Feb 182013
 

reflector

By Kim Grizzard

Sunday, February 17, 2013

By now, it seems that nearly everybody knows the story of the kid who came from a broken home, was taken in as a teenager by an unlikely family and ultimately rose to fame in the NFL.

Becky Vinson has never seen the movie “The Blind Side,” which is about Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher. She never has read the book by Sean and Leigh Anne Touhy, who adopted Oher and helped change his life.

She never needed to; it is a story she knows by heart. The 38-year-old eastern North Carolina native has lived that story — or at least her version of it. Vinson, an East Carolina University graduate, will tell her story this week as part of the Sport Leadership Speaker Series.

Vinson, a single mom, was a 25-year-old nursing student at ECU when she offered a 14-year-old named Jimmy Graham the spare bedroom in her trailer. Ten years later, Graham was a third-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints, and two years after that, he was ranked 14th overall in the 100 greatest players in the NFL.

But when Vinson met him, Graham was just a kid with no place else to go. It started with rides home from Abundant Life Fellowship Church, which Graham started visiting with Vinson’s sister. The eighth-grader always needed a ride home and never seemed to be in too much of a hurry to get there. Vinson did not know Graham’s mother; she just knew that he had been bounced around among relatives and had been in and out of foster care.

“One Wednesday night at the teenage Bible study … he just basically says, ‘My mom is going to put me back in a group home … I’m scared and I don’t want to go.’”

Spoken as a prayer request, the teen’s words pierced Vinson’s heart.

“How do you hear something like that and just pray and go home?” she asked. “How can you not just want to do something?”
“There’s a verse that I try to live my life by,” Vinson said. “It’s Micah 6:8 and it says, ‘What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’” (NIV)

What Vinson decided was required of her, she now easily admits, was not logical, practical or convenient. She told Graham that the two of them could ask his mother if he could live with Vinson and her daughter, Karena. That night, Graham’s mother packed his belongings in a few garbage bags and sent him on his way.

“I kind of knew at that moment that he was going to be here with me until he graduated high school,” Vinson said.

Not one person in Vinson’s family thought this was a good idea. Karena was only 6. Vinson, who had spent five years in the Navy to get money for college, barely had enough to get by.

“I’m living in a trailer. I have a crappy car,” Vinson said, laughing “There’s really not a lot going for me where you’d be like, ‘Another kid would be ideal.’

“I know it defies logic because it does if I sit and think about it,” she said. “But there’s times in your life when you’ve got to respond, and it can be scary but it can also be beautiful and the right thing to do. He just needed a chance. I just had to give him a chance.”

Perhaps part of the reason she did was that Vinson’s childhood had been less than picturesque. Her mother was a high school dropout. Her father, a convicted felon, was murdered when Vinson was 7.

“Half of my memories are visiting him in prison,” she said. “I wasn’t raised with the soccer parents.”

Vinson had different goals for her family. She imposed strict rules on Graham, who had been accustomed to being able to do as he pleased. Vinson required him to do his homework. He could no longer go out every night, and he wasn’t allowed to go out at all with friends that Vinson hadn’t met first.

Graham was failing in school. He struggled with anger.

“What started off as little things would just turn into huge arguments because he was angry,” Vinson recalled. “There were nights I would lay in my bed and cry because it was extremely difficult, but giving up on him was never an option in my mind.”

The family’s financial situation was just as challenging. Vinson’s car could hardly make the 45-minute drive from Goldsboro to ECU for her classes. Finding a group of three or four women to share the commute turned out to be a godsend.

“We were all supposed to pitch in $5 a week,” Vinson recalled. “They just covered me and never made me feel poor. They would stop at Wendy’s on the way home and just get me a burger, too, and never, ever complain, never act like I was putting them out.”

Nursing school classmate Belinda King said she and other commuters in the group admired Vinson for her determination to give her daughter and her adopted son a better life.

“It always amazed me because her situation was very bleak,” King said. “She was so bad off, and she had taken him in. Even though she did not have a lot to offer him financially, she could still love him and care for him.”

Though Vinson did not ask for help, King and other members gave her a small heater to use at home, where the family used the stove to keep warm.

Graham joked in an interview with ESPN that the trailer he called home was like a “tin can.”

“This thing was raggedy as can be,” he said. “We used to layer up and wear jackets. But it was a family. Becky and Karena, I finally had a family.”

As Graham settled in to his new family, his grades started to improve. Within just a few months, he went from scoring in the 30s or even in the teens to As and Bs in school.

“It was literally like one day he woke up and he was like a whole different person,” Vinson said. “I think he got it in his head, ‘She’s really going to be here. She really does care.’”

Though his grades were better and Graham was excelling in ninth-grade football, Vinson was concerned about the influence of his peers at Eastern Wayne High School. While her daughter remained in public school, Vinson enrolled her son at a private school that had no football team. Naturally athletic and having recently grown 4 to 5 inches taller, Graham switched to basketball. It turned out to be a good move. The 6-foot, 7-inch Graham received a basketball scholarship to the University of Miami.

“She (Vinson), used to say ‘One day, you are going to see him on TV,” King said, laughing. “I thought no, but sure enough …”

Graham moved to Florida in June of 2005 to begin workouts for the Miami Hurricanes. Vinson and Karena followed two months later.

“There’s nothing better in the world than to watch your kids do what they love,” Vinson said. “I just wanted to be supportive and for him know I was there.”

After Graham’s senior season, Vinson moved back to North Carolina to attend graduate school at ECU. Graham stayed behind in Florida, turning down offers to play basketball overseas and using his fifth year of eligibility to play football for the Hurricanes. A year later, No. 80 would suit up for the New Orleans Saints.

“The whole thing was just so shocking to me,” Vinson said. “I would have never guessed in a million years he would have been playing in the NFL.”

Graham signed a four-year, $2.4 million contract to play tight end. The 26-year-old will make $1.32 million this year.

Vinson will not see a dime of that. Though Graham flies her to New Orleans for games, Vinson has chosen not to accept money from the man she considers to be her son.

“No car, no house, no nothing,” she said, laughing. “I would never want anything like that from him.

“I’m proud of him and excited for him and cheer him on every single Sunday,” she said. “But I’m just a nurse practitioner. I work every day and come home and take my kid to school. It’s normal stuff like everybody else does.”

Until ESPN aired a segment on Graham, fellow Saints’ fans at a sports bar where Vinson watches games had no idea she even knew Graham personally, let alone that she helped to raise him.

Once they hear the story, comparisons to “The Blind Side” are inevitable. But Vinson doesn’t see her life story as something out of a movie.

When ECU’s David Gaskins wanted to recruit her to speak at her alma mater, he didn’t go through a speakers’ bureau. Vinson has never told her story in front of an audience.

“I sincerely don’t think she understands how special and unique what she did was,” said Gaskins, associate director of programs and marketing for campus recreation and wellness. “She feels like taking in Jimmy was something that everybody should do, and she doesn’t think that anything she does is that big a deal.

“I just thought it was a great story,” he said. “To me it’s ‘The Blind Side’ on a whole other level.”

 

Becky Vinson will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday in ECU’s Hendrix Theater. The event is free. Call 328-6387.

 

Contact Kim Grizzard at 252-329-9578 or kgrizzard@reflector.com.

via The Daily Reflector.

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