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To a great man ...

 

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Tom Graham 

 

 

It was wrenching, heart-breaking, crushing. The Oregon

Ducks had just closed the 1971 season with a 30-29 loss to rival

Oregon State at Eugene's Autzen Stadium. At the middle of the field,

the Ducks' seniors -- healthy or injured and unable to play that

afternoon -- were honored after the final games of their collegiate

careers.

 

Middle linebacker Tom Graham, from Harbor City, California,

grabbed the microphone.

 

Defiantly, he announced to the somber remaining Ducks' fans:

"I'm going to be a Duck until the day I die."

 

Tom was wrong. A devout Christian along with his wife of nearly

47 years, Marilyn, Tom is going to be a Duck longer than that.

 

After a 15-month battle with brain cancer, Tom passed away on

May 30 at Chelsea Place in Aurora.

 

In Denver, he is better-known as a former Bronco who also played

for the Chargers, Chiefs and Bills, and as the father of former

Thomas Jefferson High, University of Colorado, Patriots and

Broncos tight end Daniel Graham.

 

My father, Jerry, was Tom's head coach at Oregon.

 

Tom had horrible eyesight and a lost contact lens was disaster.

He didn't have blazing speed. What he was, was smart and relentless,

and he was the best college linebacker I ever saw. Yes, he seemed

to make every damn -- sorry, Tom, let's make that "darned" -- tackle

and he loved to jump over centers to block kicks. 

 

Now, flash forward to 2001, more than 30 years after what for both of

them was their final game at Oregon before they -- serendipitously --

together moved to the Broncos in 1972, Jerry Frei as offensive line coach

and Tom Graham as a fourth-round draft choice championed by the

new Denver assistant coach.

 

Jerry Frei died on Feb. 16, 2001 in Englewood. The former Wisconsin

guard, who had a four-year gap between his sophomore and junior

seasons to be a P-38 fighter pilot in World War II, was 76.

 

I was at my parents' home when he was stricken and died.

 

I called Tom Graham.

 

A few days later, Tom officiated at my father's memorial service,

and Adam Schefter wrote:

 

 

 
 Shortly after his death, Frei's son Terry, a sports writer at The

Denver Post, called former linebacker Tom Graham, who played

under Frei at the University of Oregon before spending the 1972-74

seasons with the Broncos.

   "Tom, Dad just died," Frei told Graham, who had remained close

to his former college coach. "He didn't say, "My dad,'" Graham

recalled Wednesday, during the service that he directed. "He said,

"Dad.' And I felt like my dad died."

 

 

 

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Tom Graham, Dan Fouts, Ahmad Rashad

 

Tom and Marilyn Watkins were married as students at Oregon.

 

They bought a home in southeast Denver when Tom was with

the Broncos and never sold it. After Tom was traded, he and

Marilyn rented the home during the season to young and single

defensive back Steve Foley. When Tom came to Denver as a

visiting team player and went to check it out and came across

a mess that would have embarrassed the residents of "Animal

House" -- which was filmed in Eugene, albeit as a 1978 release

 -- he declared to Foley he would kill Foley ... and then Marilyn 

would kill him again. 

 

Foley made sure the house was cleaned up before the Grahams moved

back in.

 

Tom and Marilyn's five children were Philip, Jason, twins Daniel

and Josh, and daugher Ebony. Their faith remained undiminished

when Jason died at age 38 in 2011. Of brain cancer.

 

My 2007 story on the Grahams 

 

I'm not the only one to note this, but Tom was an energetic idea

man. He got a license from the NFL for team-themed vehicle air fresheners

and his company office was on Brighton Boulevard, just south of the

Denver Coliseum. I'd meet him there and we'd go to lunch in the area.

During one visit, I interviewed him for a Fox Sports Rocky Mountain

feature.

 

As we set up, the cameraman -- "Crash" -- noted he was a track

and field fan and said he was curious, how did the prominence of

charismatic Ducks distance runner Steve Prefontaine compare to

that of the star football players of that era, including Tom, Dan

Fouts and Ahmad Rashad?

 

"Oh, it wasn't even close," Tom said.

 

"Really?" asked Crash. "I thought Pre was big, too."

 

"No, you don't understand," Tom said. "We weren't even close to him."

