Graham boarded at New Plymouth Boys' High School with his brothers where he received his secondary education, playing in the first XV for two years mainly at first five-eighths. He attended Auckland University for three years, graduating with a MA (Hons) in History and playing for the Auckland provincial team in that time. He represented Auckland against the 1956 Springboks at Eden Park in just his fourth match for Auckland.
Upon completing his tertiary education in 1958 Graham moved to Christchurch and took up a permanent teaching position at Christchurch Boys High School. He joined the Christchurch High School Old Boys club rugby team and was immediately made captain, remaining so for the rest of his time there. The same year he was selected for the All Blacks for the first two tests against Australia, making his debut on August 23 in Wellington and helping his team to a 25-3 victory. In 1959 Graham withdrew from the All Black trials, but in 1960 was selected to tour South Africa. He played 10 of the 26 matches, including the second and third tests, and captained the team on a number of occasions.
Graham was an intelligent player with a great turn of speed, and became one of the cleverest and fastest loose forwards in the All Black side. When Wilson Whineray retired after the tour of Great Britain in 1964, Graham took over the All Black captaincy, a position he held until retiring from rugby in 1965. He'd played a total of 31 games for the All Blacks (7 as captain), and a total of 22 tests (3 as captain). He scored 11 tries for the All Blacks, 2 of which were test match tries.
After retiring from rugby Graham returned to teaching, being promoted to Head of Social Studies at Christchurch Boys High School which he held until 1970. He went from there to Linwood High School before being appointed principal of Auckland Grammar in 1973, a position he held for 21 years.
John Graham is well-known as a man of integrity and conviction, not being scared to mix rugby and politics. After touring South Africa with the All Blacks in 1960 he made the statement that "if we had any conscience and feeling for humanity, we should not have been touring South Africa". Along with Wilson Whineray he declined to attend the matches of the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand. Graham has also been valiant in defending the game against the excesses of commercialisation such as advertising on the All Black jersey; "I may be a dinosaur in this respect, but I don't think anything should go on the All Black jersey other than the silver fern".
With a strong sense of social justice, Graham challenges the priorities of New Zealanders and the excessive focus on the sport of rugby;
"I don't think rugby union is anywhere near as important in this country as solving the problems of poverty and unemployment. We're happy, aren't we, when our rugby team goes well, yet we're prepared to let some aspects of our nation go almost ignored."
Having spent decades working in education and experience, and with experience as chairman of the New Zealand Education Scholarship Trust, Graham is renowned for his expertise in this area. He is critical of much of what is produced by today's educationalists, believing that "To assume, as so many teachers do today, that the knowledge has to come from the children and all they have to do is pull it out, is educational nonsense."
In 1994 Graham was made a CBE in 1994 for services to education and the community. He managed the New Zealand cricket team from 1997-1999, and was appointed Chancellor of the University of Auckland in 1999 until retiring from the position in 2004. In the business world, Mr Graham holds directorships at The University Bookshop Ltd where he is Chair, Renaissance Group, and Owens Group Ltd.
In 1999 John Graham was named 'New Zealander of the Year' by North & South magazine, the cover article of the January 2000 edition running under the heading, "John Graham, the man who set standards". The break-out quote described him as:
"All Black captain, for 21 years headmaster of Auckland Grammar School, rugby coach, company director, businessman, commissioner of the troubled Nga Tapawae College, manager of the New Zealand cricket team. Renaissance man and Chancellor of the University of Auckland."
Graham was elected president of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union in 2005, and received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Auckland the same year.
Drew Kindergartners Find Rainbow Still Elusive;All-Black Classes Reflect S. Arlington Parents' Desire to Keep Children in Neighborhood
Jun 15, 1990; Today is the last day of school for kindergartners at Drew Elementary in South Arlington, and when they enter first grade this...