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The Punter From Down Under

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After a successful career in Australian Rules Football, Ben Graham has carved out a nice stint in the NFL as a punter.

He was a famous star, playing professional sports in his hometown, and Ben Graham never had to leave such a comfortable perch.

Opportunity came from a different continent in a different sport, however. Graham?s willingness to take such a leap perhaps paved his ability to deal with the peaks and valleys of a new culture both in life and in work ? and should help keep him employed as the Cardinals? punter, a spot both miles and years away from his former life in Australian Rules Football.

?I just love it here,? Graham said this week, soaking in the cold tub after a workout. ?This game, and this team.?

Geelong was the place where Graham made his name, the local boy who emerged as the captain of the Geelong Cats. He helped anchor the team for 11 seasons, leading the life of fame and relative fortune that such an athlete would.

But at age 31, Graham knew life playing the Aussie Rules game was coming to an end. His body wouldn?t allow many more years. Inspired by another Aussie-turned-NFL punter, Darren Bennett, Graham wanted to ?see the world? and see if the kicking leg that had made his career in one sport could help him further his athletic life in another sport.

In no way was it simple. Relocating to a new continent, Graham and his family had issues with getting visas, social security numbers and establishing credit, all while Graham took the risk of making the NFL in 2005. There was a gamble in spending so much money on what essentially was a tryout with the New York Jets.

It worked ? for a time. Graham eventually signed a multi-million dollar contract with the Jets and he became the latest success story to go from Australia to the NFL. It was a great story, all the way up until the Jets? game against (coincidentally) the Cardinals last September.

The Jets unexpectedly cut Graham ? ?I had the carpet swept from under my feet, really,? he said ? leaving him without a job and with a decision to make. Stick with the NFL and uproot his family again? The Grahams decided yes, although his next gig lasted exactly one game, when he was signed by the Saints for their game against San Diego in London and then released again.

Five more weeks passed, and Graham wondered if he would hook on with a team again in 2008. That was about the time the Cardinals had decided they needed someone more consistent than the struggling Dirk Johnson.

?Everything felt right about the workout with the Cardinals,? Graham said, ?and everything has gone right since.?

His first game was the Cards? division clincher. His 12 punts (out of 20) inside the 20-yard line during the postseason was one of the best totals in NFL history. He became a huge star again before the Super Bowl because of all the Australian media attention Graham got as the first from his country to play in the NFL?s centerpiece game.

Graham?s work isn?t over. Special teams coach Kevin Spencer said even with Graham?s experience ? he will turn 36 during the season ? he ?isn?t a finished product.? While Graham has been great with the end-over-end kicks when drives stall around midfield, he is still learning the American game where deep-yet-hanging kicks are needed.

In the Aussie game, Graham just needed to kick to a teammate, even if it came backward over his head or bouncing along the ground, as a way of maintaining possession.

?He?s very coachable and he recognizes he?s got a lot to learn in this arena,? Spencer said. ?What he has done elsewhere is nice, but he still has to establish himself in this arena. It might even be tougher for Ben. I am always telling him we have to re-train his mind. He is so used to doing things (one way) that it is ingrained. He is in essence learning all over again.?

It?s not just his kicking which Graham had to re-set. His life used to be 120 minutes of constant play; now he comes out only when needed (and of course, the more he has to do his job the less successful his team has been).

Graham enjoyed the freedom once he arrived in the NFL to be ?normal? and not be famous everywhere he went as he had been in Australia; that mindset helps too, since stardom isn?t part of the NFL punter?s package.

The transition is ongoing. Graham is OK with that.

?At times it is difficult but at the end of the day, this is a team and this is my role,? Graham said. ?The team I used to be a part of and the sport I used to play, it was a different role. I don?t play that sport anymore.

?Do I miss playing (Aussie Rules)? No I don?t, because I can?t play it anymore. This is the sport I play now.?


Contact Darren Urban at askdarren@cardinals.nfl.net. Posted 5/12/09.

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