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TEN MIL THE HARD WAY

8/20/2008

OTHER NFL PLAYERS WHO HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS BEFORE HITTING IT BIG

The patient man comes home to another hotel room. In a borrowed truck, he comes home to his girlfriend and baby girl; to suitcases with clothes that used to hang in the closet of the apartment from which he was recently evicted. He comes home in a borrowed truck because his car has been repossessed. His mom and his friends lend him money, while his girlfriend covers the diapers, groceries and $10 drive-through dinners.

He can scarcely afford the $150 per week for his daughter's day care. But the patient man pays it, because if he were to look after her himself, he would have to wave good-bye to those long workouts at Bally's and the dream of playing in the NFL. The time in the gym doesn't pay a dime, but his girlfriend, patient woman that she is, drives him there anyway. He has to borrow a phone to call her to pick him up, but he is not ashamed. He has blind faith in his ability, although sometimes he wonders if what he's doing is for the best.

He and his girlfriend move again and again, out of Tampa, beyond the infinite strip clubs and gas stations. They follow hotel signs that stretch high above the road, taking the cheapest deals they find. His first big pro paycheck—$25,000 from the Buccaneers—is long gone, and since he has been cut three times in his short career, the patient man, Earnest Graham, will live this way until his family has nothing to fall back on but the virtue of patience itself, nowhere to go but the two-bedroom apartment of a friend who's agreed to let them live there, with three other men, for free.

In these spring months of 2004, Graham drives his girlfriend, Alicia, and daughter, Aiyana to the beach, away from their problems. To Clearwater, where they sit, still as sand dollars. Sometimes he and Alicia don't say a word. They just watch the dwindling sunlight as Aiyana sleeps in her stroller.

The NFL is not a place for patient men. It's not a league anxious to give players their first big chance five years down the line. There are no guaranteed contracts, only 16 regular-season games for men who have something to prove.

Graham talks about this in June 2008, drinking a cream soda, his legs dangling from atop his pool table, while he watches his children swim outside his brand-new house in suburban Tampa. The 28-year-old running back is medium-size, stocky, with a cleanly shaved head and a pointy goatee. A short-sleeve tee exposes ink on his left forearm: "Struggle Builds Character."

Graham is a week away from signing a three-year, $10.5 million contract extension—his reward for enduring, for seizing his moment when it unexpectedly presented itself last year. Yet his memory still finds those days in 2004 as clear as the surface of his pool; the days of borrowed phones and unpaid bills and the comfort of Alicia, the woman who stuck by him, now his wife. "That was a deep experience for me," he says. "I had a plan for my family. When we were together in those hotel rooms, all I was doing was anticipating the chance to prove myself in the NFL."

The NFL is a league about money, sure. And it is certainly a league about fame. But it's also a league about emotional disappointments and economic conundrums, and a lot of rookies have no idea how financially grueling it can be to make a living on the margins of the depth chart. After four solid years at the University of Florida, Graham thought he'd proved himself worthy of playing at the next level. But during the 2003 draft, he sat with his agent at a party in a Fort Myers hotel, staring for two days at the TV, waiting for a phone call that never came. The Bucs invited him to training camp as an undrafted free agent, but after playing in just two preseason games, he injured his shoulder. The team sent him home with a $25,000 settlement and health insurance for the rest of the season.

That $25,000 didn't go far. Graham owed $17,000 to his agent for the party, and he had given his brother, Brandon, $1,000 to buy a car. He used what was left to pay for rent, gas and everything else his family needed for a few months. Meanwhile, Alicia, whom he'd met at Mariner High in Cape Coral, Fla., wasn't exactly making a fortune in the bursar's office at the University of Tampa.

They were just scraping by, but Graham's $40 gym membership was far from an extravagance. As the 2003 season rolled on without him, Graham spent several hours a day working out at the local Bally's, staying in playing shape while his shoulder healed. When the Browns called and asked him to join their practice squad in the middle of the season, Graham felt his diligence paid off. Seven days later, though, he was cut and given $4,500 for his trouble. Back to the gym he went, until the Bucs brought him back for a second look near the end of the season—only to cut him a week later and hand him another $4,500. By March 2004, that $9,000 was gone and Graham was staring at an eviction notice on his apartment door. And so it was that by April, after bouncing from hotel to hotel, the Grahams ended up in that friend's apartment, barely able to afford to make spaghetti.

Perhaps a different man in these circumstances would have pursued another line of work. But not Graham. "To do something for 16, 17 years, then give up?" he says. "No. No."

Growing up in Fort Myers taught him this, taught him how to persevere. His single mother had moved him and his younger brother and older sister whenever she couldn't pay the rent. But Graham never complained. Instead, he wrote poetry, rap lyrics, filled "a thousand" notebooks with his thoughts. Florida's "Mr. Football" in his senior year, Graham got picked on by friends because he always spent Friday nights after games at home. "I was a nerd," he says.

Quiet and lacking confidence, he contemplated suicide after his white girlfriend's family said she couldn't date Graham because he was black. "I wanted to be accepted by everyone" he says. "That made me feel like I wasn't good enough to live." Now he sees those experiences as lessons, blueprints for how to learn from life's unexpected circumstances. He means it when he says, "Patience is a form of open-mindedness." When brother Brandon, who everyone said was a better football player, was busted for conspiring to deal drugs last year, Graham wrote a letter to the judge at sentencing. "As his brother, I am hoping that the courts give him enough time to learn his lesson," Graham wrote. "Nothing more, nothing less." Brandon got 70 months behind bars.

