NIU-Western Michigan game a family affair for Grahams
By David Haugh – Chicago Tribune – Nov 17 2015
When an injury thrust Northern Illinois quarterback Ryan Graham into the starting lineup two weeks ago, his father, Dan, admitted his mind immediately raced ahead to Wednesday night.
“This was one of the first things I thought about,” Dan said.
This is Huskie Stadium hysteria for Dan and Robin Graham as the young men they raised oppose each other in significant roles when NIU is host to Western Michigan in a game between two teams tied for the Mid-American Conference West lead.
Ryan, a redshirt freshman making his second career start in place of the injured Drew Hare, is the resourceful red-headed quarterback with a strong arm and natural leadership skills. Corey Davis, whom the Grahams welcomed into their family before his junior year at Wheaton Warrenville South, is the African-American wide receiver with NFL potential on pace to become his school’s career leader in receiving yards. Two players who consider each other siblings relish in being rivals, at least for one night.
The offensive playmakers met playing Pee Wee football together. A year younger than Corey, Ryan played up a level because he was big for his age. Dan, a former NIU lineman from 1984-87 who later played for the Buccaneers, coached the team and one day gave Corey a ride home from practice.
“We dropped him off and he was like, ‘Can you pick me up tomorrow?’ And we were like, sure,” Ryan recalled. “Then he started hanging out at our house on weekends and going to high school football games with us. He was always around, my best friend growing up.”
Circumstances eventually strengthened their bond even more. Before moving in with the Grahams, Davis grew up the second-youngest of seven children living in a four-bedroom house. Space was tight and money scarce, nudging Davis down a path of uncertainty that would have made it difficult to fulfill the potential many saw in him. Too often he skipped school and scrounged for food. Davis’ older brother, Titus, a budding football star himself now on the Bills practice squad, found stability after moving in with the Joe Hall family locally. The Grahams offered the chance for Corey to do the same.
“There was a need and we were able to provide a home for Corey,” said Dan Graham, who became Davis’ legal guardian.
The gesture gave Ryan “the brother I never had.” The structure of the Grahams’ household established a foundation for Davis’ future. Not that walking away from his past was easy for a teenager to do — even if it turned out to be the right thing.
“It’s always hard moving out of your family’s house, away from your mom and dad, but I knew what I was getting into and what I wanted,” Davis said. “They were always family to me and everybody made it comfortable.”
Davis’ biological parents, Olasheni Timson and Michelle Davis, remain supportive and part of his life, suddenly full of promise that required a collaborative effort. No wonder Davis’ favorite word is blessed.
“They’re still involved and I love them to death,” Davis said of his biological parents, who live in the area. “It was an experience. I didn’t want to hurt my biological family, or the Grahams. It’s really a blessing to have two sets of parents.”
Corey assimilated quickly into a Graham home built around faith, his biggest brotherly-style squabble over who was faster. (Ryan now concedes.) The Grahams introduce Corey as their son with the same pride they do Ryan and daughters Brooke, Kaitlyn and Kelsey. Ryan occasionally still gets amused at the expressions of people after he refers to Corey as his brother.
“It’s interesting because the world has its prejudices and people who will judge you and think that can’t happen, there has to be something weird there,” Ryan said. “But I just look at it as an opportunity for people to know there are good things in the world. We did it because we love him. Maybe that can go down the line and people can have that same attitude toward others.”
It was Davis’ attitude that helped transform him from a borderline prospect whose only FBS scholarship offer came from Western Michigan into a MAC history-maker. Broncos coach P.J. Fleck, a fellow NIU alum like Dan Graham, saw what Davis overcame to qualify himself for recruitment and wanted that kind of competitor in his program.
“P.J. had to take a chance and I give him credit for that,” said Dan Graham, who owns a mortgage company. “Corey has matured personally, academically and on the field quickly and it has been very fulfilling to see him take his opportunity and never look back since he went to college.”
Since coming to Kalamazoo, only one active FBS wide receiver — Rashard Higgins of Colorado State — has more career receiving yards than Davis’ 3,340. Yet Davis’ numbers hardly tell the entire story, one that adds a fun chapter Wednesday night in DeKalb.
“The courage Corey has and everything he stands for and has gone through, it’s remarkable to see where he is today,” Ryan said. “It’s awesome that I’m going to be playing against my brother. Being on the same field together makes us so proud.”
Not any more than Mom and Dad.