The way the story was shared in the news a couple of years back, you’d think Charles Tillman, known as one of the best cornerbacks in Chicago Bears history, was the first retired professional football player to become an FBI agent. But you’d be wrong. That honor actually belongs to another (albeit briefly) former Bear — 85-year-old Milton Graham.
Graham now calls an assisted-living facility in Norwalk, Brightview, home after losing his wife of 60 years less than a year ago and becoming beset by health issues — but he still has stories to tell, like how a highly recruited high school basketball player became a professional football player and later joined the FBI.
‘Son, we’re going to make a football player out of you.’
As a senior in high school in Defreetsville, N.Y., the 6’6’’ Graham was a hoops star — so much so that Divison I Colgate University (in Hamilton, N.Y.) recruited him to join the basketball team. That wasn’t enough for Graham. Once there, he decided to give football a try as well.
“I didn’t play football in high school,” admitted Graham. “I decided to try out at Colgate because I was 6’6” and 270 pounds — big and active. The varsity coach saw me after one practice and called me in. He said, ‘Son, we’re going to make a football player out of you.’ And they did.”
Graham went on to have a very successful college football career, earning AP All-East Honors in 1954 and the United Press International honorable mention All-America honors in his senior year. He didn’t give up on basketball either and captained Colgate’s team his senior year as well. Thus, upon graduation in 1956, Graham found himself with a choice many a man would envy: play pro football for the Bears who drafted him or play basketball with the Syracuse Nationals (today’s Philadelphia ‘76ers) in the NBA, who also drafted him.
While football won out, Graham never played a game with the Bears and instead found himself part of the Canadian Football League’s Ottawa Rough Riders, with whom he played until 1961. There he was part of the CFL All-Star team in 1958 and a member of the 1960 Grey Cup (CFL championship) winning team. Perhaps most importantly, it was during his time in Canada where he met his wife, Gerrie, a fellow American who happened to be working in the country at the time.
In 1961 he found himself playing football for the American Football League’s Boston Patriots. (They became the New England Patriots in 1971 after the AFL merged with the National Football League and the team moved to Foxboro Stadium). Graham was recognized by the team as the Unsung Hero of the ’62 squad.
In college, Graham played end on the field; in the pros, he became a tackle and even managed to score a touchdown or two.
“I remember a game in Ottawa where they threw me a pass for a touchdown,” recalled Graham. “I had three or four touchdowns playing tackle. That doesn’t happen often — then or now.”
After eight years, the physical toll on his body was enough for Graham, so he retired in 1962. While concussions are the talk of the NFL these days, in the early 1960s it was just part of the game.
“When we played they referred to it as ‘getting knocked out,’” remembered Graham. “A coach would come out onto the field, hold up his hand and ask if you knew how many fingers he was holding up and if you knew where you were. I saw stars frequently. I was knocked out two times but went back into the game both times.”
He believes the game is safer these days but feels it would have to be changed into almost something unrecognizable to eliminate head injuries completely. And head injuries aren’t the only concern. Graham himself has a metal plate in his neck from an old football-related injury — “My neck took a beating,” said Graham — and the middle finger of his right hand is so misshapen it’s difficult to understand how he has remained a right-handed writer.
“I’m able to get by,” he said.
“Hoover was divinely brilliant, but kind of different. I liked him.”
It was an acquaintanceship with an FBI agent that pulled Graham to the bureau where he would remain for 20 years. And he wasn’t the only Graham: His younger brother Don joined him at Quantico and also became an FBI agent.
At 32, Graham found himself in the midst of the civil rights movement in the south. He calls it the “hot years.” He was sent down south in the 1960s to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and often found himself dealing with the Ku Klux Klan. He proudly recalls being part of an FBI team that was able to bring to justice the white murderer of an African-American man — one of the first successful prosecutions, according to Graham.
"Every day was a struggle with those lunkhead klansmen and their sympathizers," recalled Graham.
Graham’s work with the FBI — first in the south and later in New York City working to capture fugitives — earned him notice from top brass, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
“I was involved in 8 to 10 cases that came to Hoover’s attention,” recalled Graham, who has the letters of commendation to prove it.
“Hoover was divinely brilliant, but kind of different,” continued Graham. “I liked him. What the FBI did meant a lot to me. It changed the country.”
As an agent, Graham recalls only one standoff where he had to shoot his weapon in defense. While not a fan of firearms and never a hunter in his personal life, Graham proved to be an excellent shot and served as a firearms instructor at the FBI.
“It’s a paradox in a sense,” mused Graham. “I was a firearms instructor but I never liked it. If I had to use my gun I wanted to come out on top.”
It was the FBI assignment to New York that brought Graham to Connecticut, where he settled with his beloved Gerrie in Darien to raise their family. Gerrie was a longtime third-grade teacher in town and Graham coached his children’s Little League teams.
The father of three and grandfather of seven was also an avid climber in his younger days. In fact, he’s climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro (the highest peak in Africa) twice as well as Mt. Rainier in Washington among other peaks. Everest beckoned, but Graham had to settle for climbing two mounts near the apex of apexes, Gikyo Ri and Kala Pattar, both in Nepal.
Life has certainly held adventure and excitement for Graham. He has his scrapbooks chronicling his football playing and FBI career that he shares fondly with a ready smile. And he has his memories.