Falcons' Shayne Graham will use father's memory as source of inspiration

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Shayne Graham knew the outlook was grim, and he braced himself for the harsh reality.

As the longtime place-kicker sat inside the Hefner VA Medical Center hospice in Salisbury, North Carolina, this past week, Graham understood that his father, Thomas, was nearing the final stages of his life. The elder Graham had been gravely ill for about a month.

Two days before Thanksgiving, Thomas Graham died. He was 71.

"I was holding his hand when he took his last breath," Shayne Graham said. "It was peaceful."

Graham knew that his father, an Army veteran who voluntarily served in Vietnam, wanted him to move forward rather than consume himself with grief. So when the 37-year-old free agent received a phone call from the Atlanta Falcons on Wednesday regarding a tryout, he proceeded despite the loss. The Falcons needed an immediate replacement for the injured Matt Bryant.

Graham aced the workout and will kick for his 11th NFL team in 13 seasons. He will do so with his father's memory as a source of inspiration.

"I made this decision because I knew it’s what my father would want me to do," Graham said. "The workout went well for me, and it was an emotional time, because I knew my dad would have been proud of me."

Graham practiced one day with the Falcons before being excused for his father’s funeral Friday. He returned for Saturday’s walk-through with Bryant officially ruled out as the result of a strained quad.

Punter Matt Bosher appreciated Graham's willingness to join the team under the circumstances.

"You feel for the guy," Bosher said. "It's unbelievable that he's going to come in here, put his life on hold and be a part of this team. I just really appreciate that he would help us out on the field to make sure we get a 'W' this week."

Graham was motivated by Bryant, his offseason workout partner, throughout the whole process. Back in September 2008, when Bryant was a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his 3-month-old son died suddenly. The death occurred on a Wednesday, and Bryant went on to make three field goals that Sunday in a 30-21 victory against Green Bay.

"I followed Matt’s career over the years, and I’ve been able to talk to him," Graham said. "I had a lot of respect for what he went through. I actually thought about him when I got the call. Just remembering that feeling that I felt for him made me want to do this to make my dad proud."

Graham recalled the day when his father encouraged him to try football.

"I grew up playing every sport, but soccer was what I played the most and had the most talent with," Graham said, "and he brought this weird, brown pointy ball home one day. He spent a lot of money on it, probably more than we could afford. It was a nice leather ball.

"I was probably 9, and we went to this old baseball backstop. The first kick, it hit the top of the backstop, and the briers on the top of the fence popped the ball. He was like, 'Well, I guess we’re going to have to get a few more of those.'"

Graham, a Virginia native, played at Virginia Tech alongside former Falcon Michael Vick. He joined the Buffalo Bills in 2001 as a free agent. The first NFL game his father saw him play live was a 33-30 loss to the Falcons at the Georgia Dome.

"I kicked an [extra point] to tie it," Graham recalled, "then Jay Feeley kicked a 52-yard field goal to win it."

What a moment it would be for Graham if Sunday comes down to a game-winning field goal attempt. Half of the Falcons' 10 games have been decided by three points or fewer, including the past four -- three of them losses. Graham has made 266 field goals, 177 during a seven-season stint with the Cincinnati Bengals (2003-2009) and 19 with the rival New Orleans Saints last season. His career field goal percentage is 85.5.

No matter Sunday’s outcome, he will embrace the moment. And he will know that Thomas Graham would be one proud father.