Check out this fall's starting backfield at Ohio State: James Otis Graham, No. 35, fullback. Hey, wasn't there a Jim Otis who was an All-America fullback at Ohio State in the late '60s? Didn't he wear No. 35? Yup. Where's this Graham kid from? Long Beach, N.Y. Hold on, wasn't Pete Johnson, the former All-Big Ten fullback who set the Ohio State career scoring record, in 1976, from Long Beach? Yup. Wow! No wonder Graham is playing for the Buckeyes.
Certainly, you say, the folks at Ohio State had made the connection. "No," admits Steve Snapp, the Buckeyes' publicist. "For Scottie to wind up with No. 35 was coincidence."
O.K., but there's still the Johnson connection. "Pete Johnson. Sure. I had heard of him," says Graham. "I knew he played at my high school, and I heard of him when he was playing in the pros [the Cincinnati Bengals]. But, no, I never knew he played at Ohio State until after I got here.
"Besides," adds Graham, laying matters to rest once and for all, "nobody calls me James Otis. Everybody calls me Scottie. Grandma named me. No special reason. One day she just started calling me that, and I've been Scottie ever since."
Graham is not following in footsteps; he is creating them. Last season, his first as a full-time starter, the 5'10", 225-pounder cannonballed through the Big Ten for 10 touchdowns and 977 yards on 183 carries, a 5.3 yards-per-carry average.
"This is the kind of offense a fullback loves," says Graham of the Buckeye attack. "You're just a big tailback. You run the ball, you catch passes, run decoy routes, and you have to block."
When Graham played tailback at Long Beach (17 touchdowns and 1,500 yards his senior year), blocking was not a required course for him. After he arrived at Ohio State, the coaching staff took one look at his short, massive frame—he bench-presses 450 pounds and runs the 40 in 4.45—and told him he had just become a fullback.
"I didn't know how to throw a block," says Graham. "In the beginning, I wasn't very good. But I worked at it. Now I love to throw blocks. When they switched me to fullback I said, O.K., if I am going to be a fullback, I'm not going to be an ordinary fullback. I'm going to run for touchdowns."
There is nothing ordinary about Graham. Two of his touchdowns last season were runs of 70 yards against Boston College and 60 yards against Indiana. Some fullback: 40 yards and a cloud of dust.
Graham is special in other ways, too. Recently someone asked him for a meaningful quote. After a moment's reflection, Graham said: "'Suffering breeds character. Character breeds faith'—Jesse Jackson."
Graham's character developed as he watched his mother, Thelma Ruth, suffer under the burden of raising four children on her own. Graham is the youngest; his father died when Scottie was seven. "My mother is my inspiration," he says. "I made her a promise: I would get my degree. I believe God gave me this athletic ability for a reason, and that is to get a college degree. Football will pass, but no one can ever take away an education."
An academic senior with two years of football eligibility remaining, Graham says that if the NFL beckons after this season, he will tell them to wait. Graham intends to spend his fifth year at Ohio State, taking graduate courses in sports management, where he sees his future after football. Mention All-America to Graham, and he will guide you to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, to the section where pictures are displayed of former Ohio State academic All-Americas.
"I want to be an All-America," says Graham. "But I also want this: I want to be the first African-American player with my picture on this wall. I got off to a poor start academically my first semester. Then they called me in and said: Study or go home. I got the message. It just took me a while to realize the importance of an education."
Then he adds softly: "Academic All-America. That means something. When I walk across the stage with my diploma, that will make me the son I want to be for my mother."