6-16-04, 10:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
He has heard it from everybody passing through the locker room. From his holder. Straight to his snapper. To the guys who really do make the big money.
"You're making too much money now to miss any kicks," they kid Shayne Graham. "You're going to have to earn your money this year."
But Graham has also heard the coaches passing through and stopping across from where he dresses. They grab some of the rookie free agents housed in the temporary row of lockers.
"Look at this guy right there," the coaches say, pointing to Graham. "He's the poster child for undrafted free agents. You guys need to know his story. It's not an easy road, but it can work out for you."
Now, for the rest of his story.
A year ago at this time, Graham was in Carolina, his fourth city in four years with 17 NFL games, 19 field goals, a minimum salary, and no houses to his name. Now he's got two houses, a franchise record, and a million dollar salary after making a Bengals' best 22 of 25 field-goal tries.
$1.3 million to be exact, which makes him a top five kicker. As well as very aware.
"It's an odd feeling, and challenging as well. I'm kind of looking forward to see how I react to it," said Graham after Wednesday's on-field coaching session, as if still pinching himself from the events of early March.
"I've always been in a fight to win a job and to prove myself," he said. "In a way, I'm not fighting against one individual. I'm fighting against the potential of what could happen if I don't do well. I don't want people to be saying during the season, 'They paid this guy a lot of money and he's not doing very well.'"
Graham doesn't want people to think about the money, but he knows they will. Back in March, the Jaguars signed him to a five-year, $6.5 million deal, with $2 million of the $3 million guaranteed coming with the signing. Because he was a restricted free agent, the Bengals had the right to match and they barely let the Jaguars' offer sheet spit out of the fax machine before signing it.
Not bad for a guy who shoved a week's worth of clothes in the car and drove west when the Panthers put him on waivers and the Bengals claimed him less than a week before last year's season opener.
"It means some security," Graham said. "But it doesn't take away from some of life's stresses."
But he can now do what most NFL kickers can only dream about. In January, he bought a house near his hometown in Pulaski County in Virginia. Then came the deal, and he bought a home in Loveland, Ohio, on the east side of Cincinnati. He's also putting the finishing touches on his foundation.
"I always knew home would be a place I could go back to after (five releases). I didn't know where to buy, except for home. Then wouldn't you know it, two months later home is here," Graham said.
He'll keep both and get involved in the community here. One part of his foundation is going to give about 15-20 tickets per game to children. Another plan on the burner has Graham donating a certain number of soup cans with every field goal to Cincinnati's Freestore/Foodbank.
No one thinks the money and the added activity is going to turn Graham's head. Because nothing has yet.
"He acts the same on every kick," said long snapper Brad St. Louis. "No matter the wind, the weather, the score. He's always the same."
His flat-line persona is a major reason that special teams coach Darrin Simmons endorsed the Bengals' decision to take him off the waiver wire. Simmons had been with him in Carolina the year before, when Graham signed with the club on the Saturday they left for Green Bay. He only had a pre-game warmup to prepare for his first field goal try in more than a year, and it ended up going wide from 24 yards out with 16 seconds left in the game and the Panthers trailing, 17-14. Instead of devastating him, Graham responded by hitting 13 of his last 17 tries, two from 50 yards.
"There's going to be more pressure to perform. He has to understand that it comes with the territory," Simmons said. "But its all pressure he can self-inflict. He can control it. I've been around him long enough to know that he'll be able to more than handle it."
This is why the Bengals like him. Minicamps and on-field sessions aren't the time for kickers to show off their wares, but head coach Marvin Lewis did let him on the field once in last weekend's mandatory minicamp. It was at the end of a two-minute drill at the end of a game, and they rushed him on the field and he hit "a fortysomething yarder."
"I enjoyed that. It's good to do something like that in front of the whole team, everyone gets a little excited," Graham said. "You have confidence in yourself, but then the guys have some confidence in you. That's why I'm here. This team has done so much for me, I want to make kicks to win games."
Simmons says kickers should be in the middle of their preparation at this point of the spring. The focus at the moment is simply trying to regain the rhythm from last year and that can be hard in June when kicking isn't at the top of the agenda.
For instance, for the past couple of weeks Graham hasn't had much access to St. Louis because of injuries to tight ends Matt Schobel and Tony Stewart. While St. Louis has been taking snaps from scrimmage, Simmons, the former Kansas punter, has been doing much of the snapping. As far as a snapper, Simmons is a fine special teams coach, but Graham didn't miss a single kick all practice last Saturday with his new snapper.
"Now is the time of year for Brad to do that, to get work with the tight ends, and now is the time of year for the kickers to hone their skills," Simmons said. "And when you have just one, you have to watch your numbers. You can't kick too much and get him worn out."
That means much of the work is on his own and he's merely going through the steps. For the past month he has been trying to firm up his follow through and make sure his leg finishes straight instead of wandering across his body.
Graham knows he has to improve his kickoffs, but he also knows last year was the first time he kicked off for an entire season.
"It's going to come down to just taking more reps before the season," Graham said. "It's the first time I've known I was going to do it for the whole season and that should be a big help. I know I can kick off better than I did last year."
Simmons plans to emphasize kickoffs during training camp and he'll send Graham off with about nine or 10 kickoffs on Friday, the last day of practice before they report to camp July 30.
"You have to watch the numbers there, too," Simmons said. "That takes more out of a guy than you think. With him, I just think it's going to be a matter of doing it, and then to keep doing it."
Graham shrugs. There are goals.
"The Pro Bowl, that's the ultimate," he said. "I'd like to do better than 88 percent. You'd like to hit more than 90, but I'm going to try for 100. It's only been done once or twice."
Why not? Last year, he was on the money. This year, he can have the best of both worlds. He can be on the money and in the money.