For a time, it looked as if quarterback Jeff Graham had developed a tendency to be in less than optimum places at less than optimum times.
Back in high school, he played for an Estancia team that, because of a lack of student interest, had only about 25 players on the entire squad--not a group likely to manage a winning season.
But despite the obscurity that tends to accompany a losing record in the Sea View League, he landed a scholarship--almost at the last minute, he says--to a Division I school, Cal State Long Beach.
At Long Beach, he made his way through a redshirt year and a year of apprenticeship to earn the starting position. Last year, his first as the starter, he passed for 2,924 yards.
Then, just when things were going well, the university last November threatened to drop the football program unless $300,000 was raised to help support the program.
The money was raised, saving the program--at least until another fund-raising deadline set for June--and now Graham finds himself the quarterback of a 2-0 team that has outscored its opponents, 81-22, heading into a game against Cal State Fullerton Saturday night in Santa Ana Stadium.
Graham, who wasn't certain as a high school senior that he would continue to play football, has become one of the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn.'s two most prominent quarterbacks. He's generally considered to be second to San Jose State's Mike Perez, who passed for 2,934 yards despite missing the last two games of the 1986 regular season with a shoulder injury.
"My mom always would say that things will work out for the better," said Graham, a junior. "They do. It has."
At pass-happy Long Beach, Graham threw an incredible 426 passes last year--42 more than Perez and 180 more than Fullerton's Ronnie Barber--and completed 245.
Those numbers likely will drop this year, as a result of first-year coach Larry Reisbig's determination to bring a bit more balance to the 49er offense. But Long Beach coaches hope the lessened pressure and the threat of the running play will increase Graham's efficiency and help him cut down on interceptions (he had 17 last year).
In two games this season, he has completed 33 of 42 passes without an interception for 467 yards and 4 touchdowns, even though he played only about 20 minutes in the season opener against Montana State.
In high school, Graham also played free safety, as a number of players had to go both ways on such a small team. He also was a starter on the Estancia basketball team that advanced to the Southern Section 3-A final. But although he passed for 1,675 yards his senior year, only a few college programs showed interest in him, and none were very persistent.
"I wasn't recruited real hard out of high school," Graham said. "There were a few offers here and there. When you're 3-6-1 as opposed to (Southern Section) Big Five champion, there doesn't tend to be a lot of attention. San Diego State was talking to me for a while. Then I got a call. 'We're not recruiting you anymore. See you later. It was nice talking to you.' "
It took a good word from a kindly neighbor to get Graham to Long Beach.
Ken Duddridge, then a neighbor of Graham's and the athletic director at Fountain Valley High, put in a word about the quarterback to a teacher at the high school, Jeff Rayburn, then a part-time assistant at Long Beach. That started the ball rolling.
"You can recruit ability on film, but it's tough to recruit character and personality," said Steve Bresnahan, who coaches the 49er quarterbacks. "The thing with Jeff was that along with ability, you got that reference and that intelligence. We had him on our lists, but that recommendation made us look closely."
His coaches agree that what makes Graham special beyond his throwing ability and his 6-foot 4-inch, 200-pound frame is his ability to read and react to defenses.
"When a defense is changed, he adjusts on the spur of the moment," Bresnahan said. "He has a lot of intelligence and a lot of football sense. He's one of the best I've been around at reading defenses."
Graham figures his ability is partly a result of playing under former Long Beach Coach Mike Sheppard, now at New Mexico.
"He's the best I know of at knowing how to make the passing game work," Graham said. "I like to think that because of him I know more than other quarterbacks around the nation about understanding defenses and how to throw the ball against them."
In Fullerton, the 49ers meet an 0-2 team that has allowed 100 points in two games, and has appeared particularly susceptible to the pass.
"I think Fullerton's going to play us real tough," Graham said. "They've played great teams (Hawaii and Louisiana State), and I think they're better than they've looked."
Graham knows that the Fullerton game--the PCAA opener for both teams--is the beginning of an attempt to do something he's certain would secure the football program's survival.
"It would be hard to cancel the program if we won the Cal Bowl," Graham said.