GREENWOOD VILLAGE—Tom Graham may not have made any Pro Bowls during his seven-year NFL career.
But he left this earth a superstar.
Graham only played 2 ½ seasons with the Denver Broncos, and not since halfway through the 1974 season, yet approximately 30 former Broncos and NFL players – including his son, Daniel, and Ring of Famers Randy Gradishar, Billy Thompson, Rick Upchurch and Jim Turner -- were among the nearly 1,000 people who attended his 2 ½-hour memorial service Friday at the Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church.
“He always had a way of making you feel like you were the most important person in the room,’’ said Upchurch, whose rookie season of 1975 was a year after Graham left the Broncos. Upchurch also coached Graham’s twin sons, Daniel and Josh, at Thomas Jefferson High School. “And it was never, ever about him.’’
Representing the current Broncos team at the service were executives Joe Ellis, Patrick Smyth and Mac Freeman, ticket manager Kirk Dyer, media relations coordinator Seth Medvin and assistant equipment manager Kenny Chavez. From top to bottom, Tom Graham touched all.
“It was a glorious tribute for a great guy,’’ Ellis said.
The service drew an outstanding group of orators who delivered stirring tributes on the impact Tom Graham the man had on so many lives. The speakers included his oldest son, Philip Graham; his friends Bill Grebe, Dr. Robert Fomer and Elvin Smith; pastors Ronald Fox Jr., Duncan Phillips, Paul Felix, Michael Hilty, Ronald Fox, and Keita Andrews; and Odell Berry, who represented the Denver Broncos Alumni Council.
Music was provided by the Berean Bible Church Choir – which Tom and Marilyn Graham started in their living room – and Alice Pegues Miller.
One of the most memorable tributes came from George Martin, one of the all-time New York Giants greats who was Graham’s teammate at the University of Oregon.
“You never said, ‘No’ to Tom,’’ Martin said. “It was always varying degrees of ‘Yes.’’
Martin told a personal story about how he fell in love with a woman he wanted to marry, but it drew tension within his family because she had a child out of wedlock.
He sought counsel from Graham, who was a senior and married to Marilyn at Oregon when Martin was a freshman.
“He said, George, if that lady is the apple of your eye, then you follow your heart,’’ Martin said. “And with that Tom wrote me a check for $500.’’
Martin used that money to get married, fill up his U-Haul and move to Eugene, Oregon. Martin and his wife recently celebrated their 43-year wedding anniversary. They have four children and six grandchildren.
“I always told Tommy it was the best investment he ever made,’’ Martin said.
Tom and Marilyn Graham were married nearly 47 years and had five children.
Tom Graham was a very good football player. He is in Oregon’s Hall of Fame and he led the Broncos in tackles in his first two seasons of 1972 and ‘73. A video montage of Graham’s play with the Broncos was shown during the service.
When the Broncos selected middle linebacker Gradishar in the first round of the 1974 draft, the feisty Graham let it be known he wasn’t happy with his new role as a backup outside linebacker and he was traded at midseason to the Kansas City Chiefs. He then was a three-year starter for the San Diego Chargers before finishing his career with the Buffalo Bills in 1978. When Daniel Graham played for the Broncos from 2007-10, the Grahams became the first father-son player combo in Broncos history.
“I got the chance to play against him for three years when he was with San Diego,’’ Upchurch said. “And he would always tell me, “I’m going to catch you. And when I catch you, I’m going to break you up.’ And I would tell him, Tom that’ll never happen.’’
Tom and Marilyn settled in Denver to raise their family and became active in several charitable and Christian organizations.
During the 2015 season, when it became obvious early in the season the Broncos had a special defense, Graham battled with NFL licensing over the right to sell “Orange Crush 2.0’’ T-shirts.
Graham had to cease selling the T-shirts – there is beating the NFL on business matters – but his prescience on the Denver defense was spot on.
On Feb. 6, 2016 – the eve of the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 victory against Carolina to conclude one of the most dominant defensive performances in NFL postseason history – Tom Graham was hospitalized with a brain tumor that 15 months later would take his life. He passed away on May 30 – six weeks past his 67th birthday – and had a hero’s sendoff through his memorial service Friday.
“What came out of today is, when you talk about Tom, you talk about his personality but also about his spirituality as well,’’ Upchurch said. “How he loved the Lord and he lived his life that way.’’