Graham taking advantage of opportunity
by Erich Hilkert
LINCOLN — A number of college coaches didn’t think Hunter Graham had the size to play football, but Larry Blakeney thought otherwise. Troy football’s head coach liked what he saw in Graham’s tape from Lincoln High School and decided to take a chance on Graham. For his part, Graham moved up from being a backup walk-on to becoming a scholarship starter.

“My favorite thing is: a lot of people told me that I was too small to play at their schools,” Graham recounted. “There’s a few surrounding schools around here, some bigger, some smaller, that said I was too small to play there. They didn’t give me a chance and coach Blakeney at Troy, he gave me a chance. That’s all I needed and I’ve made the most of that so far. That’s what I like the most: that I’ve overcome these things. I put in the hard work, and I’ve done something that not a lot of people get to do. That’s really big to me.”

Listed by the school as 5-10, 175 lbs., Graham may not have the measurements that the aforementioned coaches were looking for but he’s done enough at Troy on the field to earn a scholarship and a starting job as the team’s long snapper. The rising senior said his dad knew early on, given his size, that the position would be a good fit for him.

“I started playing football in the seventh grade,” Graham said. “My dad made me wait until the seventh grade. He just said I was smaller than most people, and he said ‘If you want to play on Friday nights then learn how to long snap.’ So, he got me going on that.”

Graham started out playing center in middle school, which gave him a basic understanding of being a snapper. He and his father went to football camps first in Atlanta and Chicago to give him more advanced training.

When Graham arrived at Lincoln High School his freshman year, he didn’t win the long snapper position by default. Graham said there were three long snappers, with the competition being older than him. Nevertheless, Graham competed and won the starting job. Graham started in the first game of his freshman season against Winterboro and played in every game for the rest of his high school career.

“I played all four years as long snapper,” Graham said. “That’s all I did. I was pretty lucky that I only had to do that. I think I have the best job on the field.”

Graham arrived at Troy as a walk-on. By his sophomore year, he was a backup to a senior and saw some game action. In his junior season, he earned a scholarship and became the team’s starter.

“It was a big step going from the backup to being a starter,” he said. “The first game was at Legion Field in Birmingham against UAB. We started off there in my first game as a Troy Trojan starter and we won. We went to a lot of cool places: we went to Neyland Stadium this past year, we beat Navy at our place, we almost beat Mississippi State, and so we played some good competition this past year. There were a lot of big games that I played in.”

Troy was leading Tennessee 48-41 with just more than three minutes left in the game, before eventually losing the game 55-48. However, Graham said it was the most memorable game of the season.

“It’s an honor to get to play in a stadium that big,” he said. “I think it’s the third biggest stadium in the country. Walking into that stadium, you’re like ‘Wow, am I even supposed to be here?’ It’s pretty cool, and that was an honor to get to play against a team of that caliber.”

Troy’s schedule will be difficult again this year, as the team will make trips to play three non-conference teams who played in bowl games last season in Mississippi State, Duke, and Mississippi. Graham is simply focused on executing at his position.

“I’m just shooting for all perfect snaps,” he said. “Maybe a few more tackles than last year. I think I had two or three last fall, and I’m going to shoot for a few more of those. It’s my senior year, so just live it up and have fun.”

Graham, who is majoring in business administration isn’t quite sure what the future holds. Regardless, a figure from his past remains with him to this day, having taught him lessons that extended well beyond the football field.

“He was kind of like my dad,” Graham said. “I grew up around the game of football. My dad was a high school football coach, and he was also a referee for 20-something years. Coach (Keith) Howard was a great coach, one of the best coaches in the state of Alabama. He taught me a lot about the game and taught me a lot about life, life first and foremost. He just ran a good program. We have facilities at this school that are second to none. The only other place in the state of Alabama where you see this is in the Birmingham area. They built this place, and I think it’s a good thing that our stadium is Keith Howard Memorial Stadium. It was good having him as a head coach, and I miss him a lot. He just taught me a lot about life.”
© 2013