This is such a pivotal time for Kenny Graham that I almost didn’t write this story for fear of jinxing things.

The former superstar San Diego Chargers football player has finally obtained full approval from the NFL Player Care Foundation for what they call the "88 Plan."

It’s a dream come true for the 74-year-old Graham. (Or is it my dream for Graham?)

The 88 Plan will cover all his expenses for housing and medical needs relating to his dementia, up to $130,000 a year.

That means he can get a permanent place in an assisted-living facility where he won’t have to worry about meals, utilities, medical care — anything.

For life.

One of the places the NFL Player Care Foundation contracts with in Bakersfield is Brookdale Senior Living out on Calloway Drive.

I tagged along Tuesday afternoon as Graham and his friend Mark Downing, who has been prodding the NFL to help Graham, toured the facility.

In a word: Fabulous.

Graham would be housed on the independent side of the compound with his own apartment and could come and go pretty much as he likes.

Meals in the restaurant are included in the cost, which ranges from about $2,490 to $3,400 a month depending on apartment size, etc.

Or, he could cook in his own fully equipped kitchen.

Then there’s the pool, the spa, the exercise room (to be used with doctor’s approval), free cable, free transportation around town, a post office on site, entertainment, computer and technology classes and on and on. There’s even a happy hour.

I almost didn’t leave.

And Graham loved it, too. While we were there.

He chatted up the ladies in the iPad class and looked longingly at the spa, recalling postgame days when he would soak until his battered body was relaxed as a noodle.

“This place has everything,” he marveled.

When marketing director Tamara Traynor showed us posters for upcoming musicals put on by staff and residents, Graham broke into a song from “South Pacific.”

Those of us who’ve come to know and care about Graham are elated by the idea of him living in such a safe, secure place.

Graham, of course, was contrary.

“I’m a skeptic,” he told me Friday morning.

He doesn’t like the idea of anyone making decisions for him, like mealtimes or when and how he lives. (No overnight guests at Brookdale and you generally have to be back by 4 p.m.) 

He also doesn’t want to be “isolated” far away from what he’s familiar with.

That includes downtown and the vacant lot where he was living on an abandoned couch under a fig tree when I met him in May.

His dream is to get a Rialta motor home so he’ll have a home and transportation all in one.

Then he wants to “acquire capital” by playing mail-in sweepstakes so he can build low-income apartments on his vacant lot for steady income.

It’s a wonderful dream.

But the reality is that his short-term memory is faltering.

And his decision-making isn’t the best in terms of his own safety and well-being.

He told me Friday that he’d likely go back to the vacant lot rather than to Brookdale.

I reminded him that Brookdale is free, the NFL Player Care Foundation is covering every dime.

"Oh? Oh, well, then if it's free, I should take two," he said, quoting himself. But it wasn't said with his usual gusto, more in a wistful, resigned tone.

I wondered whether this really is best for Graham. This maverick of a man who relished the battle of the gridiron and always went his own way.

A man, who, despite his 74 years and the fact that he hasn't held a baseball bat in more than 40 years, can step into a 70-mph batting cage and after three swings, smack a baseball into the next county.

He's a fighter. Cantankerous. Contrary. Legendarily stubborn. The very definition of "grit."

Maybe Brookdale is best for him. Or maybe it's best for me, his family and his other friends who fret over his health and safety far more than he ever has.

I just don't know.

As I said at the beginning, this is a pivotal time.

Because now that Graham has approval for the 88 Plan, the NFL PLayer Care Foundation will stop paying for the long-term hotel it has funded for him since mid-June.

He has about seven or eight days left.

Meanwhile, the Rialta motor home that some of his old football buddies have been working to buy and fix up won’t be ready for several weeks, maybe a month.

That leaves Graham facing a housing gap.

He understands that.

And, at first, he agrees Brookdale would be a good bridge over that gap.

But then he fights the idea.

Even when he understands the 88 Plan will cover the cost of any furnishings he needs — right down to a toaster and TV — he balks.

“What am I gonna do with all that stuff when my Rialta comes?” he asks angrily. “That’s just more burden. More stuff.

The options and their limitations frustrate Graham.

“I’m trying to solve my problems,” he says. “But I want to solve them in the order that I want to solve them.”

Then he looks to the sky.

“But ... the NFL is putting me out (of the hotel), so I guess I have to come here (Brookdale),” he says as he lets out a long, pent-up breath.

That was right after the Brookdale tour on Tuesday. By Friday, going back to his vacant lot seemed to have taken hold.

I reminded him the City of Bakersfield had problems with him living on the lot, which is surrounded by single-family homes.

“The city can’t put me off my own land!” he retorts.

But the city can take all your stuff, which it has done. And fine you, which it has done, I said.

“That’s true,” he says quietly. Again, that resigned tone I've never heard before.

It’s a crap shoot whether Graham will take the gift he’s been offered.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

Contact Californian columnist Lois Henry at 395-7373 or lhenry@bakersfield.com. Her work appears on Sundays and Wednesdays; the views expressed are her own.

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