Old Vol Joe Graham leaves many memories

Marvin Westwestwords

The death of old Vol Joe Graham, 76, reminded those who remain of the tight bond, the brotherhood, of the Doug Dickey era of Tennessee football.

“Joe was a great teammate and everybody’s big brother,” said receiver Mike Price. “Joe was always inspirational. With the tragedies we endured, the coaches and the train, the loss of two teammates on the highway, Joe Graham certainly had a lot to do with our togetherness and success.
“The bond is just as strong today. Joe’s in a better place but he won’t be forgotten by any ol’ Vols of the mid-’60s.”

Joe Edd Graham Jr., born in Spring Hill, claimed by Fayetteville, arrived at Tennessee in 1963, Jim McDonald’s year as head coach. He was a starting defensive tackle in ’64. He was ticketed for greatness.

“Joe Graham was a remarkable football player,” said Charlie Rosenfelder, all-American guard. “He was recognized as the SEC sophomore defensive lineman of the year.”

Joe suffered a major knee injury in the second quarter of the last game that season, against Vanderbilt. He continued to play in the second half.

“That was his last game on two good legs,” said tackle Dick Williams.

Surgery turned into a disaster.

“Unfortunately, there was a tuberculous germ loose in the hospital room,” said Dick Ellis, best of Joe’s 15 or 20 best friends. “His entire life changed.”

Graham endured weeks of confinement and months of rehabilitation. He was told his football career was finished. It wasn’t.

“He missed all of 1965,” said Williams. “He was fiercely determined to make it back. He was finally cleared to play in the middle of ‘66. He came in for goal-line defense against Alabama. He got an unbelievable ovation.”

Dickey moved Graham to offensive guard, to block instead of being blocked, to protect the damaged knee as much as he could. Joe played despite pain. Toughness prevailed. He received an award from teammates for demonstrating great courage and still excelling in games.

“Unusual strength, speed and quickness,” said Williams. “He fit right in with that exceptional 1967 offensive line.”

It was exceptional – center Bob Johnson, guards Rosenfelder and Graham, tackles John Boynton and Elliott Gammage and tight end Ken DeLong.

Gammage and Graham were another set of “best friends.”

“They had too much fun for it to be football. Even on the field, they were a comedy team,” recalled Price.

Ellis tells story 1: Joe had wheels, sort of, a push-button 1960 Plymouth Belvedere that didn’t look all that good even the day it was washed. The gas gauge didn’t work but Joe knew he got about 10 miles per gallon. He knew higher math, that he could drive another 30 miles by adding three gallons that cost 20 cents each.

On a day Dickey decided to have a team meeting, the Plymouth ran a little short of fuel on Cumberland Avenue. Gammage was angry, then furious. Joe said he’d never seen Elliott so mad, even the day Joe swiped his dessert.

They’d have to run to the meeting. They didn’t make it on time. Dickey said he’d see them in his office. The coach was deep-freeze cold when he said “Never again.”

As the best friends walked to get gas to reactivate the Plymouth, Graham said he believed Dickey was serious. Gammage said “just shut up and learn to count to 30.”

Ellis tells story 2: He and Graham decided to visit former Vols in Florida. Stan Mitchell, Bobby Petrella and Frank Emanuel were playing for the Dolphins. There was a lot of closeness. Stan was from Sparta. Petrella married a girl from Tullahoma. Frank’s girlfriend was from Shelbyville.

Joe’s sister was in Daytona. They camped there. They went to Mitchell’s apartment in Miami, had a few beers, replayed the 1966 Gator Bowl and debated whether Paul Naumoff’s hit on Larry Czonka was hardest and loudest ever.

There was a knock at the door. To their surprise, it was Czonka. Yes, that hit hurt. The Vols celebrated the concession.

Czonka just happened to remember that Syracuse scored on the next play.

The Vols just happened to remember that Tennessee won the game.

“Great trip,” said Ellis.

Joe Graham was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles. Doctors doubted the bad knee. Joe earned two degrees at UT. He had a long coaching career at Columbia Academy, Columbia Central and Cornersville High. In his spare time, he was a mentor, natural leader and friend to everyone. He enjoyed fox hunting and cheering for the Vols.

Graham is survived by wife Valerie and sons Cody and Reed. A celebration of life well lived is planned for 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 28, at The Bridge Church (3005 Parkfield Loop S., Spring Hill). Visitation with the family will be 1-3 at the church. Obituary here.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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