Each year, the arrival of National Signing Day brings with it a wave of new signees to Northwest football.
Every individual player has followed their own unique path to Maryville, each trekking their own way here. There is perhaps no journey in Northwest’s 2019 recruiting class more unique than that of Dawson Graham.
Unlike most other names being unveiled Feb. 6 as a part of Northwest’s fresh influx of players, Graham is already here. He’s a transfer, though that alone is not what makes his journey unique.
Less than two months ago, Graham was playing basketball for East Mississippi Community College. Graham, a guard, dropped eight points and grabbed four rebounds in his last game with the Lions Dec. 8. He finished his brief career at East Mississippi with six starts and a 47.8 field goal percentage.
Less than a month later, Graham announced he would transfer to Northwest to suit up as a wide receiver for one of the best Division II programs in the country.
“It was always kind of a hard decision,” Graham said. “Just looking back and thinking back on it, I really missed playing football and wanted to get back into it.”
Graham shined as a multi-sport athlete at Gothenburg High School in Nebraska, producing eye-grabbing highlights as a quarterback on the gridiron and a guard on the hardwood. Graham holds the all-time records at Gothenburg for passing yards, passing touchdowns and passes completed for his career. He was a two-time All-State selection as a point guard.
Graham received offers to play both sports at the next level, but a number of basketball schools wanted to see him play against tougher competition. This led Graham, who graduated from Gothenburg in 2017, to pursue basketball at Hillcrest Prep, a post-grad prep school in Phoenix, Arizona.
“A lot of the schools I was talking to, being from a small town, they wanted to see me play better competition,” Graham said. “Instead of going the JUCO route right away, I decided to go to a prep school.”
After logging a year at Hillcrest, Graham chased his hoops dreams eastward, landing at East Mississippi Community College. For the second time in just over a year, Graham moved more than 1,000 miles from home, relocating to Scooba, Mississippi, and pursuing his basketball career.
“The coaching staff (led me to East Mississippi),” Graham said. “They got ahold of me and gave me an offer, and I really connected with them. I enjoyed my time down there, and I guess I just decided that football was the route I wanted to go down.”
That road led him here. Northwest coach Rich Wright said he’s never taken on a basketball player as a transfer before, but Graham’s athleticism was too good to pass up on.
“He was a tryout kid,” Wright said. “He was a kid that we came out and met in the 11th hour so to speak, and (we) just really liked his athleticism. We’ll see how it transfers on to a football field in the spring.”
Wright and his coaching staff hosted Graham for a tryout of sorts, running him through a number of drills to test his athleticism. His performance, Wright said, was impressive.
“We watched him run around, we watched him do some skills and drills stuff with our quarterbacks, and it was like, ‘Holy cow, we might have caught something here,’” Wright said.
Graham was drawn to Northwest for many of the same reasons he was drawn to East Mississippi: he liked the coaching staff and thought it was a great opportunity.
“The coaching staff and the environment here (brought me to Northwest),” Graham said. “When I made the decision to come back to football, I kind of re-opened my recruitment. Northwest was one of the schools I talked to, and I came up here and had a great visit, and after speaking with coach (Rich) Wright, coach (Joel) Osborn and coach (Chad) Bostwick ... it just felt like it was the place for me.”
Though, it wasn’t quite that simple. Football brought Graham to Northwest, but his decision to become a Bearcat contained multitudes. Both Graham’s faith and his family helped guide him to where he is now.
Northwest’s campus is a four-hour drive from Graham’s home in Gothenburg, one that may sound lengthy to many. East Mississippi is over 1,000 miles from Graham’s hometown, and the trek to the prep school in Phoenix is even longer. For Graham, Northwest feels close.
Graham has always been family oriented, but the untimely death of his grandparents in a car accident in 2017 offered a deeper perspective for the transfer, one he never wanted. In some ways, the accident motivates Graham, and in others, it pushed him closer to home.
“I’ve always been a family-centered guy,” Graham said. “My family means a lot to me. After my grandparents passed, it was definitely a difficult time, especially being so far away from home. It definitely (impacted) the decision of moving closer to home and being closer to my family. My parents and the rest of my family have sacrificed a lot for me to get to this point, so they’re definitely my inspiration.”
Graham said his relationship with God has developed over the last few years, and his faith became something he leaned on in times of question.
“I’ve always considered myself a Christian,” Graham said. “After high school, being out on my own for the last couple of years and having to make big life decisions, I feel like I’ve grown in my faith. I spent a lot of time in prayer ... I guess it led me here.”
In some ways, it seems fitting that Graham’s family and faith helped bring him to Northwest, a program that believes wholeheartedly in faith and family and has won National Titles toting those ideals. Graham has traveled across the country and back, twice, pursuing his passions. And somehow, whether by happenstance or otherwise, that’s led him to where he is now.
“The culture here stood out,” Dawson said. “I don’t really have any expectations or goals. I’m kind of unsure about how it’s going to unfold, but I’m just excited to get back into football.”