Son of NFL Hall of Famer privileged to be FAA’s first civilian dean


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David Graham

David Graham, dean of students at Florida Air Academy in Melbourne, proudly wears a ring his father gave him.

The ring is no ordinary ring. It’s an NFL Hall of Fame ring. And Graham’s father was no ordinary dad. He was legendary Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham, who won seven championships and competed for three more during a spectacular 10-year pro football career.

“The year before he passed away, he started the beginnings of Alzheimer’s, and he sat down with me and asked me if I would wear the ring in his honor,” Graham said of his father, who died in 2003 at age 82. “And I cried like I was 2 years old. I said it would be an honor to do it.”

Growing up as the son of a football icon instilled Graham with a passion for athletics, coaching and teaching that’s lasted 40 years so far. He’s been a dean at several boarding schools and has been a head coach of five different sports. Graham and his wife, Mary,  came to Florida Air, a private, co-ed college prep boarding school for grades six through 12 in May 2013 after three years at Milton Hershey School, a private boarding school in Hershey, Pa. They settled in Pennsylvania after having moved back to the U.S. mainland from a school in Hawaii in order to be closer to their four grown children and their grandkids.

“We enjoy FAA thoroughly,” said Graham, who lives on campus. “I think it’s a privilege to be here. We’re very, very happy and I look to retire here.”

Previous deans at military-themed FAA were known as commandants, but Graham, the first civilian to hold the job, prefers being called dean. 

“I’m not a military person and I have so much respect for the military,” said Graham, whose father served in the Navy and also coached football at the Coast Guard Academy. “And with all the friends I have in the military, I wouldn’t allow myself to be called a commandant.”

Graham’s philosophy as dean is simple. “We treat kids with dignity and respect at all times,” he said. “I don’t yell, I don’t scream. It’s not my nature. If it’s a bad decision, we talk about the decision and what should have been done. And, yes, there are consequences and accountability and that’s what we’re trying to do here is build self-discipline. And (FAA President) Jamie (Dwight) has put together a tremendous staff to accomplish that. So it’s a fun place to work.”

Graham still stands in awe of his father’s unprecedented athletic accomplishments. A third-place finisher for the Heisman Trophy and an All-American in basketball his senior year at Northwestern, Otto Graham played basketball as well as football his first season as a pro, winning the National Basketball League championship in 1946 as a member of the Rochester Royals the year before the NBL became the NBA, then guiding the Cleveland Browns to the first of four straight All-American Football Conference titles.

After Cleveland and two other teams joined the NFL in 1950, “Automatic Otto” continued his winning ways, leading the Browns to three championships, including a title in their first year in the league. His last championship came in his final year in the NFL, a 38-10 rout of the Los Angeles Rams in 1955. He lost only 17 regular season games as a starter. A four-time NFL All-Pro and a two-time league MVP, he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1965.

His 8.63 yards per passing attempt remains an NFL record.

“Isn’t that amazing that some of his records still stand nearly 60 years later?” David Graham marveled.

Away from the public spotlight, Otto Graham was a “down to Earth” person who didn’t smoke or drink and refused to endorse cigarettes or alcohol products, David Graham said. 

“That’s one of the things that people continued to talk about when he was alive and now that he’s passed away: There was no ‘celebrity-itis’
in him.”

Otto Graham and his wife Beverly also opened their home to several foster children while David and his four siblings were growing up. 

“That’s a whole private side that a lot of people never knew,” David Graham said. “I think having the different kids join us and helping them through their difficulties clearly helped keep us grounded. We never got too big about ourselves. It just makes you appreciate the things that you have.”

For more information on FAA, go to flair.com