General manager Rod Graves holds aloft the Halas Trophy after the Cardinals beat the Eagles to win the NFC Championship.
More than 24 hours had passed since the Cardinals were crowned NFC Champions before Rod Graves succumbed to the emotion.
Before that, the team's general manager had congratulated many of his co-workers, being sure to call the many scouts who couldn't attend the game and thank them for their efforts. He tried to respond to the dozens of e-mails and texts from well-wishers. And Monday morning, there was plenty of work to prepare to go to the Super Bowl.
Eventually, he climbed into his car to go home. That's when everything welled up inside him.
"I got emotional," Graves said. "I was thinking what a wonderful opportunity we
have, how long the struggles have been to get here, what we have gone through to do it. We've been ridiculed, we've been told, 'You will never do it there' and 'You will never be able to get it done as long as the Bidwills own the team.' To see us finally get to where it came to fruition was overwhelming."
That Graves got to be a part of such success was a question mark for a long time. Graves' role in the franchise's journey had been dissected and criticized often as the losses piled up. Coming to the team in 1997 as an assistant to the president, Graves moved to vice president of football operations in 2002.
Then, when some wondered if he would escape the purge when then-coach Dennis Green was fired, Graves was instead promoted to general manager in 2007 by team president Michael Bidwill.
"A lot of the criticisms laid at his feet years ago related to the fact we had a lot more losses than wins, and he did have some responsibility with that," Bidwill said. "But the fact is he doesn't coach the players. That's not his role. He doesn't call the plays. I felt from his end of it, the scouting, the personnel, football operation, free agency, contract negotiations, organizing all those things, I thought he was doing a very good job."
Graves said it was Bidwill who continued to believe in both Graves and the plan Graves had to build the team. Graves said he was "forever the optimist" and tried not to put a time frame on when the turnaround would happen. He wanted to make sure the team improved yearly.
Graves and Bidwill decided to hire Ken Whisenhunt as coach in 2007, a move Graves said was the catalyst to the Cards' surge to the Super Bowl.
Whisenhunt, who said he has been "fortunate" to be able to work with Graves, is the Cards' lead voice. His arrival has clearly helped usher in the Cards' renaissance.
Graves prefers to stay in the background. He chuckled when he was asked if he had taken a moment to think how he had constructed a Super Bowl team, acknowledging only that he has enjoyed building "something special" and that the organization has hired good people around him.
He also said Bidwill's commitment to Graves' idea to lock up core players as a foundation has been important.
"It's not an extraordinary plan we are following, it's not unique in any way," Graves said. "I have taken the time of studying other successful organizations like the Steelers, New England, Indianapolis. I have tried to determine how they were doing it, and seeing if we can build our team the same way given the tools we have to work with. That has been my focus."
Cardinals long snapper Nathan Hodel has had plenty of chances to interact with Graves since arriving in 2001. Hodel has served as his own agent, negotiating contracts with Graves. He has dealt with Graves as a player, and he has dealt with Graves as the Cards' NFL Players Association representative.
In every case, Hodel said, Graves has been the same.
"He's up front, he's honest and he is to the point," Hodel said. "You always know what you will get from him, and in this business, that's all you can ask from anybody. As a person, he is humble and one of the nicest guys you'll want to meet."
Hodel went up to Graves in the locker room after the playoff win against Atlanta and made sure to tell him, "You're a big part of this."
"Rod deserves a lot of the credit," Hodel said.
It's not in Graves' nature to say so himself. Not that it matters to him, anyway. He's come a long way since getting into the league with the help of his father, Jackie -- a one-time personnel man with the Eagles – and then carving out his niche with a long-suffering franchise.
"I've got stories I can't begin to tell," Graves said with a smile. "When I reflect back on some of those difficult times, it just makes this moment that much more rewarding."
The Cardinals were off Sunday. The teams leaves for Tampa Monday at 9 a.m., in a trip that will be preceded by a sendoff rally for fans at Sky Harbor airport. The Cards resume practice Wednesday and will work out at the Buccaneers' facility in Tampa.
Contact Darren Urban at email@example.com. Posted 1/25/09.
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