Cardinals' kicker to be first Australian in Super Bowl


Ben Graham
Ben Graham

Arizona Cardinals' Ben Graham, of Australia, punches the football back to the long snapper during afternoon practice at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers training facility Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009, in Tampa, Fla. The Cardinals will face the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, on Sunday.

Ross D. Franklin/The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 7:12 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 7:12 a.m.

TAMPA, Fla. Ben Graham shook his head slowly, nodding in agreement: Yes, if there's anything more improbable than the Arizona Cardinals being in the Super Bowl, it's him being here with them.

Cut three times this season and out of work two months ago, the 35-year-old punter will become the first Australian to play in the NFL championship game Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"I'm on top of the world. I'm still pinching myself," Graham said Wednesday. "These last eight weeks have been unbelievable."

The former Australian Rules Football star was waived twice in September by the New York Jets, then spent one week in October with the New Orleans Saints. Five weeks into a hiatus the fourth-year pro expected to last until next season, the Cardinals signed him on Dec. 1.

Since joining the NFC champions, he's punted in four regular-season and three playoff games. He delivered his best performance in Arizona's first-round victory over Atlanta with four of six punts downed inside the Falcons' 20 three inside the 10-yard line.

"We made a change with a few weeks left in the season at that position because we felt that in the playoffs it was going to be important, field position especially," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

"He's brought a stabilizing influence to that, as well as an ability to pin the punts deep, which is something that is really advantageous."

Graham played for, and eventually captained, Geelong in the Australian Football League from 1993-2004. He played full back and his towering kick-outs, to restart play after points, were a feature of his game.

That brought attention from NFL teams early in his Australian Rules career, but he delayed a move until his retirement from a sport whose physical demands end most careers not long after the age of 30. He moved to the United States and signed with the Jets, who had initially approached him in 1997.

"Growing up in Geelong and living in Geelong, it's been known as a fishbowl community. We wanted to get out. We wanted to experience the big wide world," Graham said of the decision he and his wife made to move the family to New York.

"The first six months were tough. ... We had our ups and downs. But to me, it's been an amazing journey."

In four NFL seasons, he's averaged 43.5 yards per punt.

He fell out of favor in New York after struggling against New England in Week 2 this season. The Jets wound up cutting him twice in 12 days, telling him they were "moving in another direction."

"I honestly didn't see it coming. I thought I was going to be with the Jets for the rest of my career," Graham said.

The punter's appearance in the Super Bowl is attracting lots of attention. A dozen family members and friends will make the trip from Australia to Tampa for Sunday's game, and others will watch it on television.

"I would say it's big, but not massive," said Anthony Sharwood, who's covering the Super Bowl for the Australian sports magazine Alpha. He added that most sports fans there are more interested in the Australian Open and ongoing cricket season.

"This is a diversion that people are noticing. It's not front page or major headlines," Sharwood added. "But if he wins, that's going to change."

While he's the first athlete from his country in the Super Bowl, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Graham doesn't expect to be the last. He envisions more Australian Football League players pursuing or extending careers in the NFL.

He noted many of the skills needed to excel in Australia relate well to the American game.

"I've got no doubt that the American system, whether it be the NFL or college, will look to Australia. I know a lot of punters in the college system already," Graham said. "I'm sure there'll be more interest, and this creates that interest."

Arizona special teams coach Kevin Spencer is not sure what happened between Graham and the Jets. He's just knows the punter has been a key contributor since replacing Dirk Johnson for the Cardinals' stretch run.

"It's like art. Some people think it's a beauty and some people think it's garbage," Spencer said.

"Something happened that changed their feelings about him. He's been through a rough year in that respect. ... I think he got the whole gamut of the NFL, but I'm really happy that we got him."

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