Thursday, August 13, 2009
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G'day: Aussie punter Graham shines with Cardinals

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[August 13, 2009]  FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- Last November, Ben Graham was just another unemployed punter.

Two months later he became the first Australian to appear in the Super Bowl, punting for the Arizona Cardinals.

"It signifies the ups and the downs, the highs and the lows of being an NFL player, which I never knew existed when I first came over here from Australia," Graham said during a break from practice at Northern Arizona University.

InsuranceA former Australian Rules Football star, Graham was cut three times last season -- twice by the New York Jets, once by New Orleans. But he's been a welcome addition to an Arizona team that has had its share of punting problems in recent years.

With quarterback Kurt Warner throwing to fellow Pro Bowlers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals don't expect to punt very often. When they do, they're glad to have the 35-year-old Graham handling the oft-unappreciated chore.

"Obviously, the punter situation has been in flux for us the (last) two years," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "We've made changes during the season twice, which is unusual. But I think we feel good about Ben and the progress that he's made as the punter."


At a strapping 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, the good-natured Graham looks more like an Australian Outback cowboy than a punter. That's fitting, because he took an unusual route to the NFL, where he has averaged 43.5 yards per punt in four seasons.

Graham first attracted the attention of NFL scouts during his career with Geelong in the Australian Football League from 1993-2004.

The most interested club was the New York Jets. Eric Mangini, then a Jets assistant, had seen a video of Graham booting a ball over Melbourne's Yarra River as part of a made-for-television event featuring Australian Football League players.

Graham eventually signed with the Jets before the 2005 season. At 31 years and 13 days, he became the second-oldest player to make his debut in an NFL game since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

Graham lasted three-plus years with the Jets. But last season he had his first taste of the business side of the NFL.

The Jets released Graham twice in a two-week span last September. He caught on with New Orleans a month later, joining the Saints for their game in London on Oct. 26.

After the game, Graham flew to New Orleans with the team, and the next day he was told to report to coach Sean Payton's office.

"The first time I went (to New Orleans) was to go to Sean Payton's office to get cut," Graham said. "That was more confusing and hurt more than what happened at the Jets because there was really no explanation."

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Graham thought about taking his wife and three children back to Australia, but the kids were enrolled in school in New Jersey, and the family decided to stick it out through the season. Graham kept working out and hoped another team would need a punter.

"That was the point where we said, well, we can either stick with it or we can pack up and go back to Australia," Graham said. "I kept working hard in the gym and kicking every day, knowing that if that opportunity came, then I'd have to make the most of it."

Opportunity came when the Cardinals released Dirk Johnson late in the season.

Graham knew little about Arizona's woeful history when he signed with the Cardinals on Dec. 1. In his first game, the Cardinals clinched their first division title since 1975.

"It's funny," Graham said. "I came in with a fresh slate. I didn't really understand the history. People want to remind you of it. I felt I was part of the new breed. I wasn't influenced by the past. All I knew of the Cardinals was they're having a great year."

Two months later, the Cardinals reached the Super Bowl -- and Graham played a role in their improbable playoff run.

He landed 12 of his 20 playoff punts inside the opposition's 20-yard line, the second-highest total since the NFL began tracking that statistic in 1970.

In the Super Bowl loss to Pittsburgh, Graham dropped a punt at the Steelers' 2-yard line late in the fourth quarter, leading to a safety. The Cardinals also credit Graham with setting up a safety in the playoff opener against Atlanta.

After bouncing around like a football last season, Graham, the only punter in camp, expects to stay in the desert for a while.

"Hopefully, we're not moving in a hurry," he said.

[Associated Press; By ANDREW BAGNATO]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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