I met a lot of outstanding people during my time as a sports columnist at this great American newspaper, but none finer than Earnest Graham. He was an undersized, overlooked and often under-appreciated running back who managed to survive eight seasons with the Buccaneers.
He was a lot more than that, though.
Earnest Graham was what you hope professional athletes will be. He never got in trouble off the field. He was willing to take on any role with the Bucs — special teams, blocking back, backup or, when the situation demanded, he could carry the load. He was a leader and always accountable.
He never forgot that he went undrafted out of the University of Florida. He was even living out of his truck for a time while chasing his dream of playing in the National Football League. He learned to never give up, but he knew it could all go away in an instant.
Maybe that's why he made the transition from playing to the rest of his life so seamlessly. Little more than a year after his career ended because of an injury, Graham, along with former teammate Cadillac Williams, has started insurance and real estate businesses.
He has plans to open a café and write a book. He is becoming active in Tampa charities. He is giving back to the city he says gave him so much.
"I was always a guy that knew throughout my career I might not be playing football the next year," he said. "That was just reality."
Reality gave him a hard look on Oct. 24, 2011, at Wembley Stadium in London. His cleats got caught on the loose turf of the soccer stadium and he tore his right Achilles tendon. He had decided to change to longer cleats before that game for the first time in his career.
"I regret that to this day," he said. "That turf was made for soccer so players could run and slide and I had a misstep. I knew it was over then."
Graham said he tried to soak in every detail of his final minutes as a pro football player, but he hasn't looked back since. His contract expired after last season, and it was understood that the Bucs would look to younger players. Graham knew the deal. He was a 32-year-old running back coming off a major injury. It was time to get on with life.
"I still follow them," he said. "Actually, Sunday afternoon now is a joy for me I never experienced before. I get to watch from a fan's perspective now, kicking back with my sons and just enjoying the game. The Bucs are headed in the right direction. They are getting set up for long-term success. I have no doubt about that."
Sunday, the Bucs celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their 2002 Super Bowl championship. Graham didn't come along until 2003 as a practice squad player, but he said he might be at Raymond James Stadium to show support.
Come Monday morning, though, he'll become Earnest Graham, entrepreneur, all over again. He has businesses to build, charities to support, and a life to live.
"I'm not trying to live in the past," he said. "I enjoyed every second as a player, but that's over. I'm not looking back."