Befriending Kenny Graham isn’t a one-and-done kind of thing.
You’ve got to be in it for the long haul.
His friends say they’re ready for that as they try and help the former all pro defensive back who once played for the San Diego Chargers and now lives on a vacant lot under a fig tree in Bakersfield.
It will not be easy.
Of course, nothing worthwhile ever is.
I first introduced you to Kenny, 74, on May 31 when I told you I couldn’t give you his full story because I didn’t know it yet.
Well, here’s the next installment.
“Kenny Graham is no joke,” said the man on the phone. “He could be one of the best athletes who ever came through Santa Monica High School.”
The man was Richard Templeman who read about Kenny and immediately called to give me more information and see if he could help.
“We were very, very good friends, all the way back to Little League,” Templeman said.
They remained friends through Kenny’s pro football years and Templeman said it was absolutely true that Kenny was blacklisted for helping other players.
“He would come through town and we’d have drinks every so often and he told me the horror stories of what they were doing to him.”
Kenny’s “crime” was helping a defensive lineman named Houston Ridge get an attorney after Ridge suffered career ending injuries.
“Sid (Gillman, the Chargers head coach and general manager) told Houston he could go to the cripple aid society. The cripple aid society!” Kenny recalled after I told him about talking with Templeman. “I said, ‘No. Houston you come with me. And I got him a lawyer.”
Ridge filed a class-action lawsuit against the Chargers in 1969 alleging the injuries stemmed from steroids and amphetamines issued to players by the team.
He settled for $250,000. Ridge died in 2015.
In retaliation for helping Ridge, Templeman said, Kenny was cut from the Chargers in 1969.
“He came in at the start of the season and Gillman and another coach told him not to bother unpacking, he’d been traded to Cincinnati. Kenny didn’t know why.”
As a Bengal, Kenny played for renowned coach Paul Brown, who gave Kenny the same treatment Gillman had.
“He came to find out there was an unwritten rule that if you were traded from Gillman to Brown or vice versa, you weren’t going to make the team because the league did not want rabble rousers,” Templeman said of what Kenny had told him at the time. “And that’s how he got blacklisted, for helping a friend.”
“I had to!” Kenny insisted of what he did for Ridge. “He was my lineman. I was the defensive team captain. I relied on him. He got the big guys and I went after the little guys. They (the Chargers) wouldn’t treat him, or compensate him. Nothing. They just used you and threw you out like an old rag.”
That’s why when Kenny dislocated his shoulder and had surgery in 1967 or 1968 (he can’t remember which), he strapped his left arm to his side and kept on playing — the entire season.
“I didn’t wanna lose my job!”
How could he run, catch and tackle in that condition?
“I still had one good arm,” he said, as if that should be obvious to any idiot.
Amazingly, he was named a pro bowler in both ‘67 and ‘68 so whichever year the injury happened, his play was outstanding even with a bum arm.
You have to respect the pure determination that must have taken.
THERE’S THAT GLITCH
Which brings us back to today.
I’ve been following Kenny for a while now, ever since Mark Downing, a local website designer and waiter at Sorella’s, brought him to my attention.
Downing met Kenny at the downtown post office where Kenny spends hours every other day or so going through reams of mail, mostly sweepstakes that he hopes will “hit it big” for him.
Downing realized who Kenny was and felt he might be eligible for benefits from the NFL under recent lawsuits over CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy — repeated brain injuries.
Downing has also tried, and failed, to convince Kenny to move off the vacant lot into an apartment, which he can afford with the small pension he receives from the NFL and his Social Security.
Downing’s even gone so far as to find several affordable spots for Kenny.
But Kenny won’t budge.
He sees nothing wrong with his old couch shaded by blankets hung on the fig tree.
“I’ll wait for a cool breeze,” he says if you mention the heat.
“I got my dogs,” he answers when you ask about the cold.
“That’s what the blankets are for!” he tells you if you bring up rain.
