Safety Keith Graham was very active in sports of all kinds growing up, but it was his love for the game of football that pushed him towards the gridiron. At the age of five Graham suited up for pop warner and had a good time. Now, he's suiting up for the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks and pursuing his dream of playing Division I football.
"It's always been my dream to play in the NFL, and I knew that in order to do that I had to play in college," said Graham. "Since I did pretty well in high school I thought I could give it a shot."
Nothing was given to Graham and he knew that wherever his next step was going to be, it wasn't going to be so easy to plant his foot down.
"When I graduated I only had one offer to play football collegiately," Graham remembers. "It was at a Division III school in Iowa called Cornell and I was playing quarterback back then. I went out there and didn't play much so I decided to come back home."
Instead of dropping out of college and dismissing any hopes of playing football, Graham took a year off to pay back loans and decided to enroll at Phoenix College.
"I switched to safety and led the nation in tackles," said Graham, "but I didn't get an offer here. It was either go Division II or follow my dream and play Division I, so I decided to walk on here at NAU."
There's a big difference between junior college and Division I football. Not everyone can make the successful transition on the field and in the classroom to reconfirm that they made the right decision.
"It was a learning curve," added Graham. "The game is faster at this level. There's more talent and more expectations, but I just kept working hard and improving my craft."
Graham believes that he's been able to grow a lot within the program when it comes to his confidence level and knowledge of the defense.
"I know that I have the support of all my coaches and teammates around me so it makes me more comfortable," Graham said, "and I can play to the best of my ability instead of thinking."
Graham credits Cha'pelle Brown, his defensive secondary coach, with helping him become a better football player and person.
"His (Brown) coaching has been life changing," said Graham. "He's not just a football coach, he's a life coach. He teaches us things about life that's important like discipline and showing up on time. The first thing he asks us in our meetings is how did school go. It's more about life than it is about football with him."
Brown did not have the honor of coaching Graham last season, but in the short time Brown has been his coach, he's made an incredible impact on the senior's life.
"When you have a coach like that you want to play for him," added Graham. "You want to do well for him because you know he has your best interest in mind. With him coaching me – not only scheme wise and the football side of it – he's made me more comfortable and confident as a player because I know that he has my back. I'll do anything to go out there and play for him and do my best."
Coach Brown continually preaches that, "when you do it right, you're going to get opportunities to play." There's nothing to it, but that. Come to work every day and give it all you got, and the rest will speak for itself.
"He's our leader," said Brown. "He brings us passion and makes sure that the guys are doing it right every single day. It's been awesome to have him around. The reason why he's been so successful is because he's been doing it the right way. Leading the rest of the guys."
Graham is not only a leader when it comes to football, but he's on track to graduate in the spring. He already has an associate's degree in general studies and will be graduating in the spring with a degree in biomedical sciences. Whenever Graham's playing career is done, he'd like to work in the medical field and get a job as a physician's assistant.
Being a first generation student hits close to home for Graham. Just the thought of walking across the stage come spring time makes Graham smile.
"I'll be the first one in my family to graduate, so getting my bachelor's degree is very important to me," Graham said. "I want to show my little brother and sister that with hard work you can do anything. You don't have to be the smartest, you don't have to be the most talented all you have to do is put your head down and work and you can get there. It's very important to be the first one in my family to graduate with a bachelor's degree."
Graham's family is very supportive of him for his accomplishments on-and-off the field. Having the support of his family from sun up to sun down lets him know that anything is possible.
"It's very special to see the smile on their face when I talk about graduating in May," Graham said. "A couple of years ago I didn't even know if I was going to be playing football anymore. For them to see me make this progress and see how hard I've worked they're really proud; especially with my school work. I'm not the smartest person out there, I just work as hard as I can. I've had two jobs and played football all throughout college, so to see that I'm about to earn this degree is a big accomplishment."
Graham has come a long way in the last five years. If there's anyone out there that maybe didn't get the scholarship offers straight out of high school like they were hoping, it doesn't mean it's the end of the world.
"You can do anything you want to do," said Graham. "It doesn't matter how talented you are or how much you were recruited. I could've stayed at my Division II school and never followed my dream to play Division I. I followed my dream and look where I'm at. I'm no one special."
You heard it here right from Graham. Don't let anything stop you from pursuing your dreams.