Kick of fate

1-28-04, 6:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

HOUSTON _ There is no doubt in his holder's mind that if Shayne Graham had survived the closeasthis competition in training camp, the Panthers would still be here alive and kicking in the Super Bowl.

"I've seen so many kickers come in. I know the talent," said Todd Sauerbrun before practice Wednesday. "Whether it was here or somewhere else, I knew who ever landed him, he was going to be a lifer. His ball is so clean. He's so smooth. The Bengals are lucky to have him."

The Bengals apparently feel the same way because they seem to be trying to sign him before he becomes a restricted agent in early March. Graham, who has gone from journeyman to auto pilot, says, "something is possibly brewing," when it comes to a long-term deal, and he welcomes the talks the club is having with his agent because he feels like the confidence the Bengals coaching staff entrusted in him boosted his career.

"You know you can do it," Graham said this week as he takes in the Super festivities from his home in Virginia. "But when others show that confidence in you, it gives you even more.'

The Bengals didn't exactly get Graham via a coin flip, but it was close. John Kasay, 34, the first and only kicker the Panthers have ever really had, staved off the 26-year-old Graham in a scrum some thought the kid may have won back in August an September.

Even Kasay mused here this week, "it could have gone either way." Special teams coach Scott O'Brien said the only real difference was that Kasay had a solid track record for game winners. Sauerburn, the Pro Bowl punter, said, "experience was the only thing John really had on him. They felt like we were going to go a long way and wanted the guy who had been there."

"It was very healthy. Shayne probably had the decided advantage from the standpoint that he had been in a number of those," said Kasay of the training camp scramble. "I was drafted. I had a few battles along the way, but not the tough road he had to follow, so it was neat for me to be able to be in that situation. If we did well, things could work out well for both of us."

Kasay and Sauerbrun called it through the uprights.

Less than a day from getting the release from Panthers head coach John Fix, Graham got picked up on waivers by the Bengals. Thanks to special teams coach Darrin Simmons' work with him the year before as the Panthers assistant special teams coach, and Graham ended up having the Bengals' most accurate field-goal kicking season in history in his first full season when he made 22 of 25 attempts despite showing up five days before the opener.

Meanwhile, the Panthers' gut feeling that Kasay's success with the game on the line would be called on in a playoff run was as accurate as Kasay. Three field goals ended Carolina victories in the Panthers' wild Six Flags ride in which they won eight games on their last possession. He would have beaten the Rams in the playoffs in overtime, but a delay-of-game penalty waved off a 40-yarder. In the victory over Dallas to open the playoffs, Kasay tied a NFL post-season record with five field goals.

"I've got a lot of friends on that team, including John, and it's been great to watch," Graham said. "I don't have any hard feelings. If I'm going to leave a town and a team, then why not have a classy guy like John Kasay who has been one of the best kickers in the NFL for years be that (other) guy? I'm rooting for him to have his best year. I take that as a huge compliment."

Kasay, original Panther, community icon, and faith believer, is the guy Graham has modeled himself after on and off the field. Last year, Graham was the guy in Carolina when Kasay suffered a sports hernia and impressed people by hitting 13 of 18 field-goal tries to set up the summer competition.

O'Brien still remembers Graham's first field-goal try that season. Graham signed with the club on the Saturday they left for Green Bay and only had a pre-game warmup to prepare for his first field goal try since 2001. It ended up going wide from 24 yards out with 16 seconds left in the game and the Panthers trailing, 17-14. But he rebounded to hit 13 of his last 17, two from 50 yards.

"That kick in Green Bay could have set in with him," O'Brien said. "But he showed that he was mentally tough, which is something all specialists have to have. The guy's a hard worker. He made some technique changes that helped him be more consistent."

O'Brien said Graham went through the litany of the detail work. Graham worked on the angle to the ball in his approach, and his ability to follow-through on line on the kick.

"That doesn't affect the kick, but if affects the impact of the kick," O'Brien said. "Little things like that."

Graham took notes on the big things from Kasay. How he handled adversity and success off the field. How he called on his faith and how he lived his life.

"I remember walking back to the dorms with him every night after meetings and any kind of down time, we always would share stories and experiences and jokes," Graham said. "He's a completely class act. He never tried to offer too much advice, but he always had good advice when I asked.

"We all try to develop our own skills, our habits," Graham said. "If anything, I took a lot of the things he did."

It's funny, but their fates were so intertwined in the summer and so separate during the fall. They spoke a few times, but since Kasay doesn't read the papers, he really wasn't aware Graham was having the best season in Bengals' history. After Kasay hit his first 21 field-goal tries and then missed four of his next 10, Graham didn't call, either.

"When you hit a bump in the road like that, you know from experience that he's got all kinds of people talking to him and I didn't want to add to it," Graham said. "I knew what was going on. His kids were probably hearing it in school and the town was just coming down hard on him because they were doing well."

Kasay feels badly that he owes Graham a call from three weeks ago.

"When everything washed out the way it did, I told him that he s ready," Kasay recalled here this week. "I told him, 'You're ready to play. You've really worked hard and really developed.' I'm not surprised by the season he's had. I really thought it would work out well for both of us no matter what happened."

Just a couple of weeks ago, Sauerbrun spent an evening out with Graham when Graham came back to Charlotte after the Bengals' season to pick up some things. His placid demeanor amazes his friend and helps him on the field.

"It's his personality," Sauerbrun said. "Nothing would bother him regardless because that's how he goes about every day life. I find it rather intriguing to be honest with you. He's a great kid. He can be my kicker any day.'

Sauerbrun thought the competition helped steel Kasay during his slump, which ended with seven straight field goals to end the regular season and this prolific postseason. But Kasay said, "It's kind of like your golf swing. You just work on the fundamentals, some of the basic things. There's a lot of things that God can teach you from failure as well as success. So it was a good time for me to grow personally."

Much like Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna, Kasay draws strength from his faith.

"God has put me in a position to glorify him, and some of you guys know some of the injuries that I've had," said Kasay, who missed all of the 2000 season with the dreaded torn anterior cruciate knee ligament. "But I have been very blessed to be able to come back and play. He prepares me, strengthens me, and gives me the courage to go out and do it."

Graham likes the way Kasay goes out and does it.

"He has the most fluid, effortless swing with his leg I've ever seen," Graham said. "Just watch him. Look how easy it is. He has such a nice follow through. That's what I want for people to say about me. That's what the great athletes do. They make it look so easy."

But Kasay is the first to tell you. This year was far from easy. Graham made sure of that. And, in a very real way, Kasay made it easier for Graham.

"I can't tell you how many times other kickers in the league came up to me before or after a game and told me, 'John Kasay says you're a great guy,'" Graham said. "They said, 'If John Kasay says that, that's good enough for me.' That means a lot to me."

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