TAMPA — For Bucs fullback Earnest Graham, his favorite Christmas memory growing up came on a holiday when his family couldn't afford presents.
It didn't even have a tree.
But like she always did, Graham's late mother, Sandra Smith, made it special. And in many ways, it was a Christmas that helped shape the man Graham has become and how his family will celebrate the holiday today.
Graham said when he was around 10, he was living with his brother and sister at his grandmother's house in Fort Myers while Smith — a single mom and nurse — tried to make ends meet.
In the absence of gifts, Smith dug out some of her old records from the storage room, classics from Prince, the Commodores, Bobby Brown (one of Graham's favorites). The family sang. It danced. It laughed.
Graham, 30, said that sparked his lifelong passion for music (he took piano lessons for years and still writes lyrics). A few Christmases earlier, Smith had bought one gift for her kids to share, an Encyclopedia Britannica set. Today, Graham is a voracious reader.
"Christmas has always been special to me because it's fostered my love for certain things," Graham said. "And it was always time for us to spend as a family."
Graham said he has found himself reflecting on those Christmas memories a lot since his mother died last month at age 57 from cancer. And when he hosts about 20 family members in his Lutz home today, they plan to keep her memory alive in many ways.
Graham's wife, Alicia, said their kids, Aiyana, 7, and Earnest Jr., 4, have been picking out photos of Smith, whom they called "Ma," to put in a collage. They are thinking of having a "Ma's Recipe Cookoff," with Alicia and Graham's sister, Alfreka Bloomfield, among the women who would try their best to make some of Smith's favorite dishes: sour cream pound cake, mashed potatoes, sausage gravy.
And of course, there will be music.
"We all like to get together and play games and do karaoke," Alicia said. "And have the guys against the girls. It's always some competition involved."
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Graham's brother, Brandon, 29, hopes he can join in the fun, too.
Brandon was released from prison in mid October after serving a 70-month sentence for dealing drugs. He is in a halfway house in Tampa, where he has restrictions on where he can go. So the Grahams may have to bring the party to him.
Though Brandon realizes the mistakes he made, and the memories he missed out on, he feels blessed he got out of prison before his mom died.
"I honestly feel in my heart she was waiting on me," Brandon said.
While serving time at the Coleman Federal Correction Complex, about an hour north of Tampa, Brandon often called Earnest after Bucs games to offer support and "tell him what I liked."
Since his mother's death, he has picked up her tradition of texting Earnest before every game to offer encouragement or just to say "I love you."
Earnest helped support Brandon's fiancee and two daughters while he was away. They lived for a while in his home.
"My brother was like a crutch through the whole thing," Brandon said. "Not one day did I call him where he didn't have what I needed or wasn't there for me mentally. I don't really think there are lot of people like him."
Brandon's family members haven't been the only guests in Earnest and Alicia's home over the years.
"At some point in time, we've probably had every one of our family members living with us," Alicia said. "It's just the kind of person Earnest is. I kind of follow his lead."
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Graham plans to have his kids follow his lead today by going to Tampa's Metropolitan Ministries with Alicia to help serve food to the homeless.
He may not make it because of practice, but he brought his whole family Tuesday for the Bucs' annual Day of Giving. It is a charity event where players and team representatives surprise 30 underprivileged families at One Buc Place with gift cards, toys and tickets, and then take them on a shopping spree at a Target. Alicia and Earnest have given back a lot over the years, but they wanted their kids to join them this time.
The couple can spoil their kids now with gifts such as a four-wheeler or Nintendo DS because of Graham's four-year, $11 million contract extension signed in 2008.
But they haven't forgotten the tougher days.
When Graham was cut three times by the Bucs his rookie season in 2003 after being undrafted, he and Alician struggled, living with friends, staying in a hotel, moving around a lot.
For a few Christmases they couldn't buy Aiyana gifts. They'd instead take her to a park, do arts and crafts together or watch Christmas movies on TV.
"We've always tried to instill in our kids, it's not about what you get," Alicia said. "With our son … he came after we were able to do more, so we have to reel him back. He thinks Santa is supposed to bring 100 gifts."
Each Christmas, Alicia and Earnest have their kids each pick a toy from under their tree that they want to donate to Metropolitan Ministries.
"There's not much that Earnest can't do for his children," Alicia said. "So it's nice for them to be able to experience some less fortunate children and understand exactly how lucky and how blessed they are."
It's perspective Graham learned long ago from his mother, and that will be especially poignant today.
"She was my motivation for everything," Graham said. "When I make decisions, I think about her and what she'll think about that decision, and I try to make her proud. That still continues, even more so now."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]