All the neighborhood kids knew the deal.
Mike Clark made it perfectly clear when it came to his little brother. He’s not to be messed with.
“That just wasn’t allowed,” Clark said. “It wasn’t going to happen.”
Clark made sure of that, because he saw the potential for something special in Corey Graham.
But did they ever imagine this? Did they ever make it this far in the dream?
“In some ways, it doesn’t feel real to me,” Clark said. “It’s just amazing to think about some of the things we went through, where we came from. I don’t really know what I’m going to feel, what emotions. I’m just living in the moment.”
Clark’s feelings will crystalize today when he steps inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where he’ll watch the little brother that he raised play in Super Bowl XLVII as a starting cornerback for the Baltimore Ravens.
Not bad for a quiet, determined kid from the inner city.
“I was fortunate,” Graham said. “To be honest with you, it’s probably my brother. He made sure that I got good grades. He made sure that I went to the better schools. He made sure I was doing the right thing, working out, training. He’s the one that didn’t allow me to get caught up in some of the things that some of the kids get caught up in the city of Buffalo.
“There was a lot going on around me with my family and my cousins and some of my friends. But I wasn’t involved in any of that. I was on a basketball court or on a track or some type of camp, trying to get better and pushing toward my ultimate goal of playing in the NFL.”
He reached that goal in 2007, when the Chicago Bears made him a fifth-round draft choice. But Clark wasn’t there to celebrate that joyous occasion. He was in the middle of a five-year prison sentence for first-degree robbery.
“He got into a rough situation where he was trying to support his family and ended up not doing the right thing,” Graham said.
It’s easy to understand, then, what Clark means when he describes growing up in Buffalo as “a lot of ups and downs.”
“Everything wasn’t always peachy and great,” he said. “It just pushed me to be a harder person. I went through a lot of trials and tribulations, but it made me a tougher person.”
Price to pay
Clark, now 37, knew the life he was living then came with a price. But he felt he wasn’t left with much of a choice. He had Corey and their sister, Latasha, to look after — even though he was only a teenager himself.
Graham’s father wasn’t in the picture, and their mother, Patricia Gray, had her own struggles.
“My mom was trying to find herself. She was young at the time,” Clark said. “She went through bouts of what a lot of people go through. Bouts of alcohol abuse, a little bit of substance abuse here and there.”
That left Clark — who is 10 years older than Corey, and seven years older than Latasha — to provide for the family.
“I ended up in the streets,” Clark said. “My family, other family members, that’s how we came up, in the streets selling drugs or whatever,” he said. “I had to keep the lights on, keep food in the refrigerator. I had to do what I had to do at the time.”
He made those tough decisions knowing all the while that they would catch up to him.
“I knew at some point I was going to have to atone for what I was doing. I was going to have to pay my debt. If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t change nothing, not even the five years, because I did that from here,” he says, pointing to his heart. “All I wanted was for them to have a normal life and setting to grow up in. Not have to worry about food on the table, money, clothes or whatever.”
But far too many times, those worries consumed him.
“It was like, ‘aw man, we gotta get this bill paid, what are we gonna do?’ Corey could see it in me that I’m worried, stressing, but not trying to let them know,” Clark said. “I think that’s what propelled them to want a lot more. They got a real view of what the struggle is about, what the streets is about, you know what I mean? By no means was it easy.”
No matter where Clark was going, however, one thing was certain: Graham wouldn’t follow.
“We wasn’t going to let him,” Clark said, referring to himself and a cousin, Alonzo Scott, who was killed in a shooting two years ago. “It was a collective effort on our behalf to make sure he stayed playing football and doing the things he needed to do.
“Everybody in the neighborhood knew, ‘that’s Corey, no problems.’ Nobody got in the way of that, or tried to influence him and say ‘let’s go drink’ or do this and that. None of that.”
Graham stayed true to his brother, and to the sport he learned from him when he was just 5 years old.
“He was the one that put a football in my hand, showed me how to play, showed me what to do, what not to do, how to work hard,” Graham said of Clark. “I mean, he was the one who’s done everything for me.”
Graham blossomed on the field as a senior at Turner-Carroll, when he was selected to the All-Western New York first team after rushing for 1,406 yards and 22 touchdowns. He was also a starter on the Chargers’ Manhattan Cup championship basketball team under coach Fajri Ansari, and won All-Catholic track championships in the 100 and 200 meters.
