Ryan Coogler was an SMC football player on scholarship when he met Rosemary Graham. When the football program ended, Coogler transferred out but never forgot his mentor.Director’s Career Got Its Start at SMC

When Ryan Coogler’s film, Fruitvale Station, debuted this year to critical acclaim, he didn’t forget the Saint Mary’s professor who set him on the path to a career in film.

The 27-year-old Coogler wrote and directed the film about the tragic killing of Oscar Grant, unarmed and handcuffed, by a BART police officer on New Year’s Day 2009. It has won prizes at the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes.

But before he was discovered by Hollywood, Coogler, an SMC football player, was discovered in Rosemary Graham’s freshman creative writing class. She had asked her students to write about their most emotionally intense experience. Coogler wrote about the time his father, a probation officer, almost bled to death in his arms.

As Coogler recalled in a recent interview with Diablo magazine, Graham called him into her office, claiming an emergency. “I was scared…nervous that I was going to get in trouble for what I wrote,” he recalled. But Graham said, “I read your assignment… it’s so visual. I felt like I was right there.” She urged him to write screenplays, something he knew nothing about. But soon he was writing his own “and fell in love with the process,” he said.

Coogler left Saint Mary’s for Sacramento State and USC film school, but Graham remained a friend and mentor. She attended an early screening of Fruitvale, which she found “devastating and gorgeous.” And she was thrilled when producer Forrest Whitaker, praised the “visionary filmmaker” she had known since he was a 17-year-old freshman.

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