It was his junior year at the University of New Hampshire, and an ankle injury had robbed Corey Graham of his speed.
His 40-yard dash time, usually between 4.3 and 4.4 seconds, was in the 4.7 range. For a cornerback with NFL aspirations, that’s akin to a pitcher losing 10 mph on his fastball.
Graham came home to Buffalo and had a heart to heart with his high school coach at Turner-Carroll, Willie Burnett.
“He’s like ‘Coach, this is never gonna work,’ ” Burnett recalled this week. “We worked out, we trained hard, and we got him back down to under 4.4. He’s just the epitome of what it takes to be successful. Corey never gave up. He still never gives up. If you watch him out on the field, he plays hard. He plays like it’s his last play.”
Graham is reaping the fruits of his labor this season as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, who meet the Denver Broncos at 4:30 p.m. today (Ch. 4, Radio 550 AM) in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.
“It’s a big stage. I get a chance to play against Peyton Manning. It’s a chance to play well against one of the all-time best,” Graham said by phone this week from Baltimore. “That’s what you want to do your whole life, that’s what you dream about, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Graham is in his first season with the Ravens after spending the first five years of his career with the Chicago Bears, who selected him in the fifth round of the 2007 NFL Draft. He played in all 64 possible games for the Bears over the past four seasons, but made just 10 starts over that time (none in the past two years).
Graham was, for better or worse, pigeonholed as a special teams player by the Bears. It’s a role he excelled in - making the Pro Bowl last season - but one he ultimately wanted to expand.
“Sometimes when you’re doing well on special teams you get that reputation and it kind of sticks with you. It’s hard to lose that reputation,” Graham said.
“When someone says, ‘You’re a special teamer,’ no matter how good you do on defense, that’s what you are. ... That’s what they asked of me at the time. I just tried to do whatever they asked of me. I couldn’t wait to get the opportunity to show everybody what I could do on defense.”
Seeking that opportunity, Graham signed a two-year contract with the Ravens last March. Baltimore lost top cornerback Lardarius Webb to a torn ACL in October, and shortly thereafter, Graham found himself in the starting lineup.
He started the final eight games of the regular season, registering 60 tackles, eight passes defensed and two interceptions. He started last week’s 24-9 wild card-round victory over the Indianapolis Colts as well, getting seven tackles, a half sack and two passes defensed.
“It’s been a successful season. When you go to a new team, you just hope for an opportunity to show what you can do,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to show what I can do and get a chance to play on defense. I’m just trying to make the best out of it.
“It’s a totally different system. It’s like night and day from Chicago. Everything’s so different. I feel lucky. I think I fit the system very well. I know what I’m doing. It’s one of those things, sometimes you get in the right system that fits what you do and you feel comfortable in it. I’ve been fortunate to find the right system.”
Burnett, who serves as a trainer for local high school and collegiate athletes, believed good things would come to Graham.
“I’m very thrilled about it. I thought he should have got this shot in Chicago, but you know how things work out. I just told him to keep his head up and things will work out for him and lo and behold they did,” he said.
“It shows how a person who really puts their mind to it, what they can do. I tell all my athletes the same thing. I use Corey as an example in a lot of the things I say.
“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. I knew he was going to do good things.”
Graham and Burnett have remained close since their time together at Turner-Carroll.
“Since he left school, we haven’t been out of touch for longer than a week,” Burnett said. “We have a really genuine relationship. He probably knows I’m going to text him in the next couple hours about this interview. He’s more than a friend.
“I’m so excited for him. Everywhere I go here in Buffalo, people are like ‘What do you think about Corey?’ I just get chills. I never, never get bored of talking about Corey Graham. In fact, some people say, ‘OK, coach, that’s enough.’ ”
Graham would return home over the summer during his time at New Hampshire to train with Burnett, a practice he continued even after reaching the NFL.
“He taught me how to play the game right from wrong,” Graham said of Burnett. “He helped me with my college decision. He was the one who trained me. Coach Burnett helped me so much.”
Graham plans to move his offseason residence from Chicago to Baltimore after the Ravens’ season, but still gets home to Buffalo frequently. His parents, Carey and Patricia, still live in the area. He’ll have a big cheering section today, undoubtedly led by Burnett.
“I’m just so proud of him, and I’m proud to give this interview about him,” Burnett said. “I’ve got chills. ... He’s a great guy and he deserves it.”