As friends and family began to fill the room at a banquet facility in Connecticut, Graham Harden wanted to be clear about one thing on Saturday night: the honor he was about to receive had been decided upon well before he got the news that changed his life in August.
"No pity vote here," is the way he described his selection for the Hall of Fame of the Connecticut Chapter of US Lacrosse, which held its formal induction near the shores of Long Island Sound, not far from his home town of New Canaan.
In a lacrosse career that many new fans may not be aware of, Harden was a stalwart leader on a dominant North Carolina team, serving as a captain of its unbeaten 1991 squad, earning recognition as ACC Player of the Year, first-team All-America honors and the William Schmeisser Award as the best defenseman in the nation that spring.
That he received the diagnosis of ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in the summer between his selection and his induction doesn't 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.
A wiry defender with great speed, Harden played in three NCAA championship weekend's with the Tar Heels, winning the title as a senior in 1991. (Courtesy Photo)
When you first see Graham Harden, the thought that comes to 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 six 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," says 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 CT Chapter HOF 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, where he earned the Schmeisser nod over fellow first-team All-Americans and future U.S. Team stalwarts Brian Voelker (Hopkins) and Pat McCabe (Syracuse), still has a place in the 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 where 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," says 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, than in 1990 and '91 with his younger brother Holmes.
In those days, however, the spotlight was fleeting once your NCAA eligibility was up. Back in Connecticut for a couple years after graduation, Holmes was an All-Club player in the days before Major League Lacrosse, but soon shifted focus to ruining other coaches' days rather than attackmens.