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Have Talent, Will Travel : Charter Oak Running Back Michael Graham Has Played at Three Schools in Three Seasons

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The marketing of an NCAA Division I prospect is no small matter, as the supporting cast in the Michael Graham Family Tailback Tour can testify.

With an eye toward their son’s future in college football and beyond, Graham’s parents, Leanzo and Lucinda, have packed the family’s belongings and moved four times in the last two years in a quest to find an offense to showcase Michael’s running skills. A junior, he is attending his fourth high school.

Transferring for purely athletic reasons is generally discouraged in high school sports. The Grahams, however, follow their own plan.

“My parents do what is best for me,” said Graham, 16.

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But problems arose at each of the much-publicized first two stops--Santa Ana Mater Dei and Huntington Beach Edison. Michael had difficulty adjusting; his parents say they encountered hostility from the parents of some of his teammates, and they left at least one skeptical coach, Edison’s Dave White, in their wake.

Finally, the family decided that it was time to swing the road show around and head home.

“It’s our only child, so we were trying to do the best thing for him,” Leanzo said. “You do what you think is best. Sometimes it’s not.”

The Grahams lived with relatives in Pasadena over the summer while scouting for a program in the San Gabriel Valley, where Michael grew up.

They recently moved to Glendora so Michael, 5 feet 10 and 195 pounds, could play at Covina Charter Oak, a much smaller school with a lower-profile program than the previous two. It is like a homecoming for Graham, and his parents say it is the final stop.

“There were so many people who had their hands on him. . . . There were too many people involved in his future,” Leanzo said. “So what I decided was, once we got out of Edison, we’re going back home to the San Gabriel Valley, and I’m going to let (Michael) be a kid, because he hadn’t got a chance to be a kid.

“From the time he was in eighth grade, it was, like, Mike Graham the athlete, and as a father, I probably put too much emphasis on it, myself. So, I decided (Michael) needs to grow up . . . and be like everyone else.”

Lou Farrar, Charter Oak coach, got angry when a reporter went to the school recently to interview Graham.

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“He just came here to go to school and be with his friends and family,” Farrar said. “We don’t want to make any bigger a deal of it than that. I just want to see him have a chance to be a student who can concentrate on his studies and be a regular kid.”

The hitch, of course, is that Graham is not a regular kid. His talent sets him apart.

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The Grahams started scouting high school football programs during Michael’s eighth-grade year at Duarte Northview middle school.

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Although Michael wanted to stay in the San Gabriel Valley, Leanzo decided that his son would get the most exposure under Coach Bruce Rollinson at Mater Dei, a perennial parochial powerhouse.

During Graham’s freshman year, he commuted to Mater Dei each day from Duarte, a 45-minute trip.

When Rollinson strolled over to freshman football practice that fall and watched Graham play, he was ecstatic.

“We knew we had a real talent,” Rollinson said. “He has explosive speed and great balance, and there’s a characteristic in a running back that they know where the problems are going to come from before they happen and they get away from it. Some people call it vision.”

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In anticipation of displaying that vision for the Monarch varsity during Michael’s sophomore year, the Grahams moved to Costa Mesa to be closer to the school.

Graham’s varsity debut was eagerly awaited by the media, and Graham apparently believed the hype. After gaining 107 yards in 17 carries in a 21-0 victory over Anaheim Servite, he told a reporter, “I should have had 150 yards.”

Such cockiness did not endear Graham to his teammates. And Rollinson said that Graham’s tendency to showboat went against team rules.

“We want enthusiasm and excitement, and we don’t want anyone to draw attention to themselves,” Rollinson said. “Michael held that in check, but I think it was hard for him. It was in his personality.”

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Graham also began having other troubles. He sat out several days of practice because he was upset after one of his closest friends left school. Rollinson benched him for the first half of a game against La Canada St. Francis.

“There were no real big problems, but just a small series of infractions,” Rollinson said. “As the season wore on, I just think the boy was unhappy.”

The Grahams said that they received threatening, racist mail. They believe that the letters came from parents of Michael’s Mater Dei teammates, who they suspect were jealous of the attention Michael was receiving. Michael is black and Mater Dei is a predominantly white school.

The Grahams told Rollinson about the letters, but there was little the coach could do.

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After four games, in which Graham gained 560 yards rushing and scored six touchdowns, Rollinson and the Grahams decided a transfer would be best for all parties.

Football, of course, would remain in the picture.

“I didn’t come all the way down there for him to play in four games and then he didn’t play football anymore,” Leanzo said. “I knew I wanted him to at least finish the football season.”

So the Grahams got out their scouting notebooks once again.

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“Me and my dad got together and we listed . . . a couple schools I would go to and it was Edison, Fountain Valley and a couple City schools,” Michael said.

The main consideration was each team’s offensive line--"If they had a nice offensive line, how big the offensive line was,” Michael said.

“I didn’t care if they were juniors or seniors because I didn’t plan on staying anyway. It was just to finish up the season.”

Edison was the choice and Graham played six games there, gaining about 900 yards rushing, scoring 14 touchdowns and leading the Chargers to the Southern Section Division II quarterfinals, where they lost to Los Alamitos, 34-8.

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But because of the hype surrounding Graham and because of his unusual mobility, so to speak, Graham’s eligibility has been scrutinized by many.

“With a high-profile kid like that, everyone is going to check,” White said.

Despite the transfers to Edison and to Charter Oak, within eight months, the CIF Southern Section has no problem with them. The CIF rule at the time allowed eligibility immediately after such transfers as long as the family had moved into the new school district, and the Grahams always followed that guideline.

Besides Graham’s transfers, however, his grades have come under scrutiny. He was on academic probation when he arrived at Edison. He needed to raise his grades to be eligible for track in the spring. Graham had won the South Coast League 100- and 200-meter sprints as a freshman at Mater Dei, but never got off academic probation at Edison and was declared ineligible for spring competition.

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So Graham transferred again, to Valley Vista continuation school in Fountain Valley for the spring semester, where he raised his grades enough to become eligible for football this fall.

His academic problems were a source of frustration for White, Edison’s football coach.

“He had a tendency to be a little lazy, and he wasn’t going to his classes like he should have,” White said. “I wasn’t so much angry at him as it was that I knew that was going to hurt him in the long run.”

The elder Graham agreed.

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"(Michael) didn’t take care of academics like he should,” he said.

Leanzo said that Michael learned his lesson by being ineligible last spring and that he had worked hard to regain his eligibility.

“I’m telling you, this kid has come a long way,” the elder Graham said.

Charter Oak (3-0), which plays a nonleague game against Glendora at Citrus College tonight at 7:30, has reaped the benefits. Graham has gained 421 yards and scored seven touchdowns in 48 carries.

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But skeptics remain.

“There were problems at the first school and problems at the second school and there will probably be problems at the third school,” White said.


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