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Shelton: Earnest Graham is the most underrated Tampa Bay Bucs player of all time

Some careers are about fame, and some are about fortune.

Some careers are defined by celebrity, and some are defined by controversy. Some are about sound bites, and some are about highlights. Some are about records, and some are about recognition.

Earnest Graham?

All he does is everything.

It is time to say it out loud. Graham is the most underrated, under-used, underappreciated Buc of all time. Stardom is for other players; Graham is a man with his feet on the ground.

Other running backs are faster, and other running backs are bigger, and other running backs certainly are richer. But day after day, game after game, position after position, who squeezes more out of his natural ability than Graham?

And don't you love the guy for it?

This is the role of the working man's player. He spends his days in the shadows, working, waiting until a chance comes along, and then he makes you wonder why he hasn't been used more. He plays this position and that one, getting whatever time he can, a supporting player in someone else's show. He does not pout. He does not thump his chest. He plays his role, he praises his teammates and he waits his turn.

Eventually, there comes a day such as Sunday, when the team once again looks to Graham. And once again, he performs. Graham, 31, still smelling like mothballs, ran for 109 yards against the Saints, and by the end of the day, you could not help but wonder how many 100-yard days he might have had if the Bucs were not quite so determined to find someone else.

Over the years, the Bucs have had a lot of players outperform their expectations. All teams do. The NFL is mesmerized by the big-talent players, but it is built on overachievers, on players whose mileage outdistances their expectations.

With the Bucs, it has been Greg Spires and Joe Jurevicius, Brad Culpepper and Dave Pear, Lawrence Dawsey and Karl Williams, Cecil Johnson and Randy Grimes, Mark Carrier and Mark Cotney, Chuck Darby and Steve Wilson. They are players who don't usually make Pro Bowls (although Pear made one), and they don't make commercials, and they don't make Halls of Fame. All they make are plays.

It is an odd phrase, "underrated.'' Every fan thinks his favorite player is underrated, because the world doesn't seem to measure his wonderfulness in the quite the same way. As much adulation as, say, Tom Brady gets, there are those who think he should get more, that people should toss rose petals as he drops back for a pass.

In other words, the kind of "underrated'' we're about isn't the stars who should be thought of as superstars. Take Ronde Barber, for instance. Barber still doesn't get all the credit he should. But he has made Pro Bowls, and his name will come up for Hall of Fame discussion. That's a different argument.

The truly underrated guys are players such as Jurevicius, who made huge plays for the Bucs in their Super Bowl year, or Spires, who was even better than you remember. They are those players who are overshadowed in success or disguised by failure. They can become local legends, and coaches' favorites, but greatness seems too much to ask for.

It is an ego business, professional football. Every backup thinks he should start, and every veteran thinks he should make more money, and every running back wants the ball more often. Deep down, you can be sure that Graham, who with salary and bonuses makes about $3 million, would like a bigger role, too. But utility players, the best of them, learn to govern their ego. It's called "getting it,'' and in pro sports, it is a rare gift.

Whenever Graham runs, think of this. Even when he was young, the NFL collectively agreed that Graham lacked the skills to play. Since his senior season at Florida in 2002, the NFL has drafted 180 backs. Not Graham. He made it the hard way, and he has stayed while most of the others have gone.

He has never had Cadillac Williams' speed, and he never had LeGarrette Blount's size, and he wasn't as strong as Mike Alstott, and he wasn't as elusive as Warrick Dunn. He isn't everything a coach wants in a back.

Yet, coaches love him. He is what he is, and he is that all the time. There are no slumps with Graham, no mood swings, no chest-thumping. He is a pro, and tomorrow, he will be a pro again.

What Graham has, what he always has had, is that rare ability to get everything out of a play, and everything out of a career. He has become the best player his skills would allow, and that may be the greatest compliment any player can receive.

He should not have been this good. He should not have lasted this long.

But appreciated? Admired? Embraced?

Yeah, Earnest Graham has earned every ounce of that.

Shelton: Earnest Graham is the most underrated Tampa Bay Bucs player of all time 10/18/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 11:47pm]
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