There’s pride – and there’s Ennis Lion pride. And when Graham Harrell takes the field Sunday as a member of the Green Bay Packers during Super Bowl XLV, there’ll be nobody prouder than his parents, Sam and Kathy Harrell.
“We’re really excited about it,” said Sam, the now retired Ennis Lion head football coach, who has three state championships in 4A football, one of which teams was led by Graham as quarterback.
Sam talked about Graham’s journey as a football player, moving from acclaimed high school quarterback to many times honored collegiate quarterback, to his spot now with the National Football Conference championship team and hopeful Super Bowl title holder.
“He’s the third string quarterback; he’s on the active roster. And, just like we saw in the Chicago game last week, the No. 3 every now and then does get in the game,” Sam said. “He does have to be ready.”
As the third string, a primary responsibility for Graham is in practice, when he throws against Green Bay’s first-team defense.
“He’ll throw the opponent’s passes against them,” Sam said. “He gives them a picture of Pittsburgh. He likes doing that; it gives him a chance to throw against a first team.”
As it’s always been in the Harrell family tradition, “team” is the key word.
“Graham likes participating and he does his part,” Sam said. “It’s obviously a huge team effort, a huge team game. Everybody has their role: Graham’s is throwing against the defense – and being ready. Everybody has a part in it.”
For all of their pride in their son’s accomplishments, it’s nothing he and Kathy had envisioned, Sam said.
“Oh, gosh, no. The both of us, we never envisioned our son going to go on and playing college football, pro football. We just enjoyed playing all sorts of athletics and participating,” he said. “We knew, at a fairly young age, he was good at it, but lots of kids are good at it. As parents, you just hope for the best for them. You help them the best way you can, you do the best you can.
“We never really dreamed that, envisioned that or thought that. We just hoped he could play as long as he was capable,” Sam said. “For all of us, the real world takes place sometimes, at some point.”
Joining Sam and Kathy at the Super Bowl on tickets courtesy of Graham will be their other sons: Graham’s older brother, Zac, now an offensive coordinator and coach at Van High School, and younger brother, Clark, who is finishing up his last semester at Abilene Christian University, and Clark’s wife, Jordan.
It’ll be a first-time experience to attend a Super Bowl for the family – an experience made even more special with the ties to one of the top two teams in the National Football League.
“We’re all really looking forward to it,” Sam said. “Neither one of us (he and Kathy) had ever been to a Super Bowl before. Quite honestly, we wouldn’t be going if it were anywhere else, having to fly and all of those details, but it just so happened it’s right here in ‘Big D’ and right in our back yard. So we’ll drive up, may have to fight a little bit of traffic but it won’t be too much to fight.”
Although there’s the acknowledgement that Graham’s not starting, he’s still part of the Packer organization and that’s “still exciting for him and us,” Sam said. “He still thinks he can play at that level and we think so too. It’s all part of the road and it’s a great experience to be a part of that.”
If anything, unlike when he was coaching Graham and the two were vying for state championships as Ennis Lions in the competitive world of Texas high school football, Sam said with a chuckle that his anxiety level won’t likely be as high watching his son’s team vie for a Super Bowl title.
“Kathy and I are just looking forward to enjoying the experience and getting to go,” Sam said.
Couldn’t be happier
Both Sam and Kathy are in agreement the Packers is a great spot for Graham at this time in his career.
“He’s on a three-year contract and while anyone can be cut at any time, he feels really good about the Packers,” Sam said. “From things we’ve heard and seen from others, it’s a good team. And it seems Green Bay really likes him and has got plans for him. We think he’s in a good place.”
It’s also an opportunity for Graham to learn from the league’s top rated quarterback in Aaron Rodgers.
“Graham’s getting to watch him and learn,” Sam said. “It’s a really good offensive system they have and Mike McCarthy is a good coach with quarterbacks. It’s just a good place.”
The next step: Become a No. 2 quarterback, get into the game, do well, become a No. 1.
“You have to be patient and work your way through the system a little bit,” Sam said. “Graham’s happy where he is.”
Kathy also spoke well of the Packers organization.
“We’re pleased, very much so, with Green Bay,” she said. “It seems like a good group of coaches and players as far as the character of the team – and that’s what you want. You want your children to be around good people, good men, good character.
“As a whole, I feel really good about that and Graham, especially with him going away so far and it’s so cold. You’re concerned, but he just always sounds great when we talk to him. He’s having a good time and that’s really reassuring for a mother, that it’s going well for him,” she said. “I’ve been pleased for him to be there. It was more than I had hoped or wished for.”
The Packers flew into DFW on Monday – and that evening saw Graham able to make a quick trip down to the Harrells’ Ennis home. Joining him for a meal of pork chops and Kathy’s special rice dish was Green Bay wide receiver Chastin West.
And there were plenty of Kathy’s homemade chocolate chip cookies that her husband and sons have enjoyed through the years.
“It was fun,” she said, saying the family had a nice time catching up before Graham and his teammate had to leave to get back in advance of the weather coming in.
“We’re hoping to see him more this week,” she said. “They have a lot of nice things planned for the families of the players.”
Although Tuesday’s weather prevented her and Sam’s going up for Media Day, the expectation is the roads will clear and they’ll have more opportunities to visit with their son in between practices this week.
As is Sam, Kathy’s looking forward to her first Super Bowl in person. Fans of the game, the couple had always hosted a Super Bowl party for Sam’s coaching staff in years past.
“I never thought I would get to go to one. I’ve been so excited this week – I’ve been walking around with a smile on my face,” she said, adding, “For Graham’s sake, I hope he has the chance to play, but, as a mom, I’ll say I’m having more fun with him not playing.
Ironically, as Graham’s football career has progressed, Sam’s anxiety level has gone down but Kathy said hers has only increased.
“In high school, I was calm about it, but college made me really nervous. The Super Bowl?” she said with a laugh. “But, I know for him, it would be a dream come true.”
Looking forward to March
Graham’s being on a Super Bowl team has been a uplifting experience for the Harrells, who have faced the challenges presented the past several years with Sam’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis.
In March, Sam will return to Panama for a second round of adult stem cell treatment. He’s been encouraged by the results from the first round – and will continue to work that road, much as Graham continues his path as a pro football quarterback.
One step at a time.
“I’ve seen some improvement, not any huge drastic ones, but it’s improvement,” Sam said. “I can undoubtedly say I’m better today than I was a year ago – and that’s something I couldn’t say five years ago.”
Sam recently saw one of his former coaching staff members, Wayne Walker, who told him he saw a marked difference for the better for not having seen him in a year.
“That was also encouraging to see it from his perspective,” said Sam, who acknowledges it’s sometimes hard to see improvements when one is living with the disease day to day. And that’s where he’s drawn from the support of his wife and his sons, his friends and the community. It’s part of the journey.
“That’s kind of how it is with this treatment and how this protocol works,” Sam said. “It’s not like you go one time and get well. You go back and you gain a little more. After two, maybe three or four, you find yourselves doing things you hadn’t been able to do.”
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