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Tight end was open -- to helping brother

FOXBOROUGH -- When Daniel Graham first heard the sad news, he was prepared to walk away from it all.

He loved his life as a professional football player, and he was a first-round draft choice, no less. But if it meant that he could help his brother, then Graham was content to say goodbye.

It was October of his rookie year with the Patriots, 2002, when Graham learned that his brother, Jason, had two medical scares. First, there was a brain tumor, then he was diagnosed with kidney disease. After Jason had successful brain surgery, doctors told the Grahams that he would need to go on dialysis or have a kidney transplant in 3-4 years.

Tom Graham remembered how he and his wife Marilyn talked with all the kids -- Philip, Jason, Ebony, and fraternal twins Joshua and Daniel -- in their Denver-area home. They talked about how they would proceed, and the father remembers the poignant words of one of his youngest sons.

"Daniel stepped up and said, 'If my number is up, then he gets my kidney,' " he recalled. "There was some concern about that. Daniel is the type of person that if he determines what he's going to do, it's going to be a big fight for him to say no."

Reflecting on that night, the 28-year-old Patriots tight end recalled that there was no hesitation, despite resistance from his parents.

"This is something I do for a living," he said, "but there are bigger issues outside of football we're dealing with."

As it turned out, Daniel wasn't the best match for his brother. His mother was.

And on Tuesday, the long-awaited transplant is scheduled to take place. After playing in today's highly anticipated game against the Bears at Gillette Stadium, Graham will join his family at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis for one of the biggest days of their lives.

"Though we talk to a lot of people who feel there is a cloud over us, we have gone through that phase of it," Tom Graham said. "We're at the stage now where we are happy we are coming to a point of time where Jason's quality of life will be improved.

"The circumstances might not be most desirable, but the results we're hoping for are right ahead of us and anticipated."

Faith of the family
Tom and Marilyn Graham met when they were students at the University of Oregon, and they wed entering Tom's senior year in 1971. He calls it the greatest thing that ever has happened to him.

A linebacker in his playing days, Tom still holds the Oregon record for career tackles and was selected in the fourth round of the 1972 NFL draft by the Denver Broncos. Even when Tom's professional career took him to San Diego (1975-77) and Buffalo (1978), the couple always knew they would settle in Denver. What stood out to Tom was that the area was a great place to raise kids, better than where he grew up in Harbor City, Calif.

Growing up in the Graham household meant that the family unit always would stick together, and they'd be guided by a strong faith. That foundation is helping the Grahams through the trying times they are all living right now.

"Since I was little, it's always been God first in our family," Daniel said. "We put everything in his hands, and know he'll take care of everything."

Daniel wasn't surprised that his mother, now 57 and working as a cosmetology teacher at Aurora (Colo.)-based Pickens Tech, passed a significant number of tests to be approved as the best possible donor. Marilyn always had been a healthy eater, focusing on fitness and promoting that lifestyle to her husband and children. The family often joked about how much vegetable juice she would drink on a daily basis, and she ate fruit at almost every meal.

That already has led to some humorous back and forth between Marilyn and Jason.

"I told Jason that my kidney loves beet juice," Marilyn said, "and he told me to give it all it wants because it won't be getting any over there. That helped break the ice, and we're forming an even closer bond. It's a piece of us that we'll be sharing -- what's mine is his, what's his is mine."

Jason, now 33, remains touched that his mother has stepped forth as his donor.

"It may not have been a tough decision for her, but I'm really grateful she's doing it," he said. "No words can say enough to thank her, or anyone else who volunteered to do it."

When Marilyn filled out an initial donor form, she remembered one question specifically. It asked why she wanted to go through with the process.

"As cliché as it sounded, it's out of love, that's what it is," she said. "As I filtered through my own brain and looked at the what-ifs and how-comes, what I came up with is that it's an honor to do this for my son. There is a peace there, not a worry."

The procedure is scheduled to last four hours, and both Marilyn and Jason have been told their recovery time should be 8-12 weeks. While Tom said he has come to peace with the decision, he worries about Daniel.

"I think he's concerned that it's not just one thing on his heart, but his brother has to come out of this, and his mother has to come out of this, too," he said. "Surgery is surgery, it's not a play thing. Though it is highly successful, it's still surgery. I think we dealt with all the what-ifs 2-3 months ago, but I think he is still dealing with it.

"The one thing I talk to him about is to continue doing what he does and working to separate the external things from his game, and know the things he can and can't change, and those other things will work themselves out. This is something he can't control, other than saying his prayers."

Football as an outlet
As they have each Sunday for four-plus years, the Grahams will gather today in front of the television and watch the Patriots play. Seeing Daniel on the field usually makes for an uplifting day, especially for Jason.

Football is such a bond for the family that the Grahams considered scheduling the transplant for the Patriots' bye week.

"It helps because it's something to look forward to," said Jason, who has a son, Kendall, with his wife, Michelle. "With the family, we could always call each other, talk about the plays, and it took our minds off what we were going through, even if it was only for a couple hours. That kind of helped us get through it. It was therapy to watch him knock a few people down and let some aggression out. I think it helped us all."

Although just a few weeks ago, Tom remembered calling Jason before kickoff and the two couldn't talk because Jason was in so much pain. Last week was better, and Daniel gave his family plenty to cheer about, catching a first-quarter touchdown pass and drawing a key pass interference penalty, setting up the Patriots' second score in a 35-0 win over the Packers.

"I go out and play my best, knowing that in his hard times, he always was uplifted by watching me playing," Daniel said.

The brothers, who share a similar even-keeled personality, keep in touch on a regular basis.

"I think the fact I've had a positive attitude and positive outlook on the situation has helped him out a lot, too, and put him at ease," Jason said. "I let him know you have a job to do, and to go out and do it to the best of your ability. If nothing else, go out and play well, which will bring a smile to all of our faces."

That's part of the reason Jason didn't want Daniel to be on his donor list. He didn't want to see his brother give up football.

"A lot of people look up to him for inspiration and support as well," said Jason. "I know he would have done it in a heartbeat if he could have, and if I really needed him, I would call him next.

"It just so happens I don't need him at this time. I may need him down the road. It's been good to know he was willing to step up and get tested, and be ready to give his kidney if need be."

Marilyn described the last few days as the "countdown." By tomorrow night, the family will all be together, making final preparations for the transplant. The Grahams feel buoyed by all the support they've received.

"We all feel grateful for those that have stepped forward without being asked, from family members, to co-workers, to church members, people we've known a long time," she said. "It's been beautiful. There are a lot of relationships that as time goes on, you might not make as much contact as you want to, but a lot of those have come back together. It's been a reunion in some ways.

"For us, at this time of Thanksgiving, we realize we have a great deal to be thankful for."

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