Brandon Graham thought he was walking into a normal press conference, but quickly realized it was something else. There were few reporters, just the smiling faces of some of his people, and Derrick Gunn, the longtime Eagles reporter and host who has had a playful on-air relationship with Graham over the years.
This wasn’t a press conference. Instead, it was a celebration. Graham recognized the faces looking up at him.
“I knew something was up,” Graham said. “But I couldn’t put it together.”
He found out quickly: Graham is this year’s Eagles nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, a yearly honor given to a player recognizing his commitment to philanthropy and impacting the community.
Graham is Philadelphia’s current longest-tenured professional athlete. The Walter Payton award, he said, was on his radar but not something he thought he would ever win, let alone be nominated for. His former teammate Chris Long won the award in 2018 and is one of three Eagles (Troy Vincent in 2002 and Harold Carmichael in 1980) to win the award.
Graham would love to be the fourth but would consider it more of a bonus.
“I just do stuff because I know all the little things make a difference,” said Graham. “I’m just me. This kind of just stumbled across my desk really.”
To millions of Eagles fans, Graham might always be the one-time draft bust that morphed into a Super Bowl hero. For others, he’s that and so much more.
Thirteen years in Philadelphia have allowed Graham to set up roots with his family. His wife, Carlyne, has been the driving force behind Graham doing more work in the community, and his infectious personality has brightened the lives of many.
The Eagles invited some of those families to surprise Graham in the Eagles’ media conference room in that “press conference” in November.
These are their stories:
A 2013 weekend getaway to Disney World for the Merriweather family of four (a fifth was on the way) had rapidly turned into a nightmare.
Three-year-old Chase wasn’t feeling well and had been vomiting. Chase’s father, Chad, took him to an urgent care facility and then to a hospital, but Chase wasn’t responding well. His levels were dropping and he needed emergency attention.
Everything was happening fast, Chad said. At the emergency facility it was “sign here, sign there, we got to save his life.”
Chase tested positive for influenza, but this was worse than a normal case of the flu.
Doctors soon realized Chase was in septic shock and he would spend the next two months in a Florida hospital. The blood flowing to Chase’s extremities didn’t improve enough over time, and Chase’s limbs needed to be amputated. He also underwent brain surgery because 40% of his brain was bleeding due to his low platelet count, Chad said.
The Merriweather family returned to their then-South Jersey home (they live in Blue Bell now) on Christmas Eve, 2013. This past Dec. 14 was Chase’s ninth “Alive Day,” a day the family honors every year, the day they decided to have his amputations, and the day he started his road to recovery.
Less than three years into that recovery, a 5-year-old Chase got a boost in the form of a bear hug from Graham. The Eagles had gotten wind of Chase’s story, and produced a video on him as part of their “Road to Victory” series.
The Merriweathers were invited to an Eagles event, and Graham was there. That embrace, Chad said, changed a lot for Chase.
“For someone to genuinely reach out, really take interest in your child the way he has, and see what that real life, tangible impact is, words can’t describe it,” Chad said.
“I’m not going to say that Chase wouldn’t be where he is today without this or that, but there are certain things and certain impactful moments along the way that you can really point to that suggest, ‘These are the reasons why he’s so independent. This is why he’s so confident. This is why he is who he is.’
“And BG … has, without question, been a very significant part of his road to recovery.”
Chase’s mother, Chisa, has authored a few books in the “Chase Man” superhero series. Graham has read them to his own children and has shouted-out to the Chase UR Dream foundation.
“Nobody is defined by the situation they’re in,” Graham said. “It’s all about what’s in your head and how you handle it.”
Chad said he enjoyed seeing Graham interact with his own family that day during the award nomination. “You realize how much family means to him,” Chad said.
“Being a Black man, you look for positive role models that help exemplify what you want your children to aspire to be and how they carry themselves. BG is pretty high on the totem pole.”
