Pitt's Graham rebounds from ACL tear, sets sights on NFL
Pitt senior running back Ray Graham knew the value of hard work long before the Heinz Field turf failed to hold the force of his right leg, causing his ACL to tear and changing the course of his career.
“My father (Raymond) always told me, ‘Go hard, or go home,' ” he said. “That always stuck in my head.”
But the knee injury, suffered Oct. 26, 2011, while he made a quick cut against Connecticut, taught him excellence comes at a price that his father may not have envisioned for his son.
“This definitely is a hard injury to come back from,” the younger Graham said. “It's not for weak people. You have to be tough to be able to deal with this injury and situations that come (from it).”
Graham did more than deal with it. He overcame it.
Although his yards per carry fell from 5.9 over his first three seasons to 4.7 this season, Graham was named first-team All-Big East for the second consecutive time and will lead Pitt into the BBVA Compass Bowl against Ole Miss on Jan. 5 in Birmingham, Ala.
He reached the 1,000-yard mark for the first time and vaulted into second place on Pitt's all-time career rushing list (3,271). In 123 years of Pitt football, only Tony Dorsett has run for more yards (6,526).
But the injury might have cost Graham at least one Big East Offensive Player of the Year award. His brother, Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene, is a two-time conference Defensive Player of the Year. At the time of his injury last year, Graham was second in the nation in rushing, averaging 134.1 yards through seven games.
Graham said he made sacrifices to rebuild strength in his knee.
“I think one of my big things was putting aside weekends and working out hard,” he said. “How bad do you want it?”
The toughest part was trying to keep a physical weakness from affecting him mentally.
Graham said he didn't completely trust his knee until the first week of October — four games into this season.
“It started feeling good, and I knew it wasn't going to tear again,” said Graham, who discarded his knee brace before the Syracuse game Oct. 5. “I started playing from there and didn't look back.”
Coach Paul Chryst carefully monitored Graham through training camp and into the season. But Graham never missed a snap due to the injury and averaged 21.1 carries in the second half of the season (six games).
At the end of the regular season, he was fourth in the Big East in carries (222) and yards (1,042).
“I wasn't trying to get through the season,” he said. “I was trying to play the season and help my team win games.”
Graham said he took inspiration from Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who suffered a similar knee injury Dec. 24 and is leading the NFL in rushing this season.
“That dude, he ain't human,” Graham said. “What he has done shows you the sky's the limit. If you put in the extra work, you can do anything.”
Graham plans to start preparing for predraft workouts not long after the Compass Bowl. He is ranked 10th among running back prospects and could get picked in the third or fourth round, according to NFLdraftscout.com.
ESPN draft analyst Kevin Weidl, who has seen Graham play in person and on video, is impressed with his “lateral quickness.”
“He is a little bit undersized (5-foot-9, 190 pounds), but he did a lot of good things as far as versatility (36 receptions),” he said. “He's a competitive runner, but he doesn't have a ton of power. Coming off the knee injury, he didn't look as explosive.
“I don't think he's a guy who is going to burn a 4.4-(second 40-yard dash time). He's a little bit in the 4.5 range. I saw him get caught a few times.”
No matter where he is drafted, Graham said he will be grateful for the opportunity, especially considering all he has overcome.
“You cherish every moment,” he said. “You never know when it's the end.”
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7997.