One. Two. Three.
Those are the numbers you need to know about RB Alfonzo Graham. One is a positive number. One day to report to Pittsburgh, one chance to prove himself. Two? Not a happy number. It’s the days’ notice he had before he found out his college was closing down, the number of days before finding out he was initially ineligible to play at Morgan State.
And three? That’s how many days he spent in Steelers’ rookie minicamp, invited on a tryout basis. He didn’t leave it that way. He left with a contract in hand and officially became a professional football player.
Graham grew up in Ravens land, Dunbar High School that’s produced notable athletes names like Tavon Austin and Muggsy Bogues. Graham was a star player in school, rushing for over 1,200 yards and a blistering nearly 12 yards per carry in 2017. But grades were an issue and caused him to go to the JUCO route. And a cross country switch.
He started his college career at Arizona Western, spending a year there. The one year wasn’t his choice. Despite the program’s success, the football team was shutting down after the 2018 season, and Graham found out two days – there’s that ugly number – before the final game of the regular season.
“They made world news, all over Twitter,” he said. “Our coach told us the situation, what was going on. What was best for us to do that upcoming season.”
What was best for Graham was to play football somewhere else. He moved again, this time to Independence Community College in Kansas. The school’s program didn’t fold but Graham left after one year to Fullerton College in California. He didn’t see a ton of action but averaged a healthy 5.2 yards per carry with two touchdowns.
For a young kid like Graham, he was bouncing all over the country looking for a school to call home. A tough set of circumstances, and he leaned on people in his life, even if they were back home in Baltimore, to get him through those first few seasons.
“My mom and my little league coach, I leaned on a lot,” he said. “My stepfather, just having them people there and having my support whenever, no matter what my decisions was. Having them around just really made me stay focused and grounded.”
After all that travelling, Graham felt it was time to come home. He returned to the area and walked onto Morgan State in 2020, though shortly after, the school shut down with the rest of the world during the COVID pandemic. His 2020 season was wiped out. But Graham stayed positive and returned to 2021 ready to finally hit the field and make an impact.
Until two days before the first game against Towson. Graham was informed an issue with his JUCO college credits – the exact details aren’t known and he never failed a class – would render him ineligible for the first half of the 2021 season, missing the first five games. But he stayed ready, became eligible late in the year, and still made an impact with production, rushing for 506 yards and five touchdowns thanks to hard work and an upbeat attitude.
“Coming back late in the season, just playing my role to help the team,” he said. “Another back they had was really good so I just had to wait my turn. I had a little setback, wait my turn, and then just be ready.”
He didn’t have to wait in 2022. He became Morgan State’s starting back and one of the MEAC’s top backs, rushing for 1,150 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging nearly six yards per carry, with a receiving touchdown and a handful of kick returns. He became a first-team All-MEAC selection, putting himself on the NFL radar over the span of just a couple of months.
Graham’s strong season earned him an invite to the HBCU Combine, a relatively new event that aims to put HBCU players directly in front of NFL scouts. Pittsburgh’s Omar Khan was the only NFL GM to attend and Graham still remembers the message he gave the group.
“Just give it everything you got. Stay focused and the next level is waiting for everyone.”
Graham made the difficult but honest admission about draft weekend. He wasn’t going to hear his name called among the 259 drafted players. In fact, only one HBCU player was selected during the three-day weekend: Jackson State CB Isaiah Bolden going to New England late in the seventh round. For Graham, there were questions about his size too, weighing in at 5087, 185 pounds at Bowie State’s Pro Day. But he didn’t let that frustration consume him. All he wanted was a chance to be in someone’s rookie minicamp.
“I expected me to go undrafted,” he said. “I just needed the opportunity to get in front of the coaches to really show what I can do.”
For that, he’d have to wait. And wait. The first weekend of rookie minicamps went by without a call. The second weekend was fast approaching, with teams like the Steelers running their camp from May 12-14. Days went back, May 8th, May 9th, May 10th, and still Graham hadn’t heard from anyone.
His phone finally rang on May 11th. One day before the Steelers’ rookie minicamp was set to begin. A Steelers’ scout – Graham forgets who but vows to find out and remember his name – called and offered him the invite to Pittsburgh 24 hours later. Good news, he was in Baltimore and close to the city. Better news: the Steelers bought him a plane ticket to get there as quickly as he could.
Graham was one of 33 tryout players invited to the team’s three-day minicamp. While Pittsburgh has a history of signing at least one tryout player, most come and go without a contract, meaning the odds were stacked against Graham. But in his mind, he wasn’t leaving Pittsburgh without a deal.
“Once I got the invite, I already put it in my head, after these three days, man, I’m not leaving,” he said. “I feel like I’m gonna get signed because I’m gonna be able to finally show what I can do and how I can build and become a better player every single day and stack days and be consistent. Once I knew I was going to be able to have that chance, I just put it in my mind and spoke it into existence and prayed on it that the Steelers gonna keep me here.”
Rookie minicamp isn’t quite like training camp. The team practices in shells, there’s no tackling, and while the team has 11 v 11 and 7 v 7 work, it’s more focused on individual and position group work as rookies and newcomers try to absorb Pittsburgh’s playbook. All basic, install stuff.
While some traits can’t be easily shown in a setting like this, effort is always on display. Graham finished his runs, never quit or showed he was tired, and the coaches certainly noticed.
“That’s one thing they emphasized over the weekend was just finishing your runs…just showing that my conditioning was up,” he said. “I could finish my runs strong, I’ve got explosive, playmaking speed.”
As Sunday’s Mother’s Day practice finished up, Graham sat in the locker room, not knowing what would come next. That’s when Director of Player Development Darrel Young approached him.
“[He said], the GM wants to talk to you,” Graham said. “So I went into the GM office, he said, ‘Everything that you showed this weekend keep, keep going for us.’ I’m like, ‘I can do that plus more.’ And he said, ‘Let’s do it then.'”
Graham signed his contract to officially place him on the Steelers’ 90-man roster as the team gears up for OTAs and, starting in late July, training camp. The first call went to his mother, telling her the news for an all-time Mother’s Day present.
“She didn’t even get to say anything,” he said. “She just started crying just like, ‘I’m happy for you.’ Just, just amazing.”
Graham’s gotten to a point most tryout players don’t. He was initially the only one of the 33 invited to training camp who earned a contract, though the team brought in LB Toby Ndukwe on the eve of OTAs kicking off. Graham still has a mountain to climb but is following all the advice RBs Coach Eddie Faulkner gives him. Job #1? Take care of the ball.
“Ball security is job security,” he said of Faulkner’s biggest coaching point.
He also shared one of Faulkner’s favorite sayings, one that’s stuck with him even after just a few days of being around the building.
“‘Chop wood, carry water.’ Basically come every day and give 100%. All little things man, just carry that with you and don’t make that affect your play and how you come out here and perform.”
Graham is known for his speed and playmaking ability with the ball in his hands but he can impact the game without it, too. He’s played special teams throughout his career, even acting as a gunner on the punt coverage team, so he has the background to impress STs Coordinator Danny Smith, too.
Right now, Pittsburgh’s running back room doesn’t have much depth with Benny Snell still a free agent and the release of Master Teague. Perhaps the team will add — they’d be wise to — but Graham should get a look this summer. Don’t count him out.
“Just keep bringing that [energy],” he said of what he has to do moving forward. “Connect, bond with my team more. Compete, get better, sharpen my iron every day.”