RCW: The Perfect Number
Walk-on cornerback Chevy Graham went on a journey to earn a jersey number at the University of Kansas (and a scholarship), but when his world was turned upside down he realized it was more than just a number.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Straight out of the Declaration of Independence, the first two unalienable rights are clear. An individual has the right to live and they have the right to be free. But what exactly is the right to a pursuit of happiness?
It becomes hard to understand because this pursuit is different for everyone. Although the details are unique to each individual, this quest often consists of a series of events to reach one’s goals and become the best version of themselves possible. This idea holds true for senior cornerback Chevy Graham. This is his pursuit. The pursuit for a number. A number on a jersey.
Growing up, Graham gained an appreciation for football as he continued to be exposed to the game. Throughout his life other sports made an appearance, but it was football that became his one true passion.
“It was always football that stuck with me,” Graham said. “Everywhere I have lived, like Indiana and Pennsylvania, high school and middle school football was serious.”
Coming out of high school, he did not have any offers to take his football career to the next level as he was often overlooked due to size He constantly felt overlooked and put down when it came to the game. But in his mind he knew that he had what it takes to earn a number. He had something to prove and no matter who or what tried to stop him, he was going to prove it.
“A lot of people said that I wasn’t good enough,” Graham said. “They said I couldn’t do things or that I was too small and not fast enough. I used that as a chip on my shoulder and always felt that I had something to prove. I went on a journey to work really hard and from that point on it was just a constant, consistent work ethic that empowered my mind.”
As a new graduate, Graham knew that in order to continue playing football he was going to be required to work harder than ever before. Spending his freshman year at home in Pennsylvania, Graham continued his journey taking classes at a local community college. His journey became a lifestyle dominated by hard work ethic, which may not even be enough to describe it.
With nowhere to workout, Graham asked his mother for a gym membership. She kindly offered to do what she could, but told Graham that he was going to have to chip in. Dedicated to the pursuit ahead, Graham assured his mom that if she would get it started, he would find a way to continue to pay for it.
“The first thing I asked my mom for my birthday was a gym membership,” Graham said. “From July 2012 to May 2013 I was in the gym two times a day. I would go in the morning and after work. I was working at Chick-fil-A 40 hours a week and taking 15 credits in school. I did it everyday.”
When talking to Graham it becomes obvious that this impeccable work ethic is a common theme in his life. The son of parents who are from Jamaica, work ethic is something that Graham developed from day one. As immigrants, they were forced to work hard on a daily basis. This mentality was seen by Graham while growing up and resulted in his desire to emulate the behavior.
“My parents are from a third-world country,” Graham said. “So growing up they always instilled hard work in me. You always have to work a little bit harder, especially not being from America, to make a name for yourself. So growing up and seeing them work hard inspired me to make sure that I do the same thing. I want to make my parents proud and in order to make them proud I feel like hard work is definitely something they will be able to go back on and say ‘Wow, the things we taught him and the things that he is doing is a mirror reflection of us.'”
Along with an incomparable work ethic, Graham explains that it is impossible to get anywhere if this work ethic is not an everyday thing.
“If you’re not consistent in everything that you are doing, there is no point in doing it,” Graham said. “Coach David Beaty always tells us you’re only as good as your next. I use that saying and it’s true. I could wake up today and be good, but I could wake up tomorrow and be mediocre and that’s not good enough because there is always someone else out there also working hard. So I have to work hard consistently in order to make sure I get the results that I desire in the long run.”
Continuing to pursue his number, Graham decided it was time to explore his options. He applied to the University of Kansas and once accepted, knew that he had a foot in the door. Graham enrolled for the fall of 2013 and made the trek to Lawrence, another step in his quest.
“I wanted to join the Kansas team because I wanted something different,” Graham said. “I always saw the Jayhawks growing up. From the East Coast everyone was like, ‘Oh well that’s a leap.’ Sometimes it’s necessary to take the leap in order to get opportunities.”
Now at KU, Graham knew he could not let up in his pursuit. The idea of putting on a KU uniform was now that much closer, and he could see it.
“I was in the stands at every home game. I was just envisioning that maybe one day I will be out there. Every game I was there,” Graham recalled.
As he studied the numbers on the scorecard, his motivation continued and the hard work did not stop. Graham contacted the coaching staff, who was under the direction of Charlie Weis at the time, and was invited for a tryout. Graham knew that to earn a number he had to do whatever it would take in order to set himself apart from the others.
“I was at the rec center every night after class,” Graham said. “It was tiring, but I was there everyday. Shout out to the StairMaster. I didn’t know what to expect. Your first impression is your last impression. I knew I needed to stick out from the rest.”
After constant hard work for countless hours, it was time for Graham to show everyone what he brought to the table. He put on his pads, went out to the practice field and exemplified what it really meant to work hard. A few days later, Graham got the news.
