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ECU alumna Becky Vinson returned to campus Feb. 21 to share her story as a struggling single mother who adopted an at-risk child. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

ECU alumna shares story of path from poverty to pro football

Feb. 22, 2013

By Steve Tuttle
ECU News Services

Many who heard Becky Vinson speak on campus Wednesday already knew the outlines of her inspiring life story. From newspaper stories and an ESPN video, they knew she came to East Carolina University as a single mother struggling to pay tuition and rent while raising two kids.

Today she has two ECU degrees and her daughter is in college. Her adopted son, who was basically homeless when she took him in at age 14, now is a star player in the National Football League.

Speaking in Hendrix Theatre Feb. 20 after an earlier talk to students and faculty in the Rivers Building, Vinson shared some personal details about how she reached this happy ending. Mainly she talked about the hard times that preceded these good times.

Vinson was raised in Goldsboro. Her mother was a high school dropout who got pregnant at 17. Her father was a convicted felon who was murdered when she was 7. After high school she enlisted in the Navy. After service, she used her GI Bill benefits and money from part-time jobs to enroll at Wayne Community College. Two years later she transferred to ECU to study nursing. 

She was 25, the first in her family to go to college and financially on her own with two mouths to feed.

Already the mother of an 8-year-old daughter, Vinson had taken Graham into her home after hearing him talk at a church service. “He was the same age as my younger sister, so I knew who he was. I just didn’t know how bad off he was,” she said. He had been shuffled through several foster homes and once was abandoned by his biological mother at a home for juvenile delinquents.

When Vinson took him in he was a hot-tempered kid who made terrible grades. “He brought home a report card one time and he had made 17 in PE,” Vinson said.

Under her care, he blossomed into a good student and a star athlete at Eastern Wayne High School.

During those years Vinson, her daughter Karena and Graham lived in a decrepit trailer in Goldsboro while she carpooled to Greenville with other ECU nursing students.

She was so poor “I didn’t have the $5 to give them for my share of the gas each week, and then when I got to school people would give me 50 cents to eat. But they didn’t treat me like the ‘poor girl.’ When they would stop for fast food, they always would buy an extra hamburger for me. And they never said anything about that, they just did it.”

She remembers her first paycheck after graduating in 2003 and getting a nursing job at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro was about the same amount she had earned the whole previous year. 

“After I became a nurse, our lives improved dramatically. I took my kids shopping and they couldn’t believe I could afford to buy them a $10 T-shirt.”

Graham accepted an athletic scholarship from the University of Miami. With him in college and Karena in high school, Vinson decided to return to school to continue her education. 

She applied to the nurse practitioner programs at ECU and Duke University, and was accepted by both.

“I was really surprised and pleased that Duke accepted me but I came back to Greenville because this is where my friends are – the people who gave me 50 cents to eat and gas money.” 

Graham graduated from Miami in 2009 with a double major in marketing and management and was drafted by the New Orleans Saints. A year later Vinson received her ECU nurse practitioner degree.

With her adopted son now grown, Vinson focused on Karena’s education. “She had always wanted to go to college at Arizona State, and we moved there because instate tuition was more affordable,” Vinson said. She works as a nurse practitioner for a medical clinic in Gilbert, Ariz., that specializes in treating debilitating pain.

She said she didn’t tell her new friends in Arizona much about her past. She said they were shocked when the ESPN film crew showed up at her favorite sports bar to interview her for the story on Graham’s path from near homelessness to pro football fame.

“My son is wealthy now but I support myself,” she said. “I’m super proud of him, but that’s his life. I just go to work every day, because I want do.”

Campus Recreation & Wellness, the Student Activities Board, the Residence Hall Association and the Alumni Association sponsored Vinson’s appearances.

 The ESPN video about Graham and Vinson is available at