‘Brother from another mother’
Joe Eitl wasn’t supposed to make it to his first birthday. He was born with Down syndrome and half a heart, and has had more than two dozen procedures. His parents, Peg and Craig, estimate he’s one of the longest-living patients of a Fontan procedure — a surgery that modifies the systemic flow of blood to the lungs without passing through a ventricle.
Eitl has spent the last 39 years defying the medical community. But two years ago, it looked like the defying was done. Joe was in end-stage heart and liver failure, and his local medical team suggested Peg and Craig start arranging hospice care because Joe was too high-risk for a transplant.
The Eitls weren’t satisfied. They discovered Vanderbilt University was willing to meet Joe and take on his care, so they left their Skippack home in the early stages of the pandemic, and drove to Nashville.
Joe spent five weeks in the hospital but still wasn’t a transplant candidate. He needed to get stronger.
That’s where Graham came in. The Eitls are “diehard” Eagles fans, Peg said, and Graham, especially after his Super Bowl heroics, is Joe’s favorite.
Originally arranged as a Cameo video, Graham, who calls Joe “DJ Dog,” sent Joe a series of three different videos to motivate him throughout his ordeal.
“He came home [from Vanderbilt] and I can’t tell you how many times we played the videos to get [him] off his butt and go for a walk,” Peg said.
Going for a walk was literally a drag, not just because Joe was tired and worn down, but because he had to drag an oxygen tank with him. The videos from Graham weren’t saying anything different than the messages Joe’s parents or his medical team would give him.
“But somehow, because it was his hero, it made the difference,” Peg said.
The Eitls returned to Nashville and Joe was placed on the transplant list in early November. Two weeks later, his organs were available. But his surgery led to complications, and Joe ended up spending seven months in intensive care units, five in Nashville and the final two in Philadelphia after he was airlifted.
Nearly two years later, Joe has no restrictions, but his long-term prognosis is unclear.
“If you’re asking us to bet on Joe, I’m betting Joe is going to be around for a really long time,” Peg said. “When you’re talking about will to live and mental toughness, no one exemplifies that more than Joe.”
Joe was among the first patients in the country with Down syndrome to undergo a heart and liver transplant, according to Vanderbilt. His story was featured in the documentary series “Last Chance Transplant” on Discovery+.
Those recognitions don’t stack up to Joe getting a chance to meet Graham at Eagles training camp earlier this year.
“When I say that was a moment of a lifetime for Joe, I’m not kidding,” Peg said.
“My son believes Brandon to be his brother from another mother, and that’s what he tells people.”
These days, he can tell Graham himself. Graham gave Joe his phone number — “I can overextend myself sometimes,” Graham joked — and Joe hasn’t hesitated to use it.
A few weeks ago, before the Eagles-Giants game, Joe texted Brandon one word before the game: “Sack.”
Graham had three, and Joe knows the first one was for him. After all, Graham has told Joe that he will be Joe’s “little brother for life,” and little brothers are known for making their big brothers proud.
“It makes me want to call him and surprise him with a FaceTime,” Graham said of Joe’s pregame texts. “It just lets you know how small those little gestures mean for some people.”
Decades of serving youth
Shelley Gandy was ready to call it quits, she said. She’d spent nearly three decades helping kids in and around Philadelphia thrive in sports and in the classroom through the Liberty Youth Athletic Organization, a Pop Warner organization the Eagles have long partnered with.
Gandy was at the NovaCare Complex in December 2018, unloading some items when Graham pulled up in a golf cart and surprised Gandy with a gift.
The Eagles were sending Gandy to the Super Bowl.
“I don’t know if you realize how special you made me feel that day,” Gandy told Graham at that mock press conference.
“It motivated me to get back out there and keep helping these kids,” Gandy said. “And I’m still doing it.”
Gandy said she was amazed during the Walter Payton award presentation that Brandon remembered who she was.
“He doesn’t know me from a can of paint,” she said. “That’s what I thought.”
“He’s different. He’s really all into these things. For a lot of these guys, they do camps with the kids and then you don’t see them. He’s always very personal.”
