Corey Graham believed he needed to escape from the Bears to reach his potential as a football player, and he was right.
Sunday he'll start at cornerback for the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
The Bears selected Graham in the fifth-round of the 2007 draft out of New Hampshire, and they asked him to play special teams. He had 20 special teams tackles as a rookie, second on the Bears to current Ravens teammate Brendan Ayanbadejo.
Graham became so adept at covering kicks that he made the Pro Bowl when he led the Bears in the 2011 season with 22 special teams tackles. A year earlier he had a career-best 25 special teams tackles, according to the Bears, and a league-best 22, according to the NFL's statistics. In 2009, Graham's 23 special teams tackles were second on the Bears to Tim Shaw.
But the 6-foot, 196-pound Graham wanted more. He wanted a chance to be on the field full time as a cornerback. He started nine games for the Bears in 2008 because of injuries to other players, but he had just 1 start in four other seasons in Chicago.
"That's what they asked from me at the time, was to go out there and play special teams," Graham told reporters this week in New Orleans. "If that's what they're going to ask you, you go out there and do the best that you possibly can. (But) I'm fortunate and happy that I'm finally getting the opportunity to show what I can do on defense.
"I always knew I could do it. But it's good to show everybody else that I can do it, to show them that I can play out there and I deserve to be out there."
Graham felt that he was unfairly labeled as strictly a special-teams player with the Bears, even after picking off passes in three straight games in 2011 while playing as the third cornerback in passing situations.
So he decided to leave. Hoping for a chance to become a full-time starter for the first time, he signed with the Ravens as an unrestricted free agent last off-season for a modest $3.7 million over two years, including a $1.2 million signing bonus.
It didn't happen right away, but midway through the season, Graham, 27, moved into the starting lineup. In the divisional-round playoff victory over the Denver Broncos, he intercepted two passes from Peyton Manning, one of which he returned for a touchdown, the first score of his NFL career.
It's been a career that Graham says he owes in part to his older brother, Michael Clark, who taught him the game and kept him safe from the dangers of their rough Buffalo neighborhood. While Clark protected Graham, he left himself vulnerable and spent five years in prison for possession with intent to distribute marijuana and cocaine. But he will be in New Orleans for the game.
"A lot of ups and downs; a lot of stuff going on," is the way Graham describes his old neighborhood. "Everything wasn't always peachy and great, so I think it just pushed me to be a harder person. I went through a lot of trials and tribulations, but it's made me a tougher person. I went through everything from my family, to bad injuries (a fractured ankle in his senior year at New Hampshire), to my brother being incarcerated, people being gone, my father not really involved in my life. It was a lot of stuff, but it's made me the person I am today."
Clark had a strong hand in shaping his younger brother's life, and Graham remains thankful.
"He's the one who got me involved in football," Graham said. "He was the one, since I was 5 years old, who put a football into my hand and showed me how to play, (showed me) what to do and what not to do and how to work hard. He was the one who's done everything for me, and it's great that he's going to be here to enjoy this moment with me."
To get to that moment, Graham had to leave Buffalo and Chicago, but he's finally arrived.