"You're on with Earnest Graham." There is a pause on the other end of the line as the caller tries to hear above the clinking glasses and silverware at Champps, a sports bar at International Plaza. J.P. Peterson, the host of the weekly radio show on WQYK-AM 1010, had just played a sound bite from Bucs coach Jon Gruden gushing over Graham's second 100-yard rushing day in four games. "I hope somebody recognizes, maybe one of these fancy cable channels, that we have one hell of a back here," Gruden said. Peterson sets it up, and the caller knocks it down. "Jeremy is up. Go ahead, Jeremy," he says. "Hey, Earnest. In listening to what Gruden had to say in his recent rant about you, hopefully, he looks in the mirror, man, because for a long time, you were overshadowed here," Jeremy said. "I'm really glad you've been given that opportunity." Members of the crowd, mostly young families with kids clutching footballs for Graham to sign, look up from their meals and roar with approval. Life has certainly changed for Graham, but it hasn't changed him.
Instead of borrowing a truck to drive home to another cheap hotel room, the way he did after being cut three times in the NFL, Graham rolls around in a 700 series BMW. He recently bought his mother a Chrysler Sebring convertible from Jim Browne Citrus Chrysler, an endorsement deal he picked up from the dealership near Dade City while rushing for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
Several years ago, he was forced to move his family into a two-bedroom apartment, where a friend let them live — with three other men — for free. Now his sprawling home in suburban Tampa is filled with the laughter of his extended family splashing in the pool.
"I've got maybe 10 kids there," Graham said. "And I understand how they all look at Uncle Earnest. I understand that. It allows me to do a lot more for them. A lot of things they need or they can't quite afford, things I know I needed or wished I had."
That's why Graham, 28, was relieved to receive the three-year, $10.5-million contract he signed in the summer — because of all the good it will do for others.
Proving he is not a one-hit wonder after injuries to Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman forced Gruden's hand, Graham is eighth in the league in rushing with 334 yards and two touchdowns. But more satisfying to the 5-foot-9, 225-pound Graham is how he has done it. His lack of speed was an excuse pro scouts use for not drafting him. But this season, he is the only back with four runs more than 45 yards.
"Last year, I was hurt, and I had to go," said Graham, whose longest carry was 28 yards in '07. "There were Fridays where I couldn't run. I was barely getting into the facility. I had to do some things to get myself to play. Last year was just me trying to be tough for the team. I think people are finally getting to see what I'm capable of."
There is not a hint of bitterness in Graham's voice. If you have any doubt, he wears his emotion under his sleeve. A tattoo on his left forearm reads Struggle Builds Character.
Graham's humble start in the NFL — as an undrafted free agent hanging on by covering kicks on special teams — prevents him from falling into the trap of fame and fortune that cancels so many careers.
"I think a lot of it has to do with work ethic, my love of sports itself being much deeper than money or fame or anything that comes with it," Graham said. "I'm always loyal to that. I think with a lot guys, you have success and more people start to want things. You're more requested for interviews, you have a radio show, you have endorsements. And those are all good things. But you still have to hold onto that time and even have more time to better yourself. I think it's very hard for guys to balance that schedule. … Because everybody is telling you that you've arrived. I'm never going to get to that point. I'm never happy with anything."
Need proof? When Graham was Florida's Mr. Football in Fort Myers, he once rushed for 400 yards and eight touchdowns in a game. "But the thing about it was, I thought I should've scored 10," Graham said.
The work ethic comes from his mother, Sandra Smith, a nurse who hid the pain of back surgery to support and raise four children as a single parent. "I would watch her literally take an hour to get out of the bed in the morning and go to work because she had to," Graham said. "Football, to me, is nothing."
Responsibility was heaped on Graham at an early age. At 9, his fifth-grade teacher, Marie Perry, had him teach Haitian adults how to speak English. By 12, he was using his mom's car to pick her up from work.
"I wouldn't recommend anyone do that, but I didn't have a choice," Graham said. "There was just a lot of stuff put on me at a young age. And I saw my friends go through so much, as far as drugs, death and trouble."
Last year, his brother, Brandon, was sentenced to prison for 70 months for conspiring to sell drugs. Graham wrote a letter to the judge at sentencing and still calls Brandon "the person I admire the most because of his personality, his toughness and braveness."
"I didn't want to do that, so I kind of took on those things at an early age, and it's kind of made me, me," he said.
As the radio show ends, a line forms near a table where Graham is seated, and he graciously poses for pictures and signs autographs for 45 minutes until no one is sent home empty-handed.
Scott Clark, the president of ProActive Advertising and marketing, remembers when Graham signed 100 footballs for a promotion at Browne's dealership. On Christmas Eve.
"He signed every last one without complaint," Clark said.
Last year, when Peterson persuaded him to do a few radio shows near the end of his breakout season, Graham showed up the first night with food for the entire crew. On his birthday.
Graham's older brother, Shawn Pope, surveys the scene at Champps from a distance.
"I'm proud of him," he said. "Anybody else would've given up."
Sunday, October 5, 2008, Section X