TAMPA — Eighteen minutes before his team kicked off against the Falcons on Nov. 7 in the Georgia Dome, Earnest Graham and his family surrounded his bedridden mother at his home in Tampa as she lost her one-year battle with cancer.
Sandra Smith was 57.
"When you play hard, you retire early," Graham said Monday, two days after his mother's memorial service in his native Fort Myers. "It is too young. But she lived a full life."
On any other NFL Sunday, Smith might have been at a stadium watching Graham run the football or at least cheering him in front of her television. But for a few weeks leading up to his mother's death, Graham was sidelined with a hamstring injury and was unable to accompany his team to Arizona and Atlanta.
"It was like a coincidence," Graham said of his injury. "With all my mom was going through, and me staying up with her at night, and me not sleeping much, my body was just under a lot of stress. After this week, I kind of feel fresh in my mind and fresh in everything else. I'm ready to go.
"The guys here have been so supportive, from the coaching staff, to everybody calling, to ownership. Actually, (Sunday), when LeGarrette (Blount) scored and ran off the field, he gave me the football, which was really nice of him. Lots of guys have been calling to check up on me and keeping me in good spirits. I made sure I was around when I could be. … But they were very, very supportive. I thank them for that."
Graham stood at his locker smiling as memories of his mother washed over him. She became a nurse in 1973, then worked more than 30 years in Lee County, Gainesville and Tampa.
Mostly, she raised and supported four children: Earnest, Shawn Pope, Alfreka Bloomfield and Brandon Graham. All three boys were standout running backs at Cape Coral Mariner High.
In fact, when Brandon arrived in high school, he took over the tailback spot, and Earnest moved to fullback.
"She told me to play my part. She told me to be happy for him," Graham said. "When he came to high school, they moved me to fullback. In my family, I'm like the third- or fourth-best player. My father was pretty good, and both of my brothers were unbelievable."
Smith was a good athlete and played softball.
"We used to race her all the time," Graham said. "Seriously. She would run right with us. But of course, we were boys, so by the time we got to be 10 or 11, we'd outrun her."
Smith got involved in her sons' careers. Graham said she wasn't above calling out opposing players or contacting coaches if she felt there was an injustice. When Graham faced rookie hazing as a freshman at Florida, a few teammates heard from her. She never forgave Florida State's Darnell Dockett for twisting Graham's leg during a game in 2001.
"She was very upset. I just kind of moved on, but she hung on a lot longer," Graham said. "Me and him let it go, but she wasn't letting it go."
Graham had no trouble reciting a checklist of things his mother loved to do. She fished but wasn't very good at it. She cooked and was terrific at it. "She made a great pound cake," Graham said. "Fifteen-bean soup, stuffed pork chops."
Smith also was a practical joker. She teased Graham relentlessly. "Everything kind of had a lesson behind it," he said. "It was just when I had first met my wife or whatever. If she just noticed me talking with or looking at another lady, she'd always threaten to go tell her. She'd get about an inch away or a second from telling her and she'd switch the subject to something else. She'd do that about a lot of things."
In later years, Smith focused on her nine grandchildren. Many of them had begun playing football, and she was enjoying going to their games and activities. Then, about a year ago, she was told she had cancer.
"She was very, very positive," Graham said. "But I think she knew. It was definitely tough on her because all her grandkids were starting to play sports and so she was starting to relive that thing all over again."
She lived long enough to see Brandon come home from prison last month after a five-year sentence on drug-dealing charges.
"She loved him; she never judged him," Graham said. "She knew he had to find his own way."
More than Graham's career in football, his relative fortune or fame, Smith was proud of how he had grown as a man.
"Just the man I am," Graham said. "She was never really concerned about awards and playing time. She just wanted things to be fair for me. She just wanted me to be treated right, maybe because she knew how hard I worked, and of course she wanted that hard work to pay off."
Saturday, at the memorial service, a large crowd packed a church to pay tribute to a woman who affected so many lives.
"I learned a lot of stuff about her that I didn't know," he said. "Quite a few people turned out from all over Lee County. It went great. She was special. She was a special lady.
"She meant the world to me."