NORMAL — Motivation has played a huge role in the life of James Graham.
From his mother, father and sister to his football coaches at Illinois State, Graham has had sources aplenty for such encouragement.
Yet what Graham has done with that fuel has transformed him from a kid out of a tough inner city Chicago neighborhood to an under the radar special player for the Redbirds.
“James is a guy I just cheer for,” ISU defensive coordinator Spence Nowinsky said. “He’s a fantastic person with a million dollar smile. He’s in that underdog role, an undersized walk-on finding his way.”
Graham found his way to ISU from Westinghouse High School and rushed for 127 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2014. He has since shifted to defensive end and become an effective pass rusher.
“My sister (Jasmin) graduated from Illinois State. When I was in high school she was here,” Graham said. “That’s the first time I knew about Illinois State. I found out they were rebuilding the program and renovating the stadium. I knew it was a good school because it was a school for education.”
Graham was constantly urged by parents James Sr. and Tammie to avoid the pitfalls of his Garfield Park neighborhood on Chicago’s west side.
“There are a lot of things I’ve seen. I’ve seen people get shot at,” said Graham. “Coming home from school, people were selling drugs. My mom was always on me making sure I hung around with the right people and make sure I handle business in the classroom.”
An unwanted complication came during Graham’s junior year at Westinghouse when James Sr. suffered a stroke.
“For the first two years he had a lot of trouble doing basic things that were easy to him before like driving and walking,” Graham said. “He’s still trying to work his way back to the way he was before he had his stroke. But he has been doing well.”
James Sr. has begun driving again. He attended most of ISU’s home games in 2016 and was on hand for the Redbirds’ upset win over Northwestern in Evanston.
“That was pretty big for him to see that,” James said. “It always gives me a boost of energy to see him down here. It gives me that extra oomph I need to play my best that game.”
Graham’s early days at ISU had him under the tutelage of Redbird running backs coach Lamar Conard.
“I credit a lot of my success to Coach Conard. Coming in my freshman year, he was like a dad,” said Graham. “He always encouraged me to try to do my best in life and football and everything.”
Placed on scholarship for the first time in the spring of his junior year, Graham was switched to defense and tutored in the fine art of pass rushing.
“There were things he had to work on fundamentally with his feet and his explosive get offs,” Nowinsky said. “He really did a good job to improve his craft.”
Graham, who bounds onto the field in passing situations as part of the Redbird nickel package, registered ISU’s first sack of the season in the opening win over Butler.
“I always bring energy to the team. Coach Nowinsky makes that an emphasis when I get on the field,” said Graham. “Every time I step on the field, in my mind I’m going to get a sack.”
At 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, Graham isn’t likely to reach the quarterback by trying to overpower a 310-pound offensive tackle.
“He’s got to make sure he plays with great pad level,” Nowinsky said. “Man, he’s fast. He’s explosive off the ball. And having those running back skills, he can really contort.”
ISU head coach Brock Spack has witnessed Graham “really embrace that role and take pride in it. He wants to do well. It’s important to him. James is a really likeable person, a hard worker and he’s tough.”
Graham is on track to graduate in May with a degree in recreational management.
“I want to own my own gym one day,” he said, “and create my own workout plans.”
Whatever path Graham chooses, motivation does not figure to be a issue.