Orange County basketball coach and retired firefighter dies from COVID-19

Earl Graham had a passion for football, basketball and helping others

APOPKA, Fla. – The Apopka community in Orange County is mourning the loss of a beloved assistant basketball coach and a veteran of Orlando’s fire department.

“He was an excellent father. He taught us you care about others sometimes more than you care about yourself and then you know it’ll pay off in the end,” Roderick Graham, son of Earl Graham said. “He was all about helping others.”

The family is now getting ready to say farewell to their loved one. On Christmas Eve, Earl Graham went to the emergency room after feeling ill from COVID-19.

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Two weeks later, he passed. Two of his sons sat with News 6 to talk about his legacy and the impact he made in Central Florida.

“My dad was like a second father to those that have fathers but then those that didn’t have fathers he was like a dad to them. I truly cherish and appreciate,” JayRaj Graham said. “He cared about other people’s kids just as much as much as he cared about us.”

The 72-year-old had a passion for football and basketball--so much that despite the pandemic-- his sons said they couldn’t make him stay home from coaching students because his love for the game was too great.

“I was like: Dad you know, you might want to consider you know taking this year off?,” JayRaj said, adding the conversation was quick and ended as soon as his father said he wasn’t going to stay home. “It’s what he loved so to be away from it even for a year that’s just not the life that you know he would’ve loved to live.”

The legacy the father of three leaves behind is one that’s being remembered by those he touched the lives of. During Tuesday night’s Orange County School board meeting, board member Melissa Byrd shared some thoughts on the difference Earl made in the community.

" Our Apopka High school community lost a very dear friend this past week. Mr. Earl Graham,” Byrd said. “He donated his time and efforts at various times to Jones, Edgewater, Wekiva, and most recently, Apopka high schools. Earl Graham was a volunteer football and basketball coach in the Orlando area for over 40 years. He was also one of the originators of AAU basketball efforts in Central Florida where his teams and programs mentored and opened doors for literally thousands of athletes in our area.”

Among those students former NBA player Vince Carter and Austin Rivers who now plays for the New York Knicks.

In a recent post-game interview, Rivers talked about concerns regarding the virus.

“It is everywhere. Unfortunately, in our country, people don’t wear masks all the time and you have ignorance displayed every day which is causing this to be more delayed and more serious. I actually just lost my AAU coach, one of my AAU coaches,” Rivers said.

Off the court, the grandfather of seven devoted nearly 30 years to serving as a firefighter for the city of Orlando.

In a statement, the department expressed its gratitude for his time.

We are saddened to hear of the passing of retired Orlando firefighter Earl Graham who served the residents of Orlando from July 1974 through August 2002. His passion was public service and continued to serve within our community after retirement. We will truly miss his leadership and mentorship as a long-time youth basketball coach.

About the Author:

Carolina Cardona highlights all Central Florida has to offer in her stories on News 6 at Nine. She joined News 6 in June 2018 from the Telemundo station in Philadelphia.