Draper • The cane never leaves Fred Graves’ right hand, as the former receivers coach for six NFL teams stands on Juan Diego Catholic High School’s football field and instructs a punt returner.
Being able to walk slowly and steadily across the field is a continuing victory for Graves, 69, two years after he slipped and fell on a kitchen floor in his home in Sandy, jarring his neck with a central cord injury. The Utah alumnus and longtime Ute assistant coach has come a long way from the days when merely pulling himself up from a hospital bed required more than a dozen attempts.
Graves said he was told that being right-handed was a blessing, amid his loss of other functions, because “you’ll be able to feed yourself.”
Upon hearing the diagnosis of incomplete quadriplegia — meaning he had feeling, but little movement — Graves asked for an explanation and learned he may never walk again, realistically. His response? “Bulls---. I’m walking.”
He’s walking now, having progressed from using a harness in the hospital, to a wheelchair, a walker and now the cane, when he’s outside. Graves also can deliver a thorough analysis of which coin is easiest to pick up (a dime, because of its edges) after occupational therapy, another starting point in recovery.
Graves is unable to run, as he was convinced he could do someday, but that’s only mildly discouraging. “It’s not like I was going to go out and run a marathon, anyway,” he said. “I do what I do. I just do it at a slower pace … I’m just understanding that things take a little bit longer than I expect.”
He keeps smiling, recognizing how these two years have shaped his outlook, as he sits at a kitchen table in the new home in Sandy he shares with his wife, Michele (they recently moved, partly because they didn't want to constantly relive the accident). “All the stuff I had to go through,” he said, “I never in my life thought I would have to do that.”
He had just retired from the NFL after 17 years, in a coaching career that included 19 seasons at Utah under three head coaches. Having moved back to the Salt Lake Valley, Graves was enjoying his first season out of football in more than a half-century. He rarely would move from his chair in the tailgate lot at Ute games during that 2017 season, while marveling at the scene of how people spent their Saturdays when their jobs don't involve football games.
Having undergone back surgery, he had just completed rehabilitation. He was happy to be healthy, until the accident that stemmed from taking out the trash. Or that was his intention, anyway, as the couple watched a Monday Night Football game in the bedroom.
In an athletic family (the former Michele Townsend is in Utah’s Crimson Club Hall of Fame, as a softball pitcher), everything is a competition. In stocking feet, Graves hustled into the kitchen, stepping from the damp carpet on the tile floor. He couldn’t catch himself, landing on his forehead.
“They say your life can change in an instant,” Michele Graves said. That happened to her husband, as his nerves were bruised and two disks in neck were compressed. Surgeons at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray inserted a cadaver bone and a plate into in his neck, beginning a five-week recovery on IMC's 12th-floor Neuro Rehab Center.
The process of learning to walk again was “excruciating.” That's his wife's word, as she watched it unfold, after driving into the parking lot each morning, not knowing what to expect.
Graves' football experience played a big role in his recovery, because he knew how it felt to come back gradually from injury. He acknowledged briefly feeling sorry for himself, but soon became determined to make progress. “I just told myself, I'm not moping around,” he said.
As a master physical therapist and neuro clinical specialist at IMC, Cami Bailey works with many patients. Graves was among those who's “really unforgettable,” she said. “He had the ability to look at the long term. He was not only patient, but he was willing to put in work. … It wasn't easy, what he had to do.”
Bailey credits Graves’ support system as a big help. Visitors included Ute athletic figures Steve Smith Sr., Ron McBride, Liz Abel and Manny Hendrix, among many others. Graves loved how Bailey continually came up with new strategy. They would spend an hour in a stairwell, as Graves climbed slowly. She would load a shopping cart and have him push it down a 100-yard hallway (“probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done”). She would have him walk backward, a process that reminded him of an infant’s first steps.
He just kept going. Once home, he continued to rehabilitate and exercise, motivated by the opportunity to watch his son, Marcus, play college basketball. Graves couldn’t have done so during Marcus’ scheduled season senior of 2017-18 at Sacramento State. Yet in a welcomed convergence, the player’s back trouble had forced him to redshirt.
So his parents attended all 31 of the Hornets’ games last season, when he ranked fifth in the Big Sky Conference in scoring with a 17.0-point average as a 6-foot-1 guard. Marcus Graves, born in Salt Lake City and having lived in six cities during his father’s NFL coaching tenure, now plays for the Stockton (Calif.) Kings of the G League.
Feeling more healthy this past summer, Graves became involved with Juan Diego’s football program. As he told coach John Colosimo, “I’m not going to show up every now and then; I’ll be out there every day.” Graves clarified only that was he was done with late-night meetings, after the 18-hour days of an NFL staff member.
He loved being around the Soaring Eagle players, even bundling up last week with temperatures in the 20s as Juan Diego prepared for a Class 3A quarterfinal game at No. 1 seed North Sanpete (a 33-9 defeat ended the team’s season).
“You're out there teaching kids football, and the kids are listening, so it keeps you going,” he said. “They ask questions, they want to learn, they come out there with some energy.”
Graves “really made a difference with the entire team,” senior receiver Mason Harris said, “focusing on the little things that really do matter.” Harris was impressed how Graves showed interest even in athletes who didn't play much, encouraging the players to “make the most out of everything you have.”
Similarly, Graves enjoys coming back to IMC's 12th floor, remembering how former patients encouraged him. Such visits are “the highlights of my career,” Bailey said, recalling how she once happily told Graves, “I hate to use this word, but you look normal.”
He’ll turn 70 in March, having learned a lot about himself lately. ”Bottom line,” Graves said, “I can do whatever my mind sets me to do.”
And, more than ever, he appreciates being able to do it.
FRED GRAVES AT A GLANCE
Hometown: Los Angeles.
Wife: The former Michele Townsend, Crimson Club Hall of Fame softball pitcher for Utah, and former Ute pitching coach.
College playing career: Utah, 1968-71.
College coaching career: Northeast Missouri State (1975-76), Western Illinois (1977-78), New Mexico State (1979-81) and Utah (1982-2000), under Ute coaches Chuck Stobart, Jim Fassel and Ron McBride.
NFL coaching career: receivers coach for Buffalo (2001-03), Cleveland (2004), Detroit (2005), Tennessee (2007-10), Carolina (2011-12) and San Diego (2013-15); senior offensive assistant, San Diego (2016).