On those nights when he crowded into an apartment shared with seven other football players chasing a distant dream, and went to sleep worried about where his meals would come from, Baltimore native Alfonzo Graham clung to the faint hope that someday he’d earn the chance to prove himself at the highest level of football.
Now, after playing for seven teams over nine years, he’s getting that chance. The recent Morgan State grad is vying for a spot with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who signed him to a three-year, $2,695,000 contract following rookie minicamp.
Graham, who stands 5-foot-8, weighs 190 pounds and went undrafted, likely faces a long road to finding NFL playing time. A running back with the Steelers, he may need to stand out in other areas — special teams, showing the ability to catch passes out of the slot — to even earn a spot on Pittsburgh’s practice squad.
But he is accustomed to finding a way.
“I bounced around a couple times, dealt with some adversity, but it made me a great person” said Graham. “We were all out there struggling, but everybody was going through different things, so I was able to connect with different guys.”
Graham would become just the third Morgan State player to make it to the NFL in the past 20 years: Visanthe Shiancoe played tight end for the Giants, Vikings and Patriots (and had a training camp stint with the Ravens) and offensive tackle Joshua Miles plays for the Atlanta Falcons.
Graham would have been an unlikely pick to make it this far, even after a strong high school career.
After stints at Franklin and Reginald F. Lewis high school, Graham spent his senior year at Dunbar high school under coach Lawrence Smith.
“My high school journey was a different experience,” Graham said. “Learning from different cultures and different play styles throughout the city of Baltimore really helped me.”
Graham helped lead the Poets to an 8-1 record.
Despite some interest from local schools, Graham was not offered a scholarship. He didn’t receive the grades or exposure necessary to make a clean transition to Division I football.
He went the junior college route, where he spent time with three different programs in two years. He started in Arizona before transferring to Independence Community College in Kansas — which was featured on the Netflix docuseries “Last Chance U” — for only a spring semester. His final stop came at Fullerton College.
“We had eight guys living in an apartment in California, all paying rent and no meal plans,” said Graham about his time at Fullerton. “But I always wanted to play in front of 10,000 to 20,000 people every Saturday, so I went the junior college route to get seen by those bigger schools.”
Despite his best efforts, Graham still did not get the sort of offers he wanted. He transferred to Morgan State as a walk-on, where the COVID-19 pandemic derailed his incoming season — but not his competitive fire.
“The first time I put on that blue and orange and walked into the stadium, it was a blessing because I was home,” Graham said. “My confidence was up 100%, so I just had to go out there and do my thing.”
Graham may have walked on at Morgan State, but he ran through opposing defenses when he finally did get a chance to play.
Graham was sixth in the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference for rushing yards in the 2021 season with 506 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground. He also brought in 146 receiving yards and 329 yards from kick returns.
His breakout moment came in his final game of the season, where he rushed for 160 yards on nine attempts and punched in two touchdowns against Georgetown. Graham capped off his career game with an 86-yard touchdown run in the beginning of the fourth quarter, which gave the Bears a lead they would never relinquish.
His performance in the win against Georgetown reaffirmed Graham that he was in the right place, and his moment to shine had finally come.
“After the game, I knew it was my turn now,” Graham said. “Just get into the offseason and get ready for the senior season.”
Graham lead the MEAC with 1,150 rushing yards in 2022, more than doubling his total from the previous year. He also collected eight touchdowns on the ground and another through the air.
Five out of 11 games, Graham rushed for over 100 yards, including a heartbreaking loss on homecoming day to Norfolk State, where he ran for 203 yards and one touchdown.
“Alfonzo just put the team on his back and gave us an opportunity to win that game,” Morgan State coach Damon Wilson said. “The biggest thing was just to get him in space to allow him to let his ability take over.”
As Graham took the stage May 20 at Morgan State University to receive his bachelor’s degree, he not only walked across the stage as a college graduate but as a NFL running back. Graham had attended the HBCU Combine but went undrafted. However, the only NFL general manager attending that event — Pittsburgh’s Omar Khan — extended an invite to rookie minicamp and, eventually, a contract.
“I’m in the locker room on the last day of rookie minicamp and one of the scouts comes to my locker and says, ‘General manager wants to see you.’ So I go up to his office,” Graham recalled.
“So we talk for a while and then the GM says, ‘If you do everything for us that you did this weekend we’re going to sign you right now,’ so I’m like, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Graham lacks ideal size for an NFL role, but makes up for it with speed and suddenness.
“He brought speed to the table that we hadn’t seen in a while at Morgan and that we hadn’t seen in recent memory,” said Lamont Germany, the play-by-play voice of the Bears. “It’s something you can’t coach. Either you’ve got it, or you don’t.”
Graham is now one of 90 players on the Steelers’ roster, which will be cut down to 53 by the end of August. The team has Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren (a 5-foot-8 undrafted free agent who made the team on a tryout last year) set to return at running back, but Graham has earned praise from Steelers running back coach Eddie Faulkner
“He’s explosive,” Faulkner said, according to Steelers Depot. “He’s got a quick start. He can get to speed quick. He’s smart. He’s got a skill set in terms as a receiver. He’s got a lot to learn.”
Given Graham’s circuitous football journey, it is no surprise that Steelers coaches believe he may have a higher upside with more consistent coaching.
“That guy gets better every single day because he’s getting coached with detail and those things,” Faulkner said. “And so if we just continue to build on that, you might have something there.”
Graham learned resilience while finding his way, and credits his Baltimore upbringing.
“These people don’t come from where I come from, so I got to eat,” he said of his approach to earning a spot. “I respect how they ball, but that’s just my mentality, you know?”