A 1,000-yard season is an impressive feat for any running back. When you're Ray Graham, coming off a right knee injury last season, even more remarkable.
"This definitely is a hard injury to come back from," Graham said. "It's not for weak people. You have to be tough to deal with this injury and situations that come with this. My big thing was putting aside weekends and just working out hard, 'how bad do you want it?'"
In just his second game of the season, Graham eclipsed the 100-yard mark. Despite the loss to Cincinnati, Graham had taken 43 carries in the first two games, and he had a long run of 50 yards against the Bearcats. He was holding up well in his first two games.
He now says that it wasn't until after the first month of the season, Week 5 at Syracuse to be exact--coming off a bye week--is one he felt he turned a corner.
"I would like to say once I got back, probably the week before Syracuse, that's the one I started playing without the brace, it just started feeling good," Graham said. "Once I trusted it, I knew I wasn't going to feel a tear again. I felt comfortable. Once I started playing from there, I knew was back. I knew I wasn't trying to get through the season. I was trying to complete a season and help my team win games. I just think that definitely, the week before Syracuse, I just started feeling a lot different, or the Virginia Tech week. It just felt real good, and I just took it from there."
The numbers might argue otherwise in terms of production. Graham finished with his two of three lowest-production games once the brace came off--57 yards against Syracuse, 20 yards against Louisville. Over the final six games, Graham rushed for over 100 yards three times, and scored at least one touchdown in five of the final six games.
He sums it up into one theory--just to get better each game, whether it be health related like his knee, or as a team. There may be a direct correlation to Graham becoming healthier with each passing game, but as his production increased towards the end of the season, his team went 4-2 to earn its fifth consecutive bowl berth. Even in a loss, like the one at Notre Dame, Graham ripped off a 55-yard run against the Irish defense. It was the longest play the Irish allowed all season.
"I just set a goal to be better than I was before," Graham said. "I knew I wasn't there, and I knew that was a hard goal to reach. It was just motivation, something for me to get back; going back on the field and being able to play again. I know a lot of people have been through those injuries, and they still come back."
One such example, as Graham points out, is that of Minnesota Viking running back Adrian Peterson. Peterson suffered a devastating knee injury, and is now on the cusp of setting a new NFL single-season rushing record.
"That dude is something," Graham said. "Adrian Peterson, what he had done shows you that the sky is the limit. You put in that work, that extra hard work, you can do anything. He looks better than what he was before. What he's doing is incredible. I have much respect for him."
If Graham learned anything from his injury experience, it was about the benefit of some extra work. Like he said, whether it be giving up weekends, or whatever, he saw the benefit of that extra work with a career-high in rushing yards this season and a spot on the All-Big East first-team. A NFL future is not entirely shocking for him, based on the career he's had at Pitt. Him being in the conversation, being invited to the East-West Shrine Bowl is more remarkable than shocking, just for him coming back from a pretty serious injury.
His thought process is simple, as he gets set for one more game at Pitt, and then the training process leading up to the NFL Combine and Pro Day. It's a lesson learned through his injury experience. It almost sounds like he's still in injury mode. As if he still has something else to prove.
"I still have a ways to go," Graham said. "There's always room for improvement. Even to the day I stop playing football, I don't know if I'll always feel like I'm at my peak. You always can push yourself that much more, and go hard. Like my father always tells me, 'go hard or go home.' That always stuck in my head since I stepped on the field. You have to give it your all every time you step on the field. That's something I try to do.
"It's a blessing. I'm excited. I get up every day with a smile on my face. I'm blessed and I'm happy to be out here. I get another chance to play football and do something I love."