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Mason Graham '22 was an award winning football player and wrestler at Servite before moving on to compete for the Michigan Wolverines. He broke onto the season his freshman year and hasn't looked back overcoming whatever had stood in his way. 

The Michigan Daily
by Connor Earegood

Late in the No. 2 Michigan football team’s game against Bowling Green on Sept. 16, Mason Graham knew he had a problem.

Stepping off the field with a throbbing hand, the sophomore defensive tackle met with trainers before getting an X-ray after the game. With it came bad news: a broken thumb, one that required surgery.

It would’ve been easy to feel dejected at such a situation — unable to take the field as his Wolverines entered Big Ten play. But Graham didn’t let that stop him. He took the time to get his body right, but he also stayed engaged in film study and prepared for his eventual return.

And just two weeks later, Graham got back on the gridiron. Warming up at Minnesota last week, he stepped out with a medical tape club wrapped around his hand to immobilize the thumb. By the time the dust had settled in Minneapolis, Graham had earned a career-high six tackles, including two for loss. He played so well with the club that teammate Josaiah Stewart called him Thanos, referencing the Marvel character’s powerful gauntlet.

“I feel like this injury he has — it’s just a little roadblock,” Stewart said. “… His mindset (is that) he’s not gonna get beat by nobody.”

Beaten by no one — not even himself — Graham’s midseason injury comeback displays the mental fortitude that drives his success. He is a gifted run swallower whose wrestling background makes him prolific on run stops, but he is also determined to make the most out of a bad situation.

Because this injury isn’t the only time he had football taken away from him. 

Let’s take a time machine back to 2020, when COVID-19 still raged and high school sports had to cancel their seasons. Normally, Graham would’ve suited up for his junior year on the Servite High School (Calif.) football team in the fall before wrestling season. 

But 2020, of course, wasn’t a normal season. California delayed both of his sports until spring. Graham couldn’t do anything to change the situation. Instead, he had to roll with the punches as the activities his team could and couldn’t do changed by the day.

In such chaos, Graham could have gotten frustrated — who wouldn’t? Yet, according to Servite wrestling coach Alan Clinton, Graham never let the situation get the best of him.

“He has a physical toughness, but he also had to create a mental toughness,” Clinton told The Michigan Daily. “That was a completely different world. And I think that played a big factor in the end because he was mentally tough, and did things that weren’t normal.”

Embracing the chaos helped Graham earn first-team All-Trinity League honors in football and a conference championship in wrestling. Just a few short months later in the 2021 season, Graham added even more hardware both on the gridiron and the mats before enrolling early at Michigan. His success meant overcoming minor injuries that come as natural parts of being a wrestler and football player. But his mental toughness played an even greater role.

Because of that mentality, Graham was able to bounce back not only in the delayed pandemic season, but also this season with his thumb injury.

That’s not to say that Graham overcame all the effects without issue. The injury has limited his hand movements, and it also kept him from traveling to the Wolverines’ first road game at Nebraska. Though he handled the rest of his injury with grace, missing that game hurt more.

“He was heartbroken that he couldn’t travel out to Nebraska with us,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said. “But he didn’t change his approach, and I think that’s what allowed him to go in this Minnesota game and really not miss a beat.”

Graham stayed hopeful. Amid a tough situation, he tried to spin positivity.

“I was a little frustrated in those two weeks,” Graham said. “But I just knew that my time was gonna come when I came back and I was gonna be healthy again. So just wait for that moment. Be there when the moment comes.”

Graham was right on cue against Minnesota. By the time he sat behind a microphone after beating the Golden Gophers, few could help but marvel at the clubbed hand that didn’t faze him. Against a barrage of questions — does it hurt or how’d you play so well — Graham maintained that nothing really changed. The club was just an obstacle to get through, another hurdle to overcome.

In essence, the situation mirrored the pandemic pause he went through back in high school. To overcome his time injured, Graham bought into the same things he learned at Servite.

“That’s why you got a young man having a great game last week. Because he’s not sitting around moping about having the surgery,” Clinton said. “He’s worried about what he’s going to do to have a great game, and I think that’s a positive. He’s going to do that in everything that he does every day.”

Graham will need that mentality as he continues recovering, even as his club gets smaller and smaller each week. When he isn’t wearing the club, Graham wears a brace to keep from bumping his thumb and causing a setback.

“He understands that there’s going to be some pain in the world,” Clinton said. “Not everyday is going to be a great day and the tough get stronger as time goes on.”

Toughness allowed Graham to make his return so quickly. But it didn’t just develop overnight.

From pandemic seasons to Thanos casts, Graham developed that mental edge by making the most of tough situations. And as he continues to rise above his circumstances, continued success is no surprise.

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