 

And Tom laughed. That deep, guttural Tom laugh.

 

A visionary, Tom had other Broncos-related ideas, too. He even

registered them with the state. Orange Crush 2.0. No Fly Zone.

 

Over the past 15 months, Tom fought.

 

 It was heart-breaking when the news came that after surgery,

the cancer had returned. But Tom didn't give up, and most of all,

he didn't lose his faith ... and his love for Marilyn, his family and

his friends. So many friends. 

 

Those of us fortunate enough to be among this friends passed

through, and it was thrilling to see his eyes light up in recognition. 

In my case, I was always representing my late father, my family

and his former teammates. We would talk about Duck days, and

Tom got a kick out of remembering -- and telling other visitors --

that my father's most colorful language to his players was, "Kick 

their fannies." It became our code word.

 

I'd tell Tom he was a fighter, he was kicking their fannies. 

 

I visited him -- not often enough -- at home, at Porter Hospital

and at several care facilities, including private home care and

ultimately Chelsea Place, where he mostly was among Alzheimer's 

patients and became Tommy, a friend, a former Bronco, a champion 

among the patients. In April, Marilyn sent me a touching video of

Tom on a Chelsea Place van, explaining the meaning of Easter

to his fellow residents and the camera.  

 

After most visits, I updated my siblings and also a few of Tom's Duck

teamates around the country, and they would pass along the latest

in what amounted to relayed communication. Among those who passed

through Denver for visits were ex-Duck wide receiver Bob Newland,

who had a long career with the Saints, and a former Oregon basketball

star of that era, Larry Holliday. Larry got tired of me telling other

visitors that Holliday, a 6-foot-3 forward, outjumped Kareem-Abdul

Jabbar to open a half at McArthur Court. (True story. Some things

you never forget.)

 

On good days, Tom would herald a thought by pointing. Not at you,

just pointing. Here came a Tom statement, an idea, perhaps a question. 

Yes, given that I had written many stories about CTE in football players, 

mostly involving figures from my books, we talked about that. Tom 

wasn't accusatory or bitter, he was just wondering.

 

We had no answers. 

 

For a brief time early in his struggle, I was planning to do a story

for a newspaper on Tom's battle. Marilyn and I talked about it,

hoping it would be an upbeat story of a great man fighting. But

ultimately, Daniel and I agreed I'd hold off, to keep the struggle -- 

widely known among those in the football community -- relatively

private, at least until, well, later.

 

That was fine with me. I wasn't there for a story. Though I would

be proud to tell it, that's not why I was there.  

 

On Tuesday, May 30, I texted Marilyn and apologized for not

getting by that Memorial Day weekend or that day, as I had intended,

but said I would visit in the next couple of days.

 

A little later, she replied: "Terry, Tom stepped into GLORY this

evening a little before 8."

 

I was designated an honorary pallbearer. 

 

Before the funeral on June 9 at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church,

I had great chats with others present from Tom's Eugene and Broncos

past, including Larry Holliday (I told the story a few more times); former

New York Giant George Martin, who entered the Ducks program as a

freshman when Tom was a senior and noted that Tom and Marilyn's home

was a gathering point for the Ducks' young players; and Eugene Pastor

Michael Hilty. Dan Fouts, Rich Ackerman and Jim Figoni represented

Tom's Oregon teammates.

 

Many of Tom's former Bronco teammates were present too, including

Haven Moses, Randy Gradishar and Claudie Minor (and many more...). 

 

Tom was -- is -- a great man, with a wonderful living family and a faith that won't be

extinguished. More of his story is in the pamphlet from his service below.

 

I always will love him. And his family.   

 

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Tom Graham, Ahmad Rashad, Bob Newland,

Tom Blanchard. That's Hayward Field behind

them. 

 

 

 

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On the Oregon campus in 1970:
Tom Graham, Tom Blanchard,
Ahmad Rashad, Bob Newland 
 
 
 

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Bob Newland visits Tom Graham in Denver this spring.

 

 

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Tom's final weeks ... with Marilyn 

 

 

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Tom and Daniel. Note the Fighting Ducks T-shirt. Tom's

former Oregon coach, the World War II fighter pilot,

coined the since-reprised nickname in 1967.   

 

 

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Tom's coach 

 

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