Jeff Graham has tried to prepare his Trotwood-Madison football team for the Ohio Stadium experience, but he knows there is no substitute for the real thing.
“Once they get on that field they’re going to get emotional,” the third-year coach of the Rams said with his team preparing to play defending champion Akron Hoban for the Division III title at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“I told them, take a good five minutes, take a deep breath and absorb it all. You’re not going to be in front of 100,000, but you’re going to be in an arena that sits 100,000. So just take it in, soak it up, enjoy the moment and from that point on do everything that you did to get yourself in this position.”
Of course, Graham already knows what it’s like to play in the old Horseshoe on the banks of the Olentangy River.
After starring on both sides of the ball at Alter High School, he was a three-year starter at receiver for the Buckeyes from 1988-90.
Graham made the All-Big Ten first team as a senior, when he was named captain and chosen team MVP.
His 1,182 career receiving yards were fourth-most in Ohio State history when his career concluded, and they still ranked 14th heading into this season.
Alter coach Ed Domsitz, who is in his second stint as the top Knight, remembers Graham as “probably the best athlete I’ve ever coached.”
“He could have gone either way in college — football or basketball,” Domsitz said. “I think he loved both and enjoyed playing both but was able to see he might be able to make a living playing football.”
That he did, playing 11 seasons with five teams, including the Steelers, who chose him in the second round of the 1991 NFL draft.
Graham also played for the Bears, Jets, Eagles and Chargers. He caught 542 passes for 8,172 yards and 30 touchdowns in the NFL.
“It was fun watching him play at Ohio State and in the NFL,” said Domsitz, himself a Trotwood grad. “I haven’t talked to him this year. When he got the head coaching job at Trotwood, I sent him a note congratulating him, and he wrote back and said there’s some irony in this because you’re coaching at my alma mater and I’m coaching at your alma mater.”
Graham has continued the winning ways started by Maurice Douglass, a TMHS alum who coincidentally played 11 seasons in the NFL, too. Douglass left in 2014 to become coach at Springfield. His 13-year TMHS tenure included a state championship in 2011 and runner-up finishes in 2010, ’12 and ‘13.
“It was a great situation here,” Graham said. “I’ve got to give a lot of thanks to Maurice Douglass. Moe and I played together with the Chicago Bears. A lot of people don’t know our relationship. I’ve known Moe all my life. By me going to Chicago and playing in the NFL and him playing in the NFL, it was a good situation for us to come and coach. He gave me the opportunity to come here and be the receivers coach and then the offensive coordinator.”
Earle Bruce recruited Graham out of high school, but he was replaced as Ohio State coach after Graham’s freshman season by John Cooper.
On a conference call Monday, Graham expressed gratitude to both men as well as Woody Hayes, the legendary Buckeye coach who passed away in 1987.
“(Playing at Ohio State) was a great experience,” Graham said. “I met a lot of great people and still keep in contact with all my teammates and friends, so it’ll be a little emotional for me to see that.
“But this isn’t about me, it’s more about what our kids have accomplished and the work they put in this past offseason and the commitment that they wanted to put themselves in this position.”