In the second and final part of Cory Van Dyke’s feature, Shayne Graham discusses his NFL career and future goals. Click here for part 1.
‘It Takes Mental Toughness’
Graham’s NFL career saw him connect on 277-of-324 (85.5 percent) field goals, including a Pro Bowl season in 2005. The 15-year pro retired after the 2015 season, but he didn’t just jump into the league right out of college.
Graham didn’t attempt his first kick in the NFL until week 12 of the 2001 season. Undrafted out of college, Graham took part-time jobs as a substitute teacher where he could kick on the school’s football field at the end of the school day, and at Gold’s Gym where he’d workout every day before his shift began.
The freedom in his schedule without the balancing act needed in college afforded Graham the opportunity to dedicate more time to kicking and all the intricacies needed to be an NFL kicker. It’s part of the reason Graham saw his accuracy jump from 73.4 percent in college to 85.5 percent in the NFL.
“It’s hard to truly obsess over your skill,” Graham said. “I think I did obsess as much as I could. I probably could have dedicated more obsession to it. Those who knew me knew that I probably obsessed more than most people. I also had so many other things that I was trying to do. Trying to be a student, trying to do all these things that I wasn’t able to give literally 100 percent of my daily time and effort to it. That’s everyone in college. When I got to the NFL, I was able to dedicate more of my time because it was my job. It was my profession.”
So how was Graham able to carve out a 15-year career in the NFL as a journeyman who played for 14 different teams? It all came down to a mental toughness that very few kickers possess when facing the most difficult situations.
“Kickers have a reputation of being kind of head cases or whatever,” Graham said. “I think it takes mental toughness. Mental toughness comes with what we call in the NFL ‘rhinoceros skin.’ You had to have a thick skin. If you got all sensitive and hurt over little things, then you’d never be able to handle any bad moments that happen to you.
“You see the guys who can’t handle it when a coach yells at them. You see the guys who can’t handle it when the fans get on them. Those are the guys who may have talent, but they’re not going to last that long. When you look at what makes a guy in the NFL good, it’s not just he has talent, he can kick a ball, he can throw a ball, he can run fast, he can catch, he can run a good route. It’s are they mentally tough so they can continue to do all those things when things aren’t good.”
According to Graham, the physical conditions involved in everything in the NFL make it easier to kick. Snappers and holders are better, spending countless hours in the same routine for their job. The playing surface benefits the kickers with tightly, manicured grass. The hash marks are even narrower in the NFL, making it an easier kick. So then, why do All-American college kickers struggle in the NFL? It simply comes down to the mental toughness that Graham displayed over his decade and a half in the pros.
“In the NFL, if you miss two [kicks] in a game, and you’re not an Adam Vinatieri who has a little bit of leverage to hold your job, then you’re going to be taking a flight that next day to go back to your hometown because you got fired,” Graham said. “You start bringing in the elements of fear and a lot of these young kids out of college have not learned to overcome fear. That fear is failure. When you have the fear of failure you’ll never be able to succeed because you’re always worried about the result and what’s going to happen if. The guys who become very good in the NFL, they worry about the process that gets them there and they know the result will come after the process, so they don’t focus on the result.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, you’re a kicker. You can play for 20 years.’ No. There are kickers who have played for 20 years, but for every kicker that you hear about that has played for 20 years there’s 100 that played one game. There’s 100 that played one season.”
Graham found consistency with the Bengals for seven years from 2003-2009. However, after failed contract negotiations, Graham bounced around the league filling in for injuries or on teams who wanted an experienced kicker for the playoff push ahead. It never allowed him to earn another long-term deal, so he decided to hang up his cleats following the 2015 season.
“When the season was over, it was, ‘Well, you’re a veteran who’s going to cost us more money. We’re going to go after a young guy who’s going to give us a future.’ It was just a matter of that,” Graham said. “Finally, after time and living out of corporate apartments and extended stays, I kind of just said ‘I think it’s time to retire and move on with the next phase of my life.’”
‘I Want to be Able to Impact Lives’
Upon retirement, it didn’t fit in Graham’s DNA to hit the golf course and vacation for the rest of his life. His competitive spirit and detail-oriented nature longed for something more.
Graham reflected on the positive influences in his own life.
“My high school coach, Joel Hicks, was a legend,” Graham said. “He appreciated kicking. I was able to attempt a lot of field goals in my career, and not a lot of high school kids get to do that. That got me exposure and got me noticed to where I was able to have scholarship offers and set my future from that point and made me have a lot of respect for him as a coach.
“Working for Coach Beamer, he’s like a father to me. We still have a close relationship to this day. I think when you have those types of positive influences in your coaches and someone says, ‘Hey, you should be a coach,’ it makes you think, ‘You know what, I think I want to be able to impact lives like those people did.’”
In his free time, Graham was a savant studying the finer details of special teams play like the blocking schemes and techniques on returns to exploit the open field.
“When I got toward the end of my playing career I knew I wanted to get into coaching because I wanted to be an influence, but I wanted to learn even more and be able to teach it about the entire special teams phases of the game,” Graham said.
In 2017, Graham joined Central Michigan as a quality control coach. A year later, Graham moved to Michigan State as a special teams analyst, and now he finds himself at the University of Florida as a special teams quality control assistant.
“My goal is I want to be an NFL coordinator and one day I want to retire as an NFL coordinator, hopefully with a Super Bowl ring that I never got as a player,” Graham said. “Whatever it is, it’s always a mountain to climb. I felt like if I had just retired I would be on the edge just dangling my feet. I much prefer to climb up.”