Harden’s Career Celebrated as Life Takes Unexpected Turn
STRATFORD, Conn. — As friends and family began to fill the room Saturday night at the Four Seasons in Stratford, Conn., Graham Harden wanted to be clear about one thing: The honor he was about to receive was bestowed well before he got the news that changed his life in August.
"No pity vote here," Harden said upon his induction into the Connecticut Lacrosse Hall of Fame. A function of the Connecticut Chapter of US Lacrosse, the induction ceremony took place near the shores of the Long Island Sound, not far from his home town of New Caanan.
In a lacrosse career of which many of the sport's more recent fans may not be aware, Harden was a stalwart leader on a dominant North Carolina team, serving as a captain of its unbeaten 1991 NCAA championship squad, earning recognition as ACC Player of the Year, first-team All-American honors and the William Schmeisser Award as the best defenseman in the nation that spring.
That he was diagnosed with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, between his selection and his induction does not diminish for a second the greatness which earned him his spot on the dais. It just made the affair a little more poignant for friends and family, who traveled from far and wide to celebrate with him.
When you first see Graham Harden, the thought that crosses your mind probably isn't, "I'll bet he was dominant as a defenseman on the lacrosse field."
He's an unassuming guy, standing a hair under 6 feet, and probably tipping the scales at 180. But opponents quickly learned the folly in underestimating him.
"He was the very best teammate, and your biggest nightmare if you were on the other team," said Andy Towers, who grew up with Harden and his brothers in New Caanan before embarking on his own outstanding lacrosse career, which landed him in the Connecticut Lacrosse Hall of Fame two years ago. "He just had this will to win that was off the charts. He thrived on the idea that his counterpart on the other team was suffering playing against him... But while he could be a big hitter, he was more of a surgeon than he was a bully."
Defensive stats do little to tell the complete story of a player, but Harden's work in 1991, when he earned the Schmeisser nod over fellow first-team All-Americans and future U.S. team stalwarts Brian Voelker (Johns Hopkins) and Pat McCabe (Syracuse), still has a place in the North Carolina record books. His 95 takeaways remain the school's best in a season, while his 86 ground balls are good for 18th in school history. And that's at a time when defensemen weren't expected to be as handy carrying the ball as they are these days.
"He was just tough as nails, and never needed to say anything to anybody," said Dan Donnelly, who was a junior on that 1991 squad. "Even back then, he was so unassuming, people would look at him and be like, 'That's Harden, the All-American?'"
Yet that unassuming character, described by his older brother (and onetime Tar Heel teammate) Boyd Harden as having been "170, soaking wet" in his playing days, earned four varsity letters under coaches Willie Scroggs and Dave Klarmann. He shared the field in 1988 with his older brother, then in 1990 and 1991 with his younger brother, Holmes.
In those days, however, the spotlight was fleeting once your NCAA eligibility expired. Back in Connecticut for a couple years after graduation, Holmes was an all-club player before the advent Major League Lacrosse, but soon shifted his focus to ruining other coaches' days rather than attackmen's.
Graham Harden now lives in Ohio with his family. He has three children with his wife, Dawn. Son Cole is a junior at Mariemont High School, where he plays lacrosse on a team coached by his father. Daughter Lindsay is a freshman in the honors program at the University of South Carolina, and also played lacrosse for her father at Mariemont. The oldest is Kendall, who is a junior at her father's alma mater, and served as a statistician for the men's lacrosse team last spring on its run to its first NCAA championship since her father was on campus.
In a telling anecdote about Harden's personality, he apparently only became a coach at the high school level after someone googled his playing and coaching records, and excitedly asked if he'd be interested in a higher-profile gig than the youth assistant coach position he sought when his family moved to the area after living in the South.
Mind you, Harden had led teams to state titles as a coach in both Connecticut (Wilton) and Georgia (Lovett) and was an assistant in the late 1990s at his alma mater before his family moved to the Cincinnati area.
