Irascible former San Diego Chargers player who lived under a fig tree and captured Bakersfield’s heart dies at 82

December 12, 2023
by Lois Henry
Kenny Graham shows off his mangled fingers, broken many times over during his years playing for the San Diego Chargers in this Jan. 29, 2020 photo. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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  • EDITOR’S NOTE: This is not about water. But Kenny Graham was near and dear to my heart. I’m sorry he’s gone and I’m glad to have known him.


Bakersfield, and the world, lost one of its great inhabitants Monday night.

Kenny Graham, a pioneering NFL football player, family man, ride-or-die friend, animal lover and irascible, irrepressible character, died in his sleep at Magnolia Place Assisted Living & Memory Care.

He was 82.

“Kenny did everything throughout his life exactly the way he wanted to,” said his brother Will Graham. “And I firmly believe that if he had been able to choose the option of going out the way he did, that’s what he would have done.”

He had been in his own apartment in assisted living for several years, attending San Diego Charger reunion games, chatting up neighbors (“Sometimes to their dismay,” Will joked.) and enjoying family visits, though his health had begun to deteriorate recently.

This past August, Kenny went missing for several days after he was allowed to sign himself out of Adventist Hospital on Chester Avenue, where he’d been treated for pneumonia. He was on the streets for three days with no food or water before he was found.

“He’s tough,” Will Graham said at the time. “I don’t know many 81-year-olds who could survive three days on the streets and still be OK. But he is tough.”

Kenny was 74 when this newspaper began a series of articles chronicling his life and fight for benefits to receive care for his growing dementia and symptoms of apparent CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or repeated brain injuries from his days on the gridiron.

At the time, he was living under a fig tree on a vacant lot in southeast Bakersfield inherited from his father.

In true Kenny fashion, he didn’t feel sorry for himself, nor see a problem with his living arrangements.

When asked about the heat, he pointed to the shade of the fig tree. What about the cold? He said he’d just cuddle up with one of the many dogs he’d taken in. And if it rained? Kenny spread out his arms, looked skyward, “Then I’ll get wet,” he said.

Back then, he spent his days riding the bus to the downtown post office where he sorted through a vast collection of sweepstakes mail, always hoping to “gain some capital,” so he could build a low-income fourplex on his dad’s land and live there as a caretaker.

It wasn’t a bad plan, but far from the glamor and potential of his early life when he was a four-time pro bowler and one-time first team all pro in the American Football League for the San Diego Chargers from 1965 to 1969.

He played defense as a strong safety and still made 28 career interceptions and five touchdowns (including a pick off the famous Joe Namath.)

If he were playing today, his would be a household name.

The most Kenny ever earned in football was $30,000 a year and player safety was an afterthought, if that.

Helmets were just hard plastic with some webbing. Kenny said he would stuff foam rubber into his for at least some kind of cushion.

Things were different then. Players were discarded like old socks and Black players were treated even worse as Kenny explained. He was cut from his beloved Chargers in 1969 when management discovered he and several other players were trying to form an association for better pay and benefits – particularly medical care.

He got picked up by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1969 but only lasted seven weeks. Still, he led the team in interceptions and tackles in that short time. He moved on to the Pittsburgh Steelers but left after a few weeks.

“I was tired of all the poliTRICKS,” he told The Californian in 2016. “I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. Man, I was all pro and I couldn’t get a job!”

After football let him down, Kenny moved around the country doing what work he could, occasionally suffering periods of homelessness.

He ended up in Bakersfield, and lived for time with his younger brother Will. But Kenny’s growing CTE included symptoms of paranoia. He decided to leave Will’s house and set up on the vacant lot. Friends and family worked to get benefits for him and finally struck gold with the NFL Player Care Foundation’s “88 Plan.”

Will Graham said the 88 Plan lived up to every promise, paying all of Kenny’s living and medical expenses right to the very end.

Through the course of The Californian’s coverage, numerous old friends and former players read about Kenny and came forward to reignite friendships and even make one of his fondest dreams come true.

Aside from looking for “capital,” Kenny long talked about wanting to get a Rialta motorhome. He planned to drive off to Santa Monia, where he grew up, sit on the beach and smoke a cigarette.

A former Chargers player read about that and got a used one fixed up for him. After that, Kenny went missing.

Friends and family were frantic for a short time until he returned with the Rialta to the vacant lot having done exactly as he’d said: He drove to Santa Monica, sat on the beach and had a smoke.

“If there’s a Rialta in Heaven, I’m sure he’s driving it now,” said his daughter Danielle Graham-Sargant.

As Kenny often repeated, “If it’s free, I’ll take two!”

The family anticipates burying Kenny in Santa Monica, but arrangements are still being made.

Kenny Graham, center, with brother Will Graham, right, and San Diego Charger Hall of Famer Ron Mix, at a Charger reunion game in 2022. COURTESY: Will Graham

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