Former UNH player Corey Graham has one eye on Patriots fans, the other on the Super Bowl
Baltimore Ravens cornerback Corey Graham returns an interception for a touchdown against the Denver Broncos in the first quarter of an AFC divisional playoff NFL football game, Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, in Denver. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)
Corey Graham (8) runs the ball during a UNH game in 2005.
(Courtesy of UNH)
Corey Graham didn’t play for Baltimore last year when the Ravens came to New England for the AFC championship game. But the Ravens cornerback knows what the crowd will be like in Foxboro for Sunday’s rematch. Graham did, after all, live in Durham for four years, surrounded by Patriots fans and starring for the University of New Hampshire before graduating in 2007.
“All of my roommates were big-time New England Patriots fans in college, and all of my friends still to this day are die-hard Patriots fans and Red Sox fans,” Graham said in a Wednesday press conference. “It is a big game for me, obviously. I went to college in that area. I was up there all of the time. I know what it is like. They have die-hard fans out there.”
When he made those comments, Graham was at the press podium at the Ravens
complex in Owings Mills, Md. The podium is normally reserved for the coach, quarterback and other stars. Graham has been primarily a backup and special teams player during his six seasons in the NFL, but not anymore.
After spending the first five years of his career in Chicago excelling on special teams but buried on the defensive back depth chart, Graham signed with Baltimore this offseason in search of more playing time. He was the No. 4 cornerback when the year began, but injuries to Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith gave Graham a chance to start midway through the year, and he’s kept the job ever since.
The 6-foot-1, 196-pound Graham started the final eight games of the regular season, producing 60 tackles and two interceptions. Then he had seven tackles, a half sack and two passes defended in the Ravens’ wild card-round playoff win over the Colts. And in last Sunday’s 38-35 decision against the top-seeded Broncos in Denver, he picked off Peyton Manning twice – Graham returned the first interception for a touchdown and the second came in overtime to set up the game-winning field goal.
The two picks by the once-unknown Graham did not come as a surprise to John Harbaugh. The Baltimore coach saw flashes of that ability while watching film from Graham’s days in Chicago, even during the special teams highlights.
“Corey is just a great football player, and that’s the thing. When you see guys play well on tape, whatever they’re doing, if they do it well, you’ve got a football player. So, we started with that,” Harbaugh said. “He’s got very good ball skills. He’s got very good feet. He’s got tremendous understanding of the game.”
The breakout performances haven’t surprised Graham, either. He may have been new to the press podium, but he spoke with the confidence of a player who belonged there.
“I like to think I can do a little bit of everything,” Graham said when asked to describe himself as a cornerback. “I recognize routes really well. I like to think I am physical. I can tackle really well. You can always get better with other things, but I am a pretty savvy corner, I would say.”
Those who knew Graham at UNH were familiar with that unflappable belief. Coach Sean McDonnell likes to tell the story about how it was Graham, only a sophomore at the time, who gave the Wildcats a lift with his emotional fire before their playoff game at Georgia State in 2004. UNH went on to an upset win that day, and the ’Cats have been in the FCS playoffs every year since, the longest current streak in the nation.
Graham’s confidence also came out when he was battling teammate David Ball in practice, or arguing with Etienne Boulay (who has been in the Canadian Football League for seven years) about who was UNH’s fastest player. And it was Graham’s self-assurance that drove him to prepare for the 2006 NFL draft, even though he was coming from a small school and missed the last half of his senior season with a broken leg. While Ball and Ricky Santos, UNH’s two biggest stars, went undrafted (Ball in 2006, Santos in 2007), Graham was picked in the fifth round by Chicago in ’07.
Now, six years later, he’s returning to New England. Even though Graham is from Buffalo, he talked about playing here with the mixed emotions of an athlete coming home. Of course he wants to win, and he knows his old college pals will root for the home team in the end, but there are some conflicted feelings there.
“Obviously, you don’t want to lose against the Patriots, especially when all of my friends are going to be out there probably with a Patriots jersey on,” Graham said. “It’s going to be a little different this week, but no matter who you are playing, you want to go out there and win. This is for all of the marbles to get to the Super Bowl, so this is even bigger.”
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)
Corey Graham’s bio box
College highlights: University of New Hampshire cornerback/kick returner from 2003-06. Earned second-team All-Atlantic 10 honors as a return specialist and cornerback in junior season (’05). Missed second half of senior season (’06) when he suffered a fractured left fibula in sixth game of season, but still became the 12th UNH player ever drafted when the Bears selected him in the fifth round of the 2007 NFL draft. Played in 42 games at UNH, all starts, and set school career records with 65 kickoff returns for 1,787 yards (27.5 avg) and three touchdowns. Intercepted 12 passes, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
NFL highlights: Chicago Bears (2007-11) and Baltimore Ravens (2012) cornerback/special teams player. Named to Pro Bowl as the NFC’s special teams’ player following the 2011 season. In 93 career NFL regular-season games, including 18 starts (eight this season with the Ravens), he has intercepted six passes, forced two fumbles and returned a blocked punt for a touchdown. Has played in three playoff games, including last week’s 38-35 win over the Broncos in which he intercepted two passes, returning the first 39 yards for a touchdown. The second interception set up the game-winning field goal in overtime.