“Corey worked hard in high school. Not only was he a good athlete, he was a good student. I think he had the second-highest grade-point average in his class when he graduated,” said his coach with the Chargers, Willie Burnett. “I knew he was going to do good things.”
“Corey was never a person to take a break or take plays off. He always wanted to excel,” Ansari said. “He always worked hard.”
Clark could see it, too.
“Corey’s always been a well-rounded, respectful kid,” he said. “To this day, if you got a chance to speak with his coaches, they all say he’s a pleasure to have in the locker room around the other players because of the type of person he is and what he does. He’s got the right attitude, the right mind-set all the time.”
That’s not to say there weren’t times when the brothers did what brothers do — fight.
“On the field, he would get tired of me screaming, ‘You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to make that block, you gotta make that tackle,’ ” Clark said. “He didn’t understand what I was trying to do. He understands now. It’s not just being the best athlete, but also being mentally smarter so you’ve got both things.”
Graham did have both. He carried an average in the high 90s at Turner-Carroll.
“Academically, he wanted to go beyond the expectations. He didn’t want to be just an athlete,” Ansari said. “He truly had an eye on the future, life beyond high school, and he recognized education was important for that to happen.”
”I knew I was getting into college regardless. I wasn’t like most of the kids in the inner city who were worried about getting into college,” Graham said. “Whether or not I was going to go to Florida State or New Hampshire, that I didn’t know.”
Burnett provided support
It turned out to be the latter. Graham accepted a scholarship from the I-AA Wildcats after consulting with Burnett.
“He was my mentor who continued to push me to be the best that I could,” Graham said. “He trained me and got me prepared. He was very important to me when my brother wasn’t there to keep it going.”
Clark was sent to prison at the end of Graham’s freshman year at New Hampshire.
Despite the trouble at home, Graham flourished on the field. He was a four-year starter and a team captain as a senior in 2006. He finished his collegiate career with 302 tackles, 31 pass breakups and 12 interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns.
With the help of Burnett, Graham ran a 40-yard dash of 4.35 seconds in his draft year. The Bears were intrigued enough by his athleticism to take him with the 168th overall selection in the fifth round. Although he was hampered his rookie season by an ankle injury, Graham established himself as a pro in his second year, when he started nine games and made 93 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Graham, though, would start only one more game in his Bears career. Fair or not, he was trapped in a special-teams role, partly by his own doing.
“I was a special-teams ace. It’s not like they just put that label on me. I had the attitude that if I’m going to do special teams, I’m going to try to be the best special-teams player in the world,” he said. “I was fortunate to accomplish that goal, to make the Pro Bowl on special teams and show that I was one of the best special-teams players in the world. And when you do things like that, they’re going to give you that label because that’s what you’re doing. But I knew and I hoped that the Chicago organization knew I could do more than that. I just couldn’t wait for an opportunity to show that I could do more than that.”
Chance to start
That chance didn’t come until this season, after Graham signed a two-year, free agent contract with the Ravens. Graham has started 11 games in a row, including Baltimore’s three postseason games. He originally came into the lineup when cornerback Lardarius Webb suffered a knee injury.
“I really think he’s probably always been a good player. It’s just he got an opportunity and he has showed what he had,” Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “I think he’s very, very quick. He’s very intelligent. He’s a very instinctive player. The guy is a good tackler. That’s what makes him a good special teams player, and God knows you can’t have enough of those guys in the secondary.”
“This has been an amazing ride. I wanted an opportunity to play on defense. I’ve not only had the opportunity to play on defense, I had the opportunity to make some plays and help our team win,” Graham said. “That’s what you want. You want a chance to show what you can do. I’ve been very fortunate. This year all around has been an outstanding year for me.”
Graham, 27, has been an iron man for the Ravens. He’s played 266 of 267 plays in three playoff games, which isn’t especially unusual for a cornerback. But he’s also remained a key special-teams contributor. He played seven snaps against Indianapolis, 15 against Denver and seven against New England on special teams, meaning he’s played 97, 109 and 90 plays overall in those three games.
The highlight of his postseason came against the Broncos, when he intercepted future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning twice, returning one for a touchdown and setting up the game-winning field goal in double overtime with the other.