“When people talk to you, they don’t expect you to remember them,” Graham said.
“Some people don’t look at themselves as worthy. When I’m talking to people, I try to give my undivided [attention]. You never know who’s going through a dark time.”
Gandy said she talked to Graham about a number of topics during the award presentation, including the recent Roxborough football shooting.
“I don’t know what we’re missing, but we’re missing something,” she told him. “We want them to be involved with sports, and they were doing exactly what we want them to be doing.”
Liberty has long sent kids to national tournaments in Florida, and Graham asked Gandy how they were able to afford the costs. Gandy said Graham mentioned that his foundation might be able to help out in the future.
“A lot of people talk but don’t do,” Gandy said. “He’s one that will follow up on it. When he talks, he’s sincere, and you get that from him.”
Pushing each other
Matt Helm met Graham in Graham’s home state of Michigan. Both athletes — Brandon an NFL player and Helm a college baseball player — were training for something “big,” Helm said.
Graham for his next season. Helm to be able to walk again after a freak kayaking accident in 2014 in the Outer Banks caused a compression fracture of Helm’s T12 vertebrae and paralyzed him from the waist down.
Helm, who is from Downingtown, and his family moved to Michigan in the spring of 2015 so he could train at the Barwis Methods Training Center. Graham was there, too, and the two athletes motivated each other. Helm always appreciated how welcoming and friendly Graham was to him and his family.
“You don’t see guys act like that all the time,” Helm said. “You hope some of the athletes are everything you think they are and live up to the hype. He definitely lives up to it.”
As an athlete himself, Helm said he’s always tried to give Graham space and never be overbearing. He went to the Exton Square Mall once when Graham was signing autographs just to say hi. When Graham saw him, he jumped out of his chair to go say hello.
They’ve met since then, too, at an Eagles practice. And Helm’s dad got a kick out of how Graham remembered the name of Helm’s son, Hunter, who was only a month old when Helm had his accident.
At the mock press conference, Helm wanted Graham to know how much he’s appreciated their interactions over the years.
“I told Brandon, I couldn’t be happier that Brandon is one of the guys that Hunter looks up to,” Helm said.
“You want him to look up to the right people. He’s very fortunate to have a lot of good people in his life, but Brandon is always one of the top ones who come up.”
‘It’s what movies are made of’
Graham admits that it wasn’t easy at first in Philadelphia.
“I’m staying in the house because I don’t want to hear Philly tell me how big of a bust I am,” he said with a laugh.
He credits Carlyne with helping him out of his shell and getting him to start interacting with the community.
“She’s about being in the community and teamwork and helping out and partnering with people who do things that are part of our morals and what we believe in,” Brandon said.
The Grahams have the Team Graham fund that offers resources and opportunities for children and families in their hometown of Detroit. They plan on expanding that deeper in the Philadelphia community after this year.
What’s next for Graham in football is not clear. He has nine sacks this season but will be a free agent after this year. What he does know, however, is that he plans to make the Philadelphia area and its people part of his life forever.
“The Eagles family is a part of me. It’s who raised me in the NFL,” he said. “I’m always going to give back and do everything I can for this city and have fun doing it. I’ve had a great ride, ups and downs. Been on the bad side of it and now I’m on the good side of it.”
No matter what happens, he’ll always be on the good side. The strip-sack of Tom Brady made sure of that. For most Eagles fans, it was just the play that helped seal the Super Bowl.
For others, like Chad Merriweather, it was a full-circle moment. Chad had waited his whole life to celebrate an Eagles Super Bowl win. But he couldn’t have imagined it like this, Chase’s real-life hero making the biggest play.
“During that moment, watching Chase, watching the rest of my kids just gleaming in celebration that they actually know the guy who did that to Tom Brady … It’s what movies are made of,” Chad said. “You see the guy who has inspired Chase, and Chase watching him from afar. It couldn’t have been scripted any better.”
This content was originally published here.