Jets' Punter Happy to Be Just a Face in the Crowd
By KAREN CROUSE
Published: October 8, 2005
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y., Oct. 7 - Ben and Katie Graham strolled into a popular local Southwestern grill, slid into a booth and savored their anonymity as they snacked on chips and salsa. They had come for the catfish and barbecue and chicken-fried steak and smashed potatoes and gravy.
For Ben Graham, the Jets' 31-year-old rookie punter, and his wife, the comfort is in the food, yes, but also in the freedom they are afforded in the United States to enjoy the kind of quiet night out that would be unthinkable in their native Australia.
In Geelong, in the province of Victoria where Graham spent a dozen years playing in the Australian Football League, he was a lightning rod, the nearest thing the city had to Derek Jeter in New York. He was a onetime captain, a modest man with the strongest leg in the league, a homegrown talent on a team with a rabid following.
His renown is such that "60 Minutes Australia" has inquired about producing a story on his N.F.L. journey, and a journalist from a sports magazine, Alpha, is in New York to report an article on him.
Here, it is a different scene, a different story. When Katie is asked what her husband does by other mothers at school functions for the Grahams' daughters, Sophie, 6, and Rosie, 4, she says that people's faces brighten after hearing that he plays for the Jets. When they find out her husband is a punter, she says with a laugh, the reaction tends to be something along the lines of, "Oh, so he's the kicker."
Katie, like many people back home in Geelong, is learning the American game as Graham goes along. But even she knows the punter is not the same as the place-kicker. She used to correct people. Now she just nods pleasantly and, with apologies to the Jets' rookie place-kicker Mike Nugent, says, "Yeah, he's the kicker."
After the Jets' 13-3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Graham said, he received a voice-mail message from a friend in Australia. "I saw you had nine punts," his friend said. "Great game!"
Graham laughed. He knew better. His nine punts netted an average of 31.6 yards, and that was including a 57-yarder that sailed into the end zone for a touchback. It was his worst game, and it weighed on him. Graham, who leads the league in punt attempts with 26, said he went to bed that night and had a dream that the Jets had cut him.
In fact, the Jets regard Graham as one of the few bright spots in their 1-3 start.
"It's an amazing story when you think about what he's done and accomplished thus far," Coach Herman Edwards said. "And I just think the more he kicks in games, the better he's going to become."
At a practice this week, one of Graham's punts hung in the air for 5.6 seconds (4.9 to 5.0 is considered excellent), prompting the special teams coach, Mike Westhoff, to purr that it was the prettiest thing he had seen in his 23 years in the league. Nugent, who is in charge of timing hang time, called it a beautiful hit, almost a once-in-a-lifetime thing. "I don't know if it's a strength or a weakness, but I'm pretty blasé," said Graham, the oldest N.F.L. rookie to play in a season opener. "Sometimes it feels like none of this has sunk in."
Graham's father, Tony, who is in the midst of a one-month American holiday with his wife, Helen, has noticed that his son and daughter-in-law seem more relaxed.
"Being a sports hero in a town of about 280,000, they couldn't go anywhere or do anything without people stopping them," he said. "But now, because he's got his anonymity, it's refreshing for them."
Last week, on Graham's day off, he had breakfast with Katie at a diner near the house that they rent on Long Island. Katie had often been to the diner with the girls while Graham was away at training camp.
It was the day after a magnetic resonance imaging test showed a fresh tear in quarterback Chad Pennington's right rotator cuff. The demise of the Jets' season dominated the day's sports headlines in the papers being read by other diners.
The couple's waitress, a vivacious young woman named Rosie, engaged Graham in a lively conversation. Halloween would be here soon, she advised him. It was not too soon, she said, to start thinking about a costume.
The subject of football never came up. The Grahams lingered over their coffee, and still, nobody approached their table to weigh in on the Jets. "We don't have the constant, instant feedback on your career here like there was back home," Graham said.
They could not be sure their new life would fall into place this way, with Graham standing 10th over all in punting with a 44.7-yard average (and 38.8-yard net) and Katie making a cozy home out of their rental.
They enjoyed exploring New York as a family before training camp. But it can be an altogether different experience, to stop living like a tourist and start having to negotiate the mundane.
Katie worried how the girls would adapt to school. By the end of the first week, they were waving her off when she offered to walk them to their classrooms.
The girls look ahead, never back. "Mum," Sophie said recently, "it's going to be the most special day of my life when it snows on Christmas Day."
Graham navigated another passage on the road to Americanization on Tuesday, when he passed his tests to secure a New York driver's license. It was no small act of symbolism, Graham declaring semipermanence here.
"We've come a long way," Katie said. "It all fell into place. We're really happy."http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/08/sports/football/08jets.html