When it comes to that property, there’s a glitch in his thinking.
The vacant lot where he lives was left by Kenny’s father, William Graham.
Growing up, Kenny didn’t have much contact with his dad, who he said was “run off” by his mother’s family for getting her pregnant at a young age.
Kenny stayed with his mom, aunts and grandmother in Santa Monica while William Graham moved to Bakersfield and started another family years later.
So that land, which he owns free and clear, means a lot to Kenny.
His plan is to win a bunch of money through those mail sweepstakes, buy a Rialta motorhome and build low-income apartments on the property, which he will leave to his children.
Meanwhile, he thinks it best to stay on the lot under the fig tree to save on rent and keep the property from becoming a dumping ground.
“We’ve tried for months, years,” said his daughter Danielle Graham Sargent who lives in Sacramento, of the family’s efforts to get Kenny off that lot. He’s been there close to three years, she said.
But he refuses.
Kenny has always been stubborn, Sargent said. But nothing like this.
“I think maybe the brain injuries have exacerbated that to the 10th degree.”
Aside from the obvious safety and sanitary issues of living on a dirt lot, the city is breathing down Kenny’s neck.
Code Enforcement has already confiscated his possessions once and has another abatement order it could enforce at any moment.
“Let them come!” Kenny says of impending city action. “I’ll throw ‘em off my land.”
OUT OF THE PAST
“Oh yeah, he was always kind of cantankerous,” chuckled Howdy Miller, another of Kenny’s old classmates who actually lives in Bakersfield.
Like Templeman, Miller has known Kenny since before their voices broke.
They met in Little League and have been friends ever since.
“We grew up together.”
Miller read Kenny’s story and couldn’t believe how he was living.
Neither could Cliff Goodrich, who played on teams against and with Kenny from Little League through high school.
“If you talk to anyone who saw Kenny in action in high school, it was like men against boys,” said Goodrich, an incredible athlete in his own right. Kenny made all southern CIF in football in 1958 and ‘59 while Goodrich excelled at baseball.
“He was a wide receiver and virtually unstoppable. A blind person could see Kenny would succeed in anything he chose.”
Goodrich, Miller and Kenny met up last week at Sorella’s and sat for hours swapping old stories.
The camaraderie and trust was instantaneous.
“Baby, these are my friends,” Kenny gushed to Sargent who came down from Sacramento for the reunion. “I came up with these guys.”
Then Goodrich got down to brass tacks about the vacant lot.
The old teammates talked about getting Kenny out of the city’s line of fire, moving into an apartment, pursuing a case against the NFL and achieving Kenny’s dream step by logical step.
Yes, Kenny nodded.
“You make a lotta sense,” he told Goodrich. “That makes a lotta sense.”
BACK AT THE P.O.
I grabbed a coffee and popped into the post office Friday morning.
There was Kenny, going through his mail.
“Hey lady!” he greeted me, his smile like a bear hug.
He talked about how great it was getting together with his buddies the night before. I casually brought up Goodrich’s plan of moving Kenny into an apartment.
“Mmmmmm,” he said. “No. I don’t think that’s something I’m interested in.”
Then he showed me one of the sweepstakes that promised the “possibility” of winning $100,000, for a fee $25, which he promptly stuffed into the envelope and mailed off.
What could I say? I play the lottery.
IN IT TO WIN IT
Goodrich sighed when I told him of Kenny’s change of heart.
Then he got his game face on.
“Well, that’s not my last effort,” he said. “I’m not going to give up. It’s the right thing for Kenny to keep trying.”
On a quasi good note, Kenny did sign papers a few weeks ago to hire the Feeney Law Firm in Boston, which specializes in CTE cases.
Turns out, though, that’s not his first time.
Sargent said he signed papers months ago to hire the Kyros Law Group, which also specializes in CTE cases.
Kenny has no recollection of signing either set of papers.
Like I said, this is for the long haul.