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LAKE BUENA VISTA — Earnest Graham knew his life and career changed after his breakthrough performance last year. But a trip up north six weeks ago brought those changes into perfect clarity.
ESPN flew Graham up to their Bristol, Conn., headquarters to film a commercial for ESPN Fantasy Games. The 20-second spot started airing this week and ends with the tagline, "Who is this year's Earnest Graham?"
Yes, Graham has finally arrived.
"It's what can happen in 10 weeks' time," Graham said Saturday after his first workout of training camp. "You go from playing wing on the punt (team) to scoring touchdowns and doing commercials. It's crazy."
Further proof of the change in Graham's status? When he walked into the special teams room at the team hotel, his name wasn't on the board.
"That was weird," Graham said, who has played on special teams in each of his first four years on the Bucs.
At this time last year Graham was known as "Mr. August" in these parts for his prolific work during preseason games. But nationally the special teams star had no profile. He entered last season with 52 carries, mostly mop-up work in regular season games.
But that changed fast. After rushing for 75 yards and two touchdowns against St. Louis in relief of Carnell Williams on Sept. 23, Graham took over the starting tailback position the following week when Williams tore the patellar tendon in his right knee against Carolina.
Opportunity and a lack of depth — now-departed back Michael Pittman was hurt the following week — turned Graham into a workhorse. The Cape Coral Mariner product finished the season with 898 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns, along with 49 receptions. Graham touched the ball 271 times, a workload he hadn't logged since being a featured back at the University of Florida in 2002.
He didn't talk much about it last year, but for a good stretch in 2007 Graham was the running game.
"That was rough and I didn't stay healthy, either," Graham said. "I took every single play for five or six games and that's rough. Numbers-wise it came out well, but there's nothing like a fresh back in this game."
That's why Graham welcomed the signings of Warrick Dunn and Michael Bennett this offseason. Both backs add a speed dimension that the 5-foot-9, 225-pound Graham cannot. And while head coach Jon Gruden said on Friday that Graham would start camp as the starting tailback, Graham knows that Dunn and Bennett will get their carries.
And Graham knows that he can't escape the perception that he might only be a one-year wonder. So he doesn't concern himself with that talk. He just seeks to fit in to the system that did wonders for him a year ago.
"Gruden uses a lot of different packages," Graham said. "The starter is on the field for the first play of the game. But if you know football, you know you need all of those guys."
Being a starter usually means receiving "starter money," and Graham eventually received a contract extension that will keep him with the Bucs through 2011. But Graham did sit out all of the organized team activities before showing up at mini-camp in June. For the first time in years Graham had an agent, Drew Rosenhaus, and some of those negotiations were played out in the media.
The deal finally came together in late June and will pay Graham $2.5 million in 2008. The contract could pay him up to $11 million, though none of that money is guaranteed.
Still, it was a victory for Graham who, up until last year hadn't sniffed a starting job, much less a national commercial.
"It always feels good to have that recognition," Graham said. "I wouldn't consider it (the contract negotiations) turmoil. It was something that had to be done and something that was understood between me and the organization. I was glad to get it done. I've been here in this community a long time and I'm happy to increase my role."
Matthew Postins is the editor and publisher of bucsblitz.com.