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Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Earnest Graham doesn't pout over reduced role

“We’re all in this game together. … You have to put all your selfishness aside,” Earnest Graham says.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

“We’re all in this game together. … You have to put all your selfishness aside,” Earnest Graham says.

TAMPA — Whether it was the long road to career stability full of hairpin curves or the difficult upbringing that made "home" a relative term, Earnest Graham's life experiences have made him ever so adaptable.

His story is familiar: a Mr. Football Florida who scored 33 touchdowns for the Gators only to be left on the sideline on draft day. He worked his way up from being cut twice to the practice squad to special teams extraordinaire to featured back.

But what has happened since wasn't supposed to be part of the script.

A 2007 in which he led the Bucs in rushing was followed by a productive 2008 cut short by a right ankle injury then one in which he is on pace for his fewest touches since 2006 — before his career's dramatic change of course. Now B.J. Askew's car accident has led to Graham taking on the inglorious role of starting fullback.

You might feel sorry for Graham until you realize the last thing he wants is sympathy.

"I think all that has made me who I am," said Graham, 29. "I have a broader perspective of life. I never walk in this building and feel like I don't want to be here and I'm being done wrong. I'm in a great situation."

That's probably not what anyone expects from a running back with 12 touches — eight carries and four catches — halfway through a dreadful 1-7 season. But nothing in Graham's life has been typical.

"When I was young, we moved every year, it seemed," he said. "We'd get evicted and move again. In my first year here (in Tampa), I didn't have a place to stay. Me and my wife had nowhere to go. You go through ups and downs, period, in life."

Cadillac Williams' re-emergence and the acquisition of Derrick Ward combined to make Graham an afterthought. His days of carrying the ball 20-plus times a game ended abruptly.

"You really don't get that out of your system, but you keep it in perspective," Graham said. "You always try to be a team guy and handle the situation accordingly. What you're asked to do may not always be the situation you want.

"But we're all in this game together. What's good for the team is good for everybody. And to stay in this game and continue feeding my kids, you have to put all your selfishness aside."

That has made the job of offensive coordinator Greg Olson easier. Having Graham took away some of the sting of losing Askew. But the Bucs didn't ask him to play fullback simply because he was willing. It had as much to do with his prowess for the position.

"Neither … Derrick or Cadillac could do that," Olson said. "You have to have what we call 'punch' or 'snap'. Earnest has shown that he can take on linebackers bigger and have some pop when he hits them. And he makes contact with them.

"A lot of guys catch (the defender) when they get in the hole and stop moving their feet. Earnest isn't that way. He explodes through on contact."

Williams has been the beneficiary of many of those efforts, and Graham speaks of how he loves blocking for him and watching him resurrect his career after two knee surgeries. The two are close friends and have just finished playing a heated game of pool.

Graham came out on top.

Then again, he already feels like a winner.

"I love the game," he said. "If they asked me, I would play linebacker. And I love the guys that I go to work with. It's not about who runs on the field first. It's about the goals that we have. You think about all those things first and then you think about how you can help the team reach that goal.

"That's what I do."

Bucs at Dolphins

1 p.m. Sunday, Land Shark Stadium, Miami

TV/radio: Ch. 13; 103.5-FM, 620-AM Line: Miami by 10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Earnest Graham doesn't pout over reduced role 11/12/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 12, 2009 11:04pm]
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