October 19, 2017

Morris: TJ Graham catching on with Als, 3-down game

Dominick Gravel/Montreal Alouettes

Many factors contributed to T.J Graham deciding to return to the Montreal Alouettes.

The wide receiver with the soft hands and blistering speed had given his word to Head Coach and General Manager Kavis Reed he would rejoin the Alouettes if things didn’t work out in the NFL. Graham also believes the Als are laying the foundation this year that will help build the team into a CFL playoff contender next season. Re-signing with Montreal gave him a chance to play football again.

Also, there was the ice cream.

“There is a really nice ice cream place here I really like,” said the 28-year-old native of Raleigh, N.C. “It’s some of the best soft ice cream. The chocolate is like gourmet chocolate.

“It’s good. When life is kind of stressful I go grab an ice cream cone.”

Graham first signed with the Als in April. He attended training camp and started the season on Montreal’s practice roster but asked to be released. Graham went to the NFL Carolina Panthers’ training camp but was released and rejoined Montreal Sept. 14.

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TJ Graham is coming off a four-catch, 69-yard effort in a loss on Thanksgiving (Dominick Gravel/Montreal Alouettes)

Other CFL teams showed an interest in the 5-foot-11, 196-pound North Carolina State product, but Graham felt he owed it to Reed to return to Montreal.

“It was something that I started,” he said. “I did promise Kavis, I gave him my word. I like to honour it.

“We started something in the spring and summer. It kind of felt like unfinished business. It was kind of a no-brainer for me to come back and finish what I started.”

Graham didn’t hesitate even though Montreal has struggled to a 3-12 record and will miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season.

“It’s very easy for you to leave something bad and go to something good,” he said. “That’s the world we live in. Everyone wants to do that.

“It takes a real man to go back to something, almost nothing, and build from there. I kind of want to be part of that building process. I think we have started that.”

Five of Montreal’s losses have been by seven points or fewer. Two of the losses came in close games against Winnipeg (one in overtime). The Alouettes are also the only team to beat the Calgary Stampeders this season.

Graham has been impressed with the attitude on the team since his return.

“It’s kind of weird to say but we haven’t given up on the season,” he said. “Although we’re not making the post-season, guys are still out here motivated to keep playing. That’s a plus.

“I have been on some teams where (players) are trying to hightail it out of there (when) you still have a couple more games on the schedule. That’s a positive thing (that) we are trying to progressively get better.”

“I wouldn’t say I was nervous but I was trying to press really hard the first game and help out my teammates a lot and show everybody what I can do. Really what I had to do the second game was relax.”

TJ Graham on a difficult first outing

In a tough first CFL game, TJ Graham dropped two passes and caused a fumble (Dominick Gravel/Montreal Alouettes)

Finishing out the season with the Alouettes, and feeling more comfortable with the CFL, will give Graham an edge next season.

“I won’t have to get acclimated as much,” he said. “It will be something very familiar. I’m used to the city. I’m going to take French classes so I can be able to communicate a little better around the city.

“Just knowing the organization, what they expect from you, that’s a big bonus coming back. Now I can just focus on playing football.”

Graham had a rough introduction in his first regular season game. He had just two catches for 23 yards in a 59-11 loss to the Stampeders in Calgary. He also dropped a couple of balls and had a fumble.

“I never really had the feel,” Graham said. “Even in pre-season I was messing stuff up. It’s just a different style of game. It’s getting your feet underneath you.”

Things were a little smoother in last week’s loss to Edmonton. Graham had four catches for 69 yards and felt more comfortable with the offence.

“It was a lot easier for me to focus on the task at hand,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I was nervous but I was trying to press really hard the first game and help out my teammates a lot and show everybody what I can do. Really what I had to do the second game was relax.”

Perseverance and determination have been trademarks of Graham’s career.

He finished his four years at NC State as the ACC career leader with 3,153 kickoff return yards and two touchdowns. He also returned two punts for touchdowns. As a receiver Graham had 99 catches for 1,453 yards and 12 touchdowns.

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Graham was selected 69th overall by the Buffalo Bills in the 2012 draft. He spent two years with the Bills before being released. After that there were stops with the Tennessee Titans, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles. In 47 games he had 61 catches for 794 yards and four touchdowns.

Coming to Montreal allowed Graham to continue pursuing his dream of playing football.

“It was just something I started a long time ago that drives me,” he said. “There were many times growing up that people tried to take football away from me. Even the times I was playing in the NFL where I was released (it was) because of numbers. It wasn’t because of how good a player I was.

“The thing that I came out of it with was I knew I could still play. Every time I would go home and contemplate retirement, someone would call for a workout and they would sign me. It showed me I still was able to play.”

Graham is hoping to show more progression this week when the Alouettes play the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (4-11) at Percival Molson Stadium.

“The more time we spent together, the more games, I think the better I will get,” he said. “I have a lot to show. I still haven’t put it all together yet but every day that passes I feel like I’ve got better.

“This game is another step in that direction of trying to be a dominant receiver in this league.”