Graham took the ball, waited to see his hole, and he hit it—he’s gone. But, he says, he’ll be back.
“My goals are a degree, to play professional football, but then to give back,” he said. “To try and be a mentor to young kids that come from the same background as me. Because nobody understands what we have to go through—but we have to get through it.”