You can’t help but like Kenny Graham.
You also can’t help being a little outraged by his tale, not to mention frustrated by his situation.
But, first, I need to tell you that I’m not going to tell you his whole story today.
It’s still evolving and I have no idea which way it’ll turn next.
Hopefully we’ll discover what happens together.
Kenny (I can’t call him “Graham”) is 74 years old.
He lives on an old couch in a vacant lot under a fig tree.
He’s not homeless, but I’ll get to that.
He spends his days riding the bus to the downtown post office where he opens reams of mail. Most of it is sweepstakes that promise the opportunity to win big money for a small investment, of course.
Kenny plays hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these sweepstakes hoping to “gain some capital,” as he says.
He’s a friendly, engaging guy, a little bedraggled-looking in his Rastafarian knit cap, carrying plastic bags full of mail and his trusty umbrella.
It may be hard to see it now, but back in the day, Kenny was on top of the world.
He was a four-time pro bowler and one-time first team all pro in the American Football League for the San Diego Chargers as a defensive back from 1965 to 1969.
I admit, I had to ask the guys in Sports exactly what all that means.
It means he was an extremely good, professional football player.
LIFE’S A ROLLER COASTER
How he went from pro ball to the fig tree is where the outrage comes in.
Because, no, he didn’t leave football due to an injury, or drug or alcohol abuse or criminal behavior.
So why’d he quit at the top of his game?
“I didn’t quit!” he says, still incredulous all these years later. “They cut me loose. We were trying to form a players association. They found out, so they put me off.”
That was in 1969.
He left San Diego and got picked up by the Cincinnati Bengals and played for seven weeks before getting cut. Only seven weeks, and still he led the team in interceptions and tackles.
He moved on to the Pittsburgh Steelers but left on his own after a few weeks.
“I was tired of all the poliTRICKS,” he says. “I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. Man, I was all pro and I couldn’t get a job!”
Pro ball wasn’t anything like it is now.
The man now playing Kenny’s position for the Chargers, Dwight Lowery, makes $7.2 million on a three-year contract and got a $1.5 million signing bonus.
“Oh wow,” Kenny says when shown how much the current strong safety earns. “I’d play with no pads for that kinda money!”
He laughs his all-out belly laugh then grows reflective: “I guess we set the stage for these guys now.”
The most Kenny ever made in his playing days was $30,000 a year.
That was also back in the days when leagues kept participation of blacks to 10 percent of players. And contracts were only good for the season, meaning players had to find work in the offseason.
Kenny worked in warehouses, selling insurance, whatever he could.
Then he had to renegotiate his contract at the start of a new season.
Those were tough sessions against general manager and head coach Sid Gillman.
“They had you sweatin’ before you even went in the room,” Kenny recalls. “I’d see guys come out cryin’. Big guys! And they’d be cryin’.”
Players didn’t have agents or lawyers back then.
“They told us if we showed up with a lawyer, they’d kick us both out of their office,” Kenny says.
THE LOVE OF THE GAME
It was hard, unfair and demoralizing in many ways.
But if he could, Kenny tells me, he’d get right back out there on that field.
“I LOVED it! I loved it. And I was good at it, ‘cuz I was mean,” he says and laughs. “They called me the gator ‘cuz I was cantankerous, you know? I was gonna get you!”
Kenny can tell you almost every minute of every play from those days.
He remembers his first year with the Chargers in 1964 and how he watched from the sidelines as the safety got clipped. This was his chance.
He didn’t wait for Gillman’s OK and ran out into the huddle.
“I said, ‘I’m here ***damn it! Let's go to work!’ Ernie Ladd reached his hand — it was like a baseball mitt — across the huddle and grabbed my whole helmet in his hand. He shook my head like a rag doll and said, ‘Ya gots to be quiet in the huddle, Kenny Ken.’ I never said another word!”
If you had something to say, you stuck out your arm and “the Mike man” (middle linebacker often called the defensive quarterback) would tap your wrist. No tap, no talk.
Kenny remembers the sound New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath made when Kenny hurled him to the ground.
“He went ‘Uuuhhhhhhhnnn’ and he’d look up and say, ‘Kenny, you son of a b****!’ And I’d say, ‘Oh get your ass up, you ain't hurt that bad.’”
Namath was No. 1 on Kenny’s hit list when it was announced “Broadway Joe” had signed for more than $400,000 in 1965.
“All the players wanted to kill him!” Kenny says, laughing.
Those glory days are as fresh in Kenny’s mind as if they happened yesterday.
FROM THERE TO HERE
There’s a long stretch between those days and now.
The intervening years aren’t quite so clear to Kenny. Whether that’s because he can’t remember or doesn’t want to isn’t exactly clear.
What is clear is that Kenny’s thinking can be muddled.
Enough so that Mark Downing, a local website designer who befriended the former all-pro, realized Kenny may be eligible for benefits from the NFL under recent lawsuits over CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy — repeated brain injuries.
Though Kenny repeatedly assures Downing that he’s fine and doesn’t want to seek money from the NFL under “false pretext,” he also tells of having his bell rung numerous times in days when helmets were nothing but hard plastic and webbing.
In fact, he tells of how he put a layer of foam rubber in his helmet after a few hits left him “two-steppin’” back to the huddle.
Downing finally got Kenny to sign papers hiring the Feeney Law Firm out of Boston, which specializes in representing players who may have CTE.
THE PROBLEM WITH THE FIG TREE
Remember, I told you Kenny lives on a vacant lot but he isn’t homeless?
Well, Kenny owns that property, which was left by his father.
But he doesn’t have the money to build on it, so a couch under the fig tree has been his solution for the past year and a half-ish (the length of time is unclear).
Meanwhile, he plays those sweepstakes hoping to hit it big.
If (Kenny insists it’s a matter of when not if) he wins, he plans to buy a Rialta motorhome and park it near his property while he builds several low-income apartments to rent out.
Regardless of his plans, Kenny’s current living situation doesn’t sit well with the City of Bakersfield, which has gone round and round with him on zoning violations.
The city has issued abatement orders and even confiscated a tent and other possessions in the past.
It is ready to move forward on another abatement order any moment.
Meaning Kenny could lose even his couch.
That doesn’t deter Kenny, who receives a small pension from the NFL and could afford an apartment.
He intends to stay on that property under his fig tree at all costs.
“I’m tired and I’m frustrated,” he says of the city’s insistence that he adhere to zoning ordinances. “What ordinance doesn’t allow a person to live on his own property?”
No amount of explanation convinces Kenny that he can’t stay under the fig tree.
Nor that spending money on sweepstakes is a waste.
Nor that he could rent a safe, comfortable apartment while he awaits a possible NFL settlement to achieve his dreams.
It’s as if there’s a skip in the record between where Kenny is now and where he wants to be and no one seems able to bridge that skip.
You’re probably wondering about now where Kenny’s family is in all this.
Well, that’s a whole other story we’ll have to get to by and by.