"It's like Larry Bird coaching our basketball team," Mariemont's Kevin Ferry wrote in a profile of Harden from 2013 on a blog covering the school's athletics.
"I just look at the quality of man he is — a wonderful athlete, but an even better person," said Andy Piazza, who was the starting goalie for the 1991 North Carolina team. "He just has that passion about the game of lacrosse, and that passion about life — I'm never surprised to hear that kind of thing about Graham."
Since joining the staff at Mariemont, Harden has added three more state championships to his resume, all as an assistant. He found the time to coach both boys' and girls' lacrosse at the school, as a volunteer, in addition to his regular work responsibilities and volunteering as a first responder.
Everything changed, however, in August.
Harden, who opted against surgery for a knee ailment several years ago, began walking with a limp earlier this year. A self-described "lug head" — he played hockey and football at New Caanan and Deerfield Academy before focusing on lacrosse in college — he chalked his leg issues up to lingering knee problems and shrugged it off. But people around him suggested it was time to get it checked out.
Eventually, Harden couldn't lift his big toe on his left foot. That's when ALS cropped up as a possibility.
ALS, commonly refered to as Lou Gehrig's disease after the famed New York Yankees slugger whose death from the disease first sprang the degenerative nerve disorder into national headlines, sends patients down a path of progressive muscle weakness that eventually robs them of the ability to walk, talk, swallow and ultimately breathe, all while leaving their minds intact. There is no known cure or effective treatment. The average lifespan from diagnosis is two to five years.
"It was very surreal," Harden said of the diagnosis, which came after several months of eliminating alternative causes. "I don't feel ill, but at this point, I'm at peace with it. I didn't do anything to cause this disease that I know of, and rather than focus on something I can't control, I'd rather focus on what I can."
Friends and family have rallied to Harden's aid, diving into immediate fundraising mode on behalf of Harden and his family. Medical expenses for ALS can be astonishingly high, as many needed items fall outside of the coverage of medical insurance. Estimates for annual uncovered expenses when the disease is at its worst range into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"I saw [former NFL player and ALS patient] Steve Gleason give an amazing talk, at the Sundance Film Festival in January," said Shea Harden, Graham's sister and CEO of G-Force — the initiative that has launched in the short time since his diagnosis. "When Graham got his diagnosis, I picked up the phone and called the people involved with that, and the first thing they told me was to start fundraising for your brother. Forget about anything else for now, focus on that."
Since its launch, G-Force has raised more than $200,000 for Harden's care, which could become acute at a moment's notice despite his current lack of significant symptoms. (When describing the cane he carried at the dinner, he wryly smiled and commented that he didn't really need it; it just got him a little sympathetic attention from the ladies in the room). Once the funds raised have reached a level that is sufficient for Harden's care, G-Force hopes to shift gears into something that brings relief to others among the thousands of ALS sufferers in the United States and beyond.
"Whatever he wants to do, that's the direction we'll go," Shea Harden said.
For now, Graham Harden's main goal is to put a spotlight on the disease that has and will continue to change his life for however long he has left, and show the people around him — his family, his friends, the kids on his team, and the public at large — how to persevere in the face of such daunting news.
"As a parent, I know that we try to protect our kids from everything and help them succeed at everything, but that's just not reality, unfortunately," he said. "One of the things I hope I can show is how to deal with adversity. You may have the path that you want to go down in front of you, but sometimes that's not how it's going to work out. The path I was on, the bridge blew up... nothing I can do about it. But what I can do is make whatever choices I can to keep going down a good path.
"Odds are, I'm not going to beat ALS. That doesn't mean I can't try. If I show these kids that I can do that off the field, they sure as heck can do it on the field."
To a person, everyone who spoke about Harden on Saturday in Connecticut was happy to be there to honor his greatness as a lacrosse player. They shared in a career-capping achievement for a friend and mentor who deserved the honor, and now share in the committment to help that friend as he enters the fight of his life.