“That moment for other people might have been like, ‘oh, he’s a backup and he’s in there, let’s see what he’s going to do.’ But we knew at some point he was going to make plays because he lives for those moments,” Clark said. “He doesn’t get too high, too low. He’s always going to be well prepared because he’s smart. We just felt like – finally. Finally, he got the opportunity to show everybody he is more than a special teams player.”
Trophies and family photos fill the dining room of his mother’s Forman Street home. An authentic, white No. 24 Ravens jersey is draped over a recliner.
It’s clear Gray is proud of her youngest son’s accomplishments, but not eager to brag about them.
“To this day, she goes to a football game, but she doesn’t really know about football and she doesn’t really care to know about football,” Clark said. “All she cares about is for him to stay healthy and to see him do what he loves to do. She could care less about talking about him to the media, because he’s just Corey, her baby.”
Clark looks through the pictures and points out all the people who have been a part of Graham’s journey, all of whom made it possible in some way.
“Some people never can get away from the situation because they don’t have the supporting cast. That’s what Corey had that was great,” Clark said. “A supportive cast and the backbone that was going to encourage and allow him to do whatever he wanted him to do.”
So, yes, life is good for Corey Graham. He married his wife, Allison, in 2010 and the couple has two young children, Chance and Cashmere.
And it’s good for Latasha, who has a Master of Science degree with a focus on administration from Canisius College.
Clark learning new life
“People think if you’re in the streets selling drugs, it’s for the money or the fame. I never did any of that for that. I did it to take care of my family,” Clark said. “That’s the main reason why every day that I sat in jail, I never felt bad or whined, because I knew this day was coming. I was just happy that I was going to get a second chance to be able to be around. For him and my sister to now show me how to live the right way.”
He admits that hasn’t been easy.
“You’ve got to learn how to live the right way, speak the right way ... something I should have done when I was 17, 18 years old,” Clark said. “You get a job and you’re starting at the lowest pay grade. I’m doing my job and somebody else’s job because they feel like they’re doing me a big favor by me having a felony and then employing me.”
Clark has six kids of his own, three boys and three girls, so he feels the financial pinch.
“Being the man and the head of the household, when you’re not able to do the things that you should or you want to do, it’s frustrating,” he said.
Graham offers his support, but Clark knows that must have its limits. When an athlete makes it as a pro, suddenly everyone who ever knew him is a best friend. Graham is making a $700,000 base salary this season — good money to be sure, but far from the exorbitant wealth presumed by some.
“When I first came home from jail, a couple people called me and were like ‘why don’t you call him for me?’ ” Clark said. “I had to understand that in my head, what’s good and what’s bad and know that certain people, you can’t call.
“When you bring in that financial status, everybody wants something. It’s hard to level out. We talk about it and talk back and forth, because some people won’t ever understand. You can’t please everybody. At this point in time he has to focus on what he has to career wise and everything else will take its course.”
Clark looks at the six faces of his kids, and at what Corey and Latasha have accomplished, and knows he can’t go back to his old ways.
“You have to change,” he said. “If you don’t change, if you do the same thing expecting different results, it’s insanity.”
Now he has a younger brother to look up to.
“When he was a kid, he used to be Mike’s little brother. Now I’m Corey’s older brother. It’s a total role reversal,” Clark said.
The extended family got together Friday night in New Orleans for dinner, and they’ll be in the Superdome today, including Gray, who has tackled her personal demons.
“She was able to overcome that because of the family, and because of constant love,” Clark said. “We’re not going to degrade you or oust you because you have your problems or whatever. No, we’re going to show you the love. I’m just as proud of her as I am of Corey because of what she was able to overcome and eventually do and be.”
Gray declined to be interviewed for this story, except to share the quote she passed along to her children: “Do your best, and God will handle the rest.”
It’s easy for Clark to think of all that’s happened, and conclude it is indeed destiny.
“This is the pinnacle. A lot of people don’t get to see the Super Bowl. This is something we talked about and that we dreamed about together,” he said. “The timing of it all, it’s like it’s in God’s will. This is supposed to happen, and it’s supposed to happen now. Because had this happened four years ago, I would have been in jail. We wouldn’t have been able to do this together. It’s happening at the right time.”