Earnest Graham, you should know, is not alone. The NFL is full of patient men. Like Falcons Pro Bowl alternate fullback Ovie Mughelli, who earned $380,000 riding the Ravens' bench in 2005 before he got his break. "You get picked on by teammates," Mughelli says of the NFL class system, which correlates to playing time as much as it does to pay. Like Philly kicker David Akers, who dished out T-bones at a LongHorn before becoming the Eagles' all-time leading scorer. Like Detroit wideout Mike Furrey, who lived out of his car during the summer of 2003, while trying to catch on with the Rams. These are just three of the second- and third-tier players who make up the bulk of the NFL.

"There's not a lot of money on the practice squad," says Dolphins linebacker Junior Glymph, a former practice-squad player now with his sixth team. "When I saw my first check in Atlanta, I realized I had to do something fast. It was $2,300 per week. That's not going to last an entire year." Glymph now supplements his NFL paycheck with an investment in a Smoothie Factory franchise and a handful of rental properties. "This league doesn't give the red-carpet treatment for everyone," Graham says. "You always hear about the big contract, but that's really just a few players on each team. Most of the other players aren't making that guaranteed money, or anywhere close to it. And most of them, had they followed my route, would have tried something else."

What they all hope is that patience pays off like it did for Graham, whose work ethic earned him a third shot with the Bucs in 2004. This time he stuck and was given a contract of $165,744, his prorated share of the league minimum. Shortly after, he and Alicia got married and moved into a nice house in South Tampa. Earnest Jr. arrived soon after.

Buried on the depth chart, Graham told himself that his new life would be a paean to patience, to absorbing what coaches told him, to doing his job, which meant filling in where needed, like special teams. He vowed never to complain, knowing there was a chance each day that he could get cut. "I considered myself in a very special situation, having made the team," he says. "I never treated special teams like an insignificant thing."

Starting was something Graham had learned not to think about. "I was a third-stringer and thought I should be treated accordingly," he says. "I was never assertive about asking for playing time." For three seasons he kept his head down and "just did my job." Then last fall, the fifth-year special-teamer got his first shot at starting, after Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman succumbed to injuries. Graham rushed for two touchdowns against the Rams in the third week of the season, prompting Tampa's running backs coach at the time, Art Valero, to tell reporters, "You could win an awful lot of games with a team full of Earnest Grahams." He had 191 total yards a month later at Detroit and 34 carries in a November win against Arizona. All in all, Graham started 10 games last season, his rugged play a big reason the Bucs made the playoffs. "The team began to lean on me, man," Graham says. By the end of 2007, with the Bucs headed to the playoffs, he'd set a team single-season record for the most consecutive games with a touchdown (six).

Validation came off the field, too. The day Alicia spotted his No. 34 jersey at a Bucs & Bulls Heaven, she wanted to jump up and scream from the clothing racks. In the playoffs, against the Giants, Graham says, he emerged from the tunnel, and it seemed like half of Raymond James Stadium was wearing his No. 34. Recently, the pastor at a local church used the story of Graham's patience as the topic of a sermon. Fans now walk up to him and say things like, "We talk about you as an example to our children." He remembers those who helped him too. There are a lot of people living in his big new house, sharing in his new wealth: his imprisoned brother's wife and her four kids; his mom; his older sister; nieces; nephews; even a few friends, including the one who let Graham's family stay in that crowded apartment.

As Graham sits on his pool table, the sun parked high above his lawn, his mother comes into the room. She sits on a barstool, rests her hands upon the unused counter and says politely that her son "is a good person" who's waited a long time for his success. "Just give him a little bit more," she adds. "No more than what he deserves. Because he's earned the right to be paid."

Before training camp, Graham goes bowling. Pin Chasers is a colossal place in Tampa with psychedelic colors splashing the walls and music shaking the floor. The patient man meets up with his friends. He's got a diamond in each ear, a shiny watch on his left wrist. He forgot to bring his own pair of bowling shoes, so he has to wear the neon pink-and-greens issued from behind the counter. Turns out he's pretty good; after five hours, he wins his share of $20 bills stacked on one of the tables.

He's here with two friends from Fort Myers: a tall guy with a gold grill named Jason Nixon and Cory Thomas, a Tampa firefighter whom Graham calls his best friend. Joining them is Cadillac Williams, the one-time future of the Bucs backfield. The men call Earnest "EG." As in, "Hey, EG, you pitiful!" when he throws a gutter ball and "EG's serious!" when he gets a strike. EG, quiet for most of the night, rubs his goatee, as disco balls throw circles of light onto the wooden lanes.

"I'm better friends with EG than with most people on the team," says Williams, who in 2005 set the team's rookie rushing record (1,178 yards) and is still recovering from the knee injury that has moved Graham to the top of the depth chart. "When I first got here, in 2005, we worked out together, and he helped me. He's a humble guy. A family guy. His attitude rubbed off on me. His rough times, he just kept grinding. This is a league about taking advantage of your moment. That's a mind set EG has. I couldn't be happier for the man."

Who wouldn't be happy for the patient man? Who wouldn't be happy for a man with a diamond in each lobe and cash in his pocket to bet against his friends? Who wouldn't be happy for a man with a car of his own and a house to call home, sitting here waiting for his turn in a bowling alley?