CHICAGO — James Graham shares the same name — and athletic abilities — as his father.
Like his dad, who played basketball and track at Marshall, the younger Graham excelled in sports, especially track and football at Westinghouse. In the latter, Graham now plays defensive lineman for Illinois State, which over the weekend shocked the nation by beating Northwestern on the road.
The two have been close their whole lives, the older James teaching his namesake footwork, speed tips and different moves to evade opponents.
But those one-on-one instructions stopped five years ago, when Graham's father had a stroke while at work at ComEd, where he read electric meters in Humboldt Park, Garfield Park and other city neighborhoods. The stroke halted most movement on the right side of Graham's body and dramatically reduced his ability to speak.
But both Grahams said the stroke actually made their bond stronger.
"We still connect on a high level," the younger Graham said. "I have a great understanding of him. It's not hard to understand what he says even though he doesn't have the ability to communicate like he did before the accident."
Graham's father still attends all of his son's home football games, with his wife, Tammie, or daughter, Jasmin, driving him. He also watched the Redbirds stun Northwestern 9-7 on Saturday by a field goal as time expired.
"We used to do many things together, but since I had my stroke, I think we are closer," the elder Graham said in an email sent by his wife. "I don't go out much, but I make sure I make it to his games. I love him, that's my boy."
Said Tammie Graham: "In spite of that challenge, James' dad is his biggest fan and always has been."
Graham, of Garfield Park, said he's playing for his dad and his friends who haven't been able to leave Chicago's West Side. He said many of the people he grew up with are dead or in prison.
Graham said he was able to avoid the streets because of his parents, coaches and self-awareness that he wanted more in life. He said he never shamed drug dealers that hung out near his house — frequently giving them a friendly nod — but always moving on.
"Growing up in the city was tough, but it shaped me into the person I am today," Graham said. "It gave me the ability to be able to talk to everyone, to be able to connect with drug dealers and the gangsters. My parents instilled that to me at a young age, not to shame anyone no matter what they did, but to lead by example."
He did just that in the classroom and playing fields at Westinghouse, where Graham scored a 26 on his ACT and was a star running back and sprinter. As a freshman, Graham ran a 4.5 40-yard dash, and Westinghouse coach Bill McClinton said that speed was evident every time he was on the gridiron.
"The first time he touched the ball in a game, he returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown, and he was off from there," McClinton said of Graham, who rushed for 37 touchdowns his final three varsity seasons.
Graham had limited running back duties at ISU and was switched to defensive lineman in the offseason. The junior leads the Redbirds with two sacks heading into Saturday's home game against Eastern Illinois.
"James has made a flawless transition to the defensive end position," ISU defensive coordinator Spence Nowinsky said. "His speed, strength and agility allows him to be a force rushing the quarterback ... . James has a tremendous personality, one which makes him a joy to coach."
Graham said after graduation he wants to open a business that provides Chicago's inner-city kids with a place to play and learn after school. He said one of the best parts of the Illinois State campus is that "I really don't have to worry about my safety."
"I don't have to worry about turning my head at night just to make sure I'm safe," he said. "When you're here, you realize there's so much more the world has to offer."
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