“After I heard I made it, everything lifted off right then,” Graham said. “All those long nights and two workouts a day, and I was able to breathe for a second. It is something that will definitely stay with me for the rest of my life. But I knew it was just another foot in the door. I wasn’t done.”
Now, able to sport a number 36 jersey on game days, Graham did everything he could in order to make the most of his opportunity. While the motivation to make his parents proud was one factor in his success, it was obvious that Graham’s life was centered on his pursuit.
“In life no one is ever going to give anything to you,” Graham said. “So for me it was always the idea that if I challenge myself now, no matter what someone throws at me in the future, I will be able to handle it in many different ways. I know that growing up and in the future I will always have to work hard.”
When Graham first arrived he was a running back and was far down on the depth chart. He moved over to the defense as a cornerback to get some reps as a scout team player, with no expectation of ever making a contribution. Again overlooked.
He refused to become complacent by just reaching the goal of earning his number. Graham became a student of the game, constantly asking questions and trying to better himself.
“Every single day Chevy Graham walks into my office at 7 a.m.,” defensive coordinator Clint Bowen said. “You can set your clock on it that at 7 Chevy is going to walk in. And he doesn’t just walk in like ‘Hey Coach, what are we doing today?’ He has notes from what had happened the day before. He has it drawn up, he has questions about the opponent. He shows up with legitimate thoughts and it’s pretty impressive. He gets out of bed, his feet hit the ground and he runs.”
Graham made it onto the field just four times his first season in 2014 on special teams, but in his mind, this was not enough. The next season, Graham saw time in 11 of 12 games. He recorded 28 tackles and made significant contributions. This time he would not go unnoticed.
“In the end, through what is an amazing work ethic, he has worked himself into a position where last year he was a major contributor on our defense,” Bowen said. “He is non-stop working physically and mentally. The guy is a remarkable story.”
Along with his plate being full with practice and games, Graham is pursuing a degree in chemical engineering. And just like in all other aspects of his life, Graham implements his work ethic to be the best he can. His dedication to learn has resulted in two Academic All-Big 12 honors and a spot on both the Big 12 Commissioner’s honor roll and Athletic Director’s honor roll.
As a walk-on Graham was paying his own way through school. But like everything else in his pursuit, his hard work paid off.
“In August 2015, Coach Beaty gave me a scholarship and said I earned it with all of my hard work,” Graham said. “A while back I told my mom that I was going to get a sports scholarship one day so that she wouldn’t have to pay for school. When I called her she didn’t believe me because I didn’t sound excited. It wasn’t that I wasn’t excited, it was just one of those moments where everything paid off.”
Graham was now on scholarship, a key contributor for the team and had his athletics in check. It seemed that the pursuit for his number was finally over. He finally made it. But as fate would have it, the pursuit for the right number was not yet complete. Out of the blue, tragedy struck Graham.
“I remember it vividly. We played Oklahoma on Saturday and we had a normal day after a game. Then Monday came, November 2, 2015. I was waking up for morning weights and my mom was calling. I couldn’t help but think it was too early. I picked up the phone and she said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this but Chelsie is dead.'”
Graham’s 14-year-old sister had just passed away.
“I didn’t know what to do. I was in my routine and a wrench just moved everything around,” Graham said.
Although many miles now separated them physically, Graham had grown even closer to his sister since moving to Lawrence to play football.
“When I came out to school is really when my sister and I started to get closer,” Graham said. “When she started to get older. Growing up, we were always close. We always did things together.”
Not only did Graham lose his sister but he lost his No. 1 fan.
“When I started playing football, she started watching me a lot more,” Graham said. “That’s when we got really close. We would text each other and she would send me pictures that she found when I had a good game and stuff like that. It started to become a really deep sister and brother relationship. Especially when football started to materialize a bit more.”
He knew that he needed to be back home with his family to grieve. Graham hopped on a flight and made his way back to a grieving family. But this trip was not like any other.
“In the moments being at home it was different,” Graham said. “Usually my sister was just running around the house. If things weren’t shaking, she was either coloring something or sleeping. You read about these things or see them on television, but you never think you’re going to lose a sibling.”
But Graham’s time at home would be short lived. He felt that in order to honor his sister he needed to be back in Lawrence as she had been with him through his pursuit.
“She watched my games every week,” Graham said. “That’s really what she would do. She would record it for my mom and dad. So I felt like that was the best way to do something for her, to go back and do what she loved to see me do.”
Graham’s remarkable story is not just that of someone who worked hard and became successful. It is not just the pursuit of a number. But instead, his story represents the pursuit of the right number. Every day, Graham is now blessed with the presence of his sister as he wears the perfect number.
“I used to be number 36 but I changed to 14 because that’s how old she was when she died,” Graham said. “Every time I see that number 14 it is something monumental to me. Every time I put on that jersey and go out on that field I’m playing for someone, and that’s my sister. It gives me a hidden advantage. It is an energy that’s hard to describe, but for me it is very powerful to know that I am playing for her.”