Jersey numbers can have a special meaning for athletes for a variety of reasons. That’s definitely the case for Golden Valley High School offensive lineman Karmelo Graves, who switched to No. 71 this year to honor his deceased father Michael Graves.
Graves, who was born in 1971, died just over three weeks before the start of the football season while riding his motorcycle home from work on a Monday night from his job at a winery in Ceres. Police said that he was hit by a car as he rode and then run over by another vehicle after the initial crash.
“It’s crazy not seeing him,” Karmelo Graves told The Sun-Star.
Karmelo Grave’s Cougars family — including teammates and coaches — have rallied around him the past few weeks.
“When something like that happens it just hits home,” said Golden Valley head coach Rick Martinez. “You forget that these guys aren’t just athletes. They’re people and life happens.”
Graves, 16, was at home with his grandmother when police officers knocked on the door at midnight on July 24th. He knew the news wasn’t good when the officers asked to call his mother Leslie Graves home from work.
Karmelo was asked to leave the room when the police broke the news to his mom, but he could hear her break down. He knew what had happened.
“I hate seeing her cry a lot,” he said. “The police said a car cut him off and hit him and another car came and ran him over. It happened just over three miles from where we live.”
Somehow Graves managed to show up at practice the day after his father was killed. Martinez had no clue what had happened until Graves told him.
He told his coach if he seems out of it today, it’s because his father was killed last night and told him about the fatal collision.
Graves turned to football to escape the sadness at home. That’s what the sport has been for him since his father died, an opportunity to focus on something else for a few hours a day. It allows him to be around friends and teammates.
“I didn’t want to be at the house because everyone was still crying,” Graves said. “I was still crying, but I wanted to come to practice because my dad liked how I was playing football since I was eight or nine years old. I know he would still want me to play football.”
“I broke down when I was out here, but I just told myself I going to try to get through it,” Graves added.
Martinez couldn’t believe Graves was out there.
“The commitment he showed with what he was going through,” Martinez said. “I think this was a safe haven for him, a stress release.”
Graves did step away from the team for a couple weeks to be with his family as they planned his father’s funeral. The day of the funeral landed on the same day as Golden Valley’s scrimmage against Los Banos.
Graves rejoined the team on the following Monday as the Cougars prepared for their season opener against Escalon.
During that first game Graves wore a white t-shirt under his No. 71 jersey and shoulder pads. Written on the t-shirt was, “Michael Graves, along with “LL Pops” for Long Live pops.
Graves says his teammates have been very supportive and helped him cope.
“They help me a lot,” Graves said. “Half of them knew about it because my dad was friends with their parents, and I told some of them while we were in the weight room. They just tell me to do it for him and keep my head up. They told me they know I’m going to be sad and to just cry when you want.”
If Graves needs an extra push or motivation, he’ll tap on the No. 71 on the front and back of his jersey and point to the sky. “He always told me to push hard, whether it was on the field or off the field,” Graves said.
Graves says it’s tough walking into his parent’s room now. He kept his dad’s wallet, some of his cologne and a piece of his motorcycle helmet.
“My dad and I were close but he worked a lot so we didn’t get to have a lot of man-to-man talks,” Graves said. “It’s heart-breaking, I’m sad because he was going to teach me how to do a bunch of things that I don’t know how to do. He was going to teach me how to drive and how to change the oil in a car.”
Graves said his dad was the type of person who was always willing to help others. If cousins or other family needed help fixing something at home, he would stop by Home Depot, pick up supplies and go over and help.
During practices and games, you can see how football is helping with the grieving process. His smile showed at practice on Wednesday night as the Cougars were preparing for Friday night’s game against Pitman.
Each practice and game he wears that No. 71 proudly.
This Week’s Games
Pitman at Golden Valley
Atwater at Hilmar
Sonora at Buhach Colony
El Capitan at Livingston
Mariposa at Stone Ridge Christian
Pioneer Valley at Dos Palos
Parlier at Chowchilla