Volunteer to be honored for work with wrestlers

By Jennifer L. Williams
Daily Press

Published: Friday, June 01, 2001

POQUOSON - John Graham's son Casey was being manhandled in a youth wrestling match back in the 1970s.

Daddy Graham had never wrestled a match and this was one of the first he'd seen. But he was not pleased.

"I said, 'Well, ain't nobody going to beat up on one of my kids like that,' " Graham said.

Taking action to ensure that he didn't have to see it many more times, Graham started working locally to help build up youth wrestling. He eventually became involved with USA Wrestling and has experienced the sport at all levels and all over the world.

The Poquoson resident, 67, will be honored on the national stage as he receives the Order of Merit from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla., this weekend.

"I have met a lot of people in wrestling," Graham said this week, looking over the generations worth of memorabilia that decorate Poquoson's wrestling club.

Although he has spent much of his life running a family business, Graham & Rollins Inc. seafood processing, wrestling has been a big part of his life since his grown children were young. The boys wrestled for a team coached by Graham's brother-in-law.

After the match in which Casey Graham was roughed up by current Great Bridge High coach Steve Martin, Graham and a group of Poquoson parents of youth wrestlers got together to try and give their children the best opportunities available to succeed. The Peninsula Wrestling Association was formed and eventually the Virginia Duals, a dual-team tournament, was hatched to raise money to support the group.

The nationally renowned event, which features both high school and college divisions, takes place annually in January.

"For someone who really didn't have a background in wrestling, he's really come on in this sport," said Jim Casey, Graham's brother-in-law. "His contribution has been immeasurable in terms of what he's done for amateur wrestling on the Peninsula. The efforts paid off and now we have one of the most successful youth programs in the country in PWA."

Casey Graham went on to become a three-time state champion at Poquoson and to wrestle at Indiana. In 1987, Indiana coach Jim Humphrey asked John Graham to fill in as a last-minute replacement for the U.S. National Team's team leader, which is a manager and organizer, at the World Championships in France.

The job turned into a regular gig. Graham has served as team leader seven times for the U.S. Freestyle Team, including the '88 and '96 Olympics, as well as for four world championships and the Pan American Games.

Graham was also instrumental in organizing the formation of college wrestling's national team championship. From 1995-2000, he was a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame's Board of Governors and served as the Vice Chairman of the Hall's campaign to raise funds for the museum's expansion.

"He saw the value of the programs we were trying to do," said longtime Duals publicist Frank Lipoli, who first met Graham while coaching at Bethel High School in 1976. "All of us locally have benefited from his vision. He has done so much to enhance the sport."

Most recently, Graham has been away from work while recuperating from an injury. Late last year he got his left hand stuck in an auger and lost three fingers, two of which have since been reattached.

After undergoing six surgeries on the hand since October, Graham is still unable to use it for the most part. Doctors are watching the healing process and may have to operate again.

In the meantime, Graham and his family left for Stillwater on Thursday to attend the ceremonies this weekend. He is very humbled at the recognition and would just as soon receive no publicity.

"I know people who've spent their whole lives; I'm just the new kid on the block," he said.

Jennifer L. Williams can be reached at 247-4644 or by e-mail at jwilliams